Muff Wiggler: Sexism in Audio Cultures

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.)

“Synth Babes”

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:

 Outing Yourself

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:

Overt Misogyny

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?”

Last thoughts

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

8 Comments
  1. Yes, it’s true: Misogyny is alive and well. So are racism and many other isms, including Feminism.

    I think it’s important to realize that folks on the forum are rarely (if ever?) intending to be rude, alienating, or offensive.

    As a user of the forum for these last few months I can say it’s one of the friendliest and helpful forum communities I have joined (Disclaimer: having said this I should note that I haven’t revealed my “gender” and I suppose I have a gender-ambiguous forum handle but not with the intention of obscuring anything)

    Damnit, this is the internet! It’s like all the possibly offensive aspects of the real world condensed and collected (for you!) in convenient pockets.

    I say we take the best, feather the nest, and throw away the rest (in the name of free speech)

  2. I just tried to have a constructive conversation with some folks on the Muff Wiggler IRC (realtime chat) and it was insanely frustrating. At least a few of the members (active at 2:28 AM eastern, mind you) were reasonable, but my voice of ‘hey, maybe sexism is a thing and maybe we should limit it?’ Drowned out by voices of “Men are hard, women are soft, deal with it” and “well that article was a bitch session”

    Sigh. I’ll do what I can to call this stuff out when I see it, at least.

  3. The IRC channel is definitely a weird segment. The person who said the quote that ended the article can be found on there as well as other people. Its definitely a smaller population. Its also not an official part of MW and not everyone found on there even posts on MW.

  4. Myself being a female user of Muff Wiggler, all I can say is that misogyny and sexism within the modular synthesizer community is mostly in the imagination of the beholder, particularly if that beholder cherry-picks content out of context for the sole sake of having something over which to be irritated.

  5. Hi, interesting article. I am a member of Muffs, but don’t participate too much because I spend most of my time on electro-music,com, where I heard about this article. Please don’t generalize about all synth culture from one forum.

    I started the forum at electro-music.com about 10 years ago. The subject matter is somewhat similar to Muffs. Unlike Muffs, the intent was to start and foster a community. Diversity is a goal of our community; there is even a dedicated forum to discuss these issues. Our goal is not just to discuss, but to do things to promote diversity in our community. We have recruited women, LGBTs, and peoples of all colors and cultures to participate in our conventions, festivals and concerts. We have over 20000 registered members and get over 5 million pages views per month.

  6. I’m very happy you wrote this, and I for one support a change in this mentality. I’m new to Muff Wiggler myself, having only frequented the website for a month or two. Despite having never come across the overt sexism you address, I certainly don’t doubt the reality (and the minor, yet prevalent, smattering of pin-up girl avatars speaks to a pervasiveness in this regard which I found surprising).

    Still, the real tragedy is in how this behavior quietly repels and disincentives people from the learning curve (and thus, enjoyment) of modular synths. This makes me profoundly sad, as I’m in the “bring as many on board as possible” camp.

  7. I am a long standing member of muff’s (since 2009). I’m also female and queer. I belong to gearslutz, KVR, Vintage synth, and Elektron forums as well. As a whole I find muff’s the absolutely most intelligent and least offensive place in the male dominated, electronic music forum realm. That isn’t to say I haven’t encountered those that were sexist and hostile to criticism. What I like about muff’s, among other things, is that frequently there is a pile on against those members for being sexist and it isn’t a 50/50 split either, it’s heavily weighted in the against that nonsense category. But it’s a very unregulated forum with regard to moderation and so many things that might be considered sexist or bigoted do slip in. And I do believe it a worthwhile discussion to have, and it does happen on occasion. That isn’t to say the article in’t right in some of it’s critique, it is. I just wanted to comment as a long term forum member that over all I find it’s mostly populated with articulate, intelligent men who are egalitarian. One member posted in the members only section about an encounter he had with a transgender woman who had not yet gone through SRS. He was somewhat confused about his feelings and not sure who to talk to about it. And honestly that forum made me proud to be a member that day. I’ve never read anything so encouraging in my life from a mostly heterosexual, male crowd. The thoughtful responses and encouragement for this member and his feelings about this person he was interested in being with were nothing less than astonishing to me. I don’t know why I should have been astonished, I was pretty familiar with most of the members by then, but I should say they didn’t let me down. Gearslutz.. now that is another matter entirely.

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