Sunday, July 16, 2017

Is 'Girl Group' A Sexist Term?

Is 'Girl Group' A Sexist Term?:

Girl groups in pop music go back as far as the 1920s, when the Hamilton Sisters and Fordyce, a three-woman American harmony group, toured Europe, hit Broadway and the vaudeville circuit and performed on the radio. They later smartly changed their name to the Three X Sisters. But even more significantly, they paved the way for the similar Boswell Sisters, who inspired the Andrews Sisters. Over the next few decades, the Andrewses -- who began as a Boswell tribute group -- would sell more than 90 million records and record about 700 songs, including the 1941 classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."



Of course, it wasn’t until the 1950s and ‘60s that the concept of the “girl group,” as a genre, was recognized with the distinctive combination of doo-wop, rock, and soul made popular by groups such as the Chantels, the Shirelles, and the Supremes.

Back in those days, few batted an eye at calling a group of female singers -- even if they were adult women -- a “girl group.” Nowadays, if we allow ourselves a second of thought, we might feel a twinge on our sexism radar. Shouldn’t we be calling them women? And why is it so important to highlight their gender to begin with?

In short, is the term “girl group” problematic?

Let’s take the “girl” part first, which looks less terrible the closer you examine it. Many of the groups in question really do consist of girls in the most technical sense -- females under 18 years old -- especially when they first begin. The most recent girl group success, Fifth Harmony, started when all five members were still teenagers, only one of them over 18. Furthermore, the male equivalent of a “girl group” is a “boy band” -- a similarly infantilizing phrase that continues to be applied to the middle-aged men of the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block.

“Girl,” meanwhile, has been widely embraced as a term by young women, often in the name of empowerment -- from the Spice Girls’ Girl Power of the ‘90s to the over-30-plus “girls” of Sex and the City to the TV show Girls.

Of course, the term 'boy band' brings up a different question: Why on earth do the boys get to be bands without playing instruments, while girls are stuck with the, albeit more accurate, term “group”? It might have something to do with the prototypical heartthrob boy band originating with the Beatles, who were, in fact, a band. Or at least their direct descendant, the Monkees, whose relationship to instruments was more complicated: The guys pretended to play instruments on their fictional TV show, but were then forced by their popularity to learn how to play live so they could tour. Since then, however, the boy band tradition has carried on with groups that emphasize choreography and harmony instead of instruments: New Edition, *NSYNC, O-Town, and One Direction are far more indicative of the phrase “boy band” than any all-male group playing their own music.

So consider the term “boy band” one of the most succinct demonstrations of male privilege in pop culture. But don’t fret about calling girl groups “girl groups” -- the Supremes, TLC, Destiny’s Child, and Fifth Harmony have proven Girl Power is no joke. And there’s no harm in reminding folks when a massive hit has come courtesy of a group of girls.