Performance and Gender Bias in Bluegrass

When considering women’s space in Bluegrass, or even music in general, there are inherent struggles that women face within these communities.  Women are confronted with the dilemma of celebrating traditional Bluegrass forms or reinventing what it means to be a “Bluegrass” artist.  However, the genre’s lyrical content very strongly upholds social norms, with Anglo and patriarchal biases.  Additionally, due to the historical absence/shortage of women in music scenes, women’s performances are judged by the standards that men have created.

Based on accounts of Bluegrass musicians from past years, it seems that males within the Bluegrass community have derived their sense of competency and pride from their opinions about gender and gender roles.  Contrary, preconceived notions of gender were only a source of limitations for women…obstacles to defy.  The commonly stated phrase that a woman can “play good for a girl,” perfectly reflects the frame of mind that reduces femininity to something to overcome rather than something to celebrate.

Another factor to consider is the idea that identity is constantly performed and that, therefore, identity is always being created and reformed:  “The concept of narrative, in other words, is not so much a justification of the idea of personal identity, as an elucidation of its structure as an inescapable piece of make-believe” (Ibid., p. 1058).  When applied to women in the music scene, performativity can reveal deeply-rooted societal prejudices and hierarchies.  While true “identity” can be questioned across gender lines, it is especially relevant to consider what identities women choose to “perform.”  Often times we see women avoid their full creative potential for fear of not being taken seriously.  While men have been encouraged and supported when making their own decisions and therefore, their own identities, women must justify their actions and “perform” the identities dictated to them.

I feel that the following video demonstrates this concept of conforming and performing perfectly.  It is both concerning and empowering to think that humans hold such power to shape how they are perceived:

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