Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Masculinity and Feminity

Poor Cam. She's been waging war with a couple of nasty commenters who think she's not feminist enough and/or is pushing a traditional form of femininity too much. I thought the feminist movement was about choice, but I guess according to them there's only one choice.

The whole thing got me thinking so I thought that I would share. As a school teacher and a student I noticed one thing about flute playing. The overwhelming majority of flute players are female. For whatever reason, society has decided that if you are a man you can't play the flute because it's a "girl's instrument." On the speed date where I met Hubby, one of the other candidates mentioned something negative about male flute players. He might have meant it as a joke, but I wasn't laughing. Instruments are not divided into "for girls only" and "for boys only" categories. I've known a few women who are awesome trombone, tuba, and drum players. So what's wrong with a boy who plays the oboe, flute, or clarinet? Why is his sexuality, his masculinity being questioned because he's chosen to play the flute?

You might find it strange to learn that the oboe, flute, and clarinet were considered "male only" instruments "back in the day." The reason is because they were viewed as phallic symbols and therefore it was un-lady like for a woman to learn to play one of them. At that time women learned to play the piano because it was a "house-hold" instrument so she could entertain guests.

This caused repercussions up until the 20th century. If you look, for example, at the Walt Disney film Fantasia from the 1940s, you will notice that all the orchestra members are male except the two harpists. Harp was considered a "house-hold" instrument and most harpists were female. Major orchestras at that time were all-male. Auditions were open (meaning judges could see you) and so while there were women who were just as talented, men were predominately picked. So the flutists in Fantasia are men.

In the 1970s sweeping changes to the orchestra took place as laws such as Title IX and equality rights went into affect. Now orchestral auditions were closed (meaning musicians played for judges behind a curtain). Problem is that women like to wear heels and the judges could determine if a man or a woman walked into the room from the sound of their shoes. So women started to wear flats. My professor, a male flute player, told the funny story of a cellist coming to a closed audition in combat boots. She ended up getting cello first chair.

Now it would appear that the pendulum has swung the other way. Most musicians today are female. We now have all-female orchestras. This is a good thing. But...I worry that if my son decides to play the flute he'll be ridiculed. Is it fair to put a label on an instrument when one doesn't exist?

Granted I realize that there are physical differences in women and men: women can't produce sperm and men can't bare children. Even if you get a sex change, you still can't do what God never gave you in the first place. And so I think there are plenty of roles that naturally fall to women and naturally fall to men. But is music making one of them? I'm inclined to think that being a musician is neither masculine or feminine. It's gender neutral like gardening and a whole lot of other things are.


  1. Yeah agree w/ you here.. The other one that gets me is when parents say they won't let their boys play with toy kitchens because its a girl toy. There's others that fall into that category too, but its the one most often used. Ummm some of the best chefs are men. I think its (or should be) a neutral toy. The other day someone made a crack about at least her son doesn't like to do peoples hair... rubbed me wrong because (well obviously doing so doesn't automatically make a guy gay.. I had a male hairdresser once who was married w/ kids) ZJ loves doing doing that. This kid flirts with girls all over the place, very "masculine" already but give him a hair brush and he's the happiest kid ever.

  2. Chances are high there will be some hobby that your son will like that is considered feminine by some. One important thing is to have knowledgeable defense. If you like hiar, be a barber, food, chef, and flute player, know who the cool flute players are. (Greg Pattillo is one such person, Ian Anderson, and Rhasshan Roland Kirk are others.) The great Flute players are often men. The flute itself uses the most air of any instrument, and men tend to have bigger lungs.
    There is not much teasing, and likely not much more then friendly jabbing between boys.
    Confidence is key, most important thing is for him to have role models, which most people are unaware of.

  3. Anon- great suggestions. Although the flute does require a lot of air, lung capacity has little to do with it. It's how you use your air and what steps you take to breath that's important. I've known quite a few little men (my flute proff being only about slightly over 5 feet tall) and many tall women (Alexa Still) who are phenomenal players because they know how to use what they've got.

    Unfortunately, in the United States, teasing boys who play flute is really common. A highschool rival of mine eventually became a bassoon player in large part because of teasing and being told he was gay (which he's not).


I love to read your thoughts. Thanks for sharing!