Despite the fact that women have been working with audio technologies (and more broadly electronics and computing) just as long as anyone else, an air of masculinity has taken on a sense of inevitability in spheres of electronic music. As a means of understanding how audio cultures might reify or subvert existing patriarchal structures, I’ll look at some of the ways gender is acknowledged on Muff Wiggler, a message board for modular synthesizer enthusiasts.
Muff Wiggler. Yes, I just said Muff Wiggler.
The name Muff Wiggler comes from a phrase the forum’s founder, Mike, came up with after glancing at the names of two Electro-Harmonix guitar pedals, the “Big Muff Pi” and “The Wiggler.” “Muff Wiggler” later became his handle (username) on the web. Mike bought muffwiggler.com to share some of his music but then started developing it into a forum, not with the intention of starting a community, but simply as a means of strengthening his web skills. Somehow people found their way to the site and over time the community grew. A few years ago, Mike wrote a long post acknowledging that the forum’s name is not PC, apologizing to anyone who finds it offensive, but concluded that he doesn’t really care about who he alienates because “life is too short.” He says, “Luckily it’s a very, very big internet, and there’s lots of other places they can spend their time. I never suggest that ANYONE come to my shitty little corner of the web!” While certainly not his intention to create a community around the semi-suggestive name, the continued excitement surrounding the name and the jokes made about women and women’s bodies on the forum are indicative of the masculine, heteronormative high-fiving that occurs in audio cultures.
Women’s bodies on the forum
The structure of the forum is divided mostly by technology: a section for modular synths with a subsection for different synth makers, a section for other gear, a section for music related discussion, and then a section for off-topic, which is labeled clearly NSFW. Many things are shared here, from silly YouTube videos, MEMEs and GIF threads, arbitrary photo collages, as well as quite a bit of nudity/pornography (some of which I don’t have access to because you have to post at least 50 times to enter some discussions), as well as threads titled “Who’s your favorite Twin Peaks girl?”, “Tips on talking to beautiful women”, and “Miley’s Pussy”. Some of these turn out to be click-bait, but most tend to be photos of nude women posted by men, with commentary made by men. Nudity is not limited to the off-topic section–it is pretty present in other areas of the forum. Some users do speak out against this type of content, stating that it is unnecessary and alienating, and ask why unrelated content needs to be in a synth forum. Some users defend it, saying that “their girlfriends are okay with it”, that there are plenty of other places to go on the internet, that people need to take everything less seriously. On one thread about this, a user asked if this counted as synthesizer related content:
Suggestive photos and and names also reveal themselves in usernames and avatars (I’ve elected to not include usernames.)
In many instances where a woman composer, performer, or synth builder is brought up in discussion, there is some mention made to her attractiveness or physicality. Even when the person’s work is treated with a lot of respect and admiration on the forum, her desirability is almost always a part of the discussion.
Jessica Rylan is a prominent synth builder, whose company is called Flower Electronics. One user remarked:
Attractiveness and desirability always seems to be folded into some part of the discussion of how a woman’s work is appreciated.
Women on the Forum
There are a handful of threads asking if there are “any women out there” on the forum. These questions show that participation and involvement (at least visibly) is skewed heavily towards the masculine. While this statistic is not based on a poll, one member guesses that the community must be 95% male. Whether or not this is accurate at all, this is the perception of involvement to the forum users. One frequent user states that he only knows of 4 other posters who outwardly identify as being a woman.
This was one response to a call for any women on the forum to speak up:
To go public about your gender on Muff Wiggler is clearly an acknowledged risk:
Many users, as a result of wanting to be taken seriously, or perhaps to not be the target of any violent or sexual postings, neutralize their gender by choosing ambiguous usernames and avatars. It is a known fact on the forum that here may be more women users than apparent. Many women (including myself) prefer to “lurk” on the site, to look for information but not to create content, such that their presence is not known by the community:
As a means of relaying the things that make me wary to participate, here are some of the more troubling things I have found on the forum:
On an awesome feminist performance:
Moderators and Censorship
Interestingly, the forum’s moderator (“Muff Wiggler”) has responded to several posts with the following message:
I have seen this message appear after *some* queer and trans related comments, but it is still unclear to me what exactly warrants these warnings– many expressions of bigotry go unchallenged. And I have never seen this warning occur after degrading or violent comments about women or racist comments, generally only in response to queer or trans related content, and usually in defense of specific artists and synthesizer manufacturers. Why is this distinction made? Are particular expressions of sexism and bigotry normalized on this forum or integral to its foundation?
Feminism on the Forum
There are many posters who speak up about the environment created on Muff Wiggler, and how it remains alienating to many people who might otherwise participate. On all discussions about misogyny and sexism, I have almost always found at least one post suggesting that these behaviors skew participation towards the masculine heteronormative crowd.
“given the assumption that most (?) people would like to encourage female participation here, do we want to potentially discourage it by suggestion (strongly, in my opinion) that we (heterosexual males) ONLY view them as sexual objects? Does this suggest that we view them as equals (I don’t think so). this is simply not about nakedness as a concept. It is about a very basic treatment of 50% of the population – women. If everything were really 50/50 in this environment (electronic music) then maybe the question would be a little different. But it ISN’T. Do we really want to make this community welcome to women as people that we view as people with skills and interests like ourselves?”
Through looking at this online community, I hope to highlight the ways in which audio cultures continue to be consciously alienating towards the already marginalized, and the reluctance of the community to solve the problem. There are certainly users on Muff Wiggler in visible support of things changing. If some users have discomfort with certain content on the forum, why doesn’t the forum change? Whose opinion gets upheld? The disavowal and invalidation of women’s experiences on the board (“get over it”, “go somewhere else”) only serves to maintain the status quo of this space as male-dominated, such that the privileges and entitlements that come with a boys club are unthreatened. These privileges include the ability to say whatever you want at anyone’s expense: don’t take the user too seriously, except when you should. When offensive, the user is kidding. Whatever he says goes. How deeply rooted is misogyny in the foundation of this community? What is there to be feared in creating an environment that is more comfortable for women?
Images courtesy of Asha Tamirisa