Dreams Out of Nightmares: Redefining Femininity in Heavy Music | Revolver

Dreams Out of Nightmares: Redefining Femininity in Heavy Music

Venom Prison vocalist Larissa Stupar on the challenge — and opportunity — for women in metal, hardcore and punk
larissa stupar_2_credit_jakeowens.jpg, Jake Owens
Venom Prison's Larissa Stupar, 2018
photograph by Jake Owens

Larissa Stupar is the vocalist of U.K. death-metal band Venom Prison. The group is set to release its highly anticipated second album — the follow-up to 2016's critically acclaimed Animus — later this year.

Having played music in heavy bands for about 12 years now, ranging from crust and hardcore to death metal, I came to realize pretty early that women who actively participate in heavy-music genres are expected to behave a certain way.

Heavy music (metal, in particular) has been subject to a dominantly male teenage audience as it has its origins within Western capitalist and patriarchal societies, being surrounded by cultural messages and values that promote patriarchal power as the main characteristics of masculinity. Masculinity is a feature of identity and, like all identities, it's psychologically instable and is therefore in need of constant reapproval. Subcultures offer opportunities to create such identities and to accomplish gender. Metal and heavy music, in general, strives to reproduce power. Volume, for example, is an important contributor to "heaviness" and offers its listeners a sonic and physical experience of power. It's about feeling powerful, releasing energy and anger. The dialectic of freedom and control is rhythmically inscribed in metal music.

To think certain things are for men and others for women is based upon assumptions and traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity. When I first started singing in bands, I didn't think that the fact I was a woman was going to be a big deal, and I was surprised at how upset other people (and by "people" I mean mostly men) were about me "behaving like a guy" or being too masculine, not girlfriend material or whatever bullshit they felt the need to comment on. If you go through the YouTube comments on one of my old bands' music videos, you will find things like, "It's nice they were able to get that tranny off the streets and 'singing' for them," or "I'm sure she's a wonderful cook." There are plenty more sexually graphic remarks like, "I would like to penetrate singer's butthole with my fist." I remember there was an open Facebook group once where both men and women felt the need to raise their opinion on my appearance, discussing whether I am shaved or not, as well as how many sexual partners I must have had.

It was upsetting — I defined myself as a girl and men were depriving me of my femininity. Who the fuck do they think they are? Yes, I felt empowered by being part of a band, giving something back to my community. But how does going onstage and deliberately distorting my voice and enjoying what I'm doing make me less of a woman? Power, dominance and rebellion are traditionally masculine attributes and in order to be a fully accepted part of heavy music and its culture, women have had to conduct themselves by masculinist codes. We're expected to be tough and emotionless in order to appear powerful, because being emotional and kind is assumed to be a trait of femininity and therefore it makes us fragile. But do we just mirror masculine behavior or are we able to truly access the kind of power that has only been attributed to men within the medium of music? We are — but only if we are willing to step outside of the traditional conceptions of femininity and gender identity.

larissastupar_2018_credit_jakeowens.jpg, Jake Owens
Venom Prison's Larissa Stupar, 2018
photograph by Jake Owens

I'm not going to lie, I tried to be one of the boys because I wanted to be accepted and respected as a musician and a fan. I don't think I was doing it consciously because I have always been somewhat tomboyish and got on with boys better than I did with girls when I was a kid. I used to hang out with my brother and his friends quite a lot. But despite that, I still always considered myself to be feminine, and the fact that others didn't bothered me a lot.

Can't women be powerful and embrace femininity at the same time? Feminine, talented and empowered women in heavy music pose a bigger threat to their male counterparts. They are good at what they're doing without feeling the need to bow to the pressure of reenacting masculinity. In the end, nothing is more threatening to a traditionally patriarchal fantasy than powerful womanhood. I'm sick of having to lay off my feminine traits and to pretend that I'm cold and emotionless, because this is not who I am.

Femininity is subjectively viewed as fragile and vulnerable. Heavy music has given us the opportunity to redefine femininity for ourselves and it's nice to see more and more women showing us their womanly and feminine perspective on the art form. Amalie Bruun (a.k.a. Myrkur) is one of the more significant examples, bringing traditional Scandinavian folk elements into black metal with her debut M and evolving it with following releases not only musically but also lyrically, as she explores the mysteriousness in femininity, paganism and feminine power. It brings diversity and opens doors for new influences, allowing the subgenres of metal, hardcore and punk to thrive.

venomprison_2018_credit_jakeowens.jpg, Jake Owens
Venom Prison, 2018
photograph by Jake Owens

My fellow female heavy-music artists and fans, do not let others define who you are. In the end it's about yourself, and you can be whoever the fuck you want to be. Being feminine or fragile does not translate into being weak. When I look at delicate, compassionate and empathetic women, I see strength.