Of Frat Boys and Coquettes

Over the last month or so, I’ve been traveling around the country, sitting down with groups for interviews and performances for AcaVille’s weekly show #TheSpotlight. It’s a great chance to meet and hear really talented performers from all levels and all parts of the country – we talk to groups from middle school to the pros.

Among the topics we sometimes discuss are the gender politics of a cappella. Now that sounds like a heavy subject, ripe for ponderousness or a quick trip to snooze-town. But for single-sex groups, it is still present, even if it’s in the background. And frankly, in 2016, I find that amazing.

In the all-female groups we spoke with, there was often an undercurrent of wanting to defy gender stereotypes within the genre, and some spoke openly and freely about being disappointed by some of the reactions within the a cappella community. They talked about some listeners (and, ahem, judges of certain competitions) wanting to put them into a box. We didn’t get into specifics about what that box looks like, but I imagine it is probably either vixen or coquette. Either way, it seems like we’re in the 1950s.

For some of the all-male groups, the issue was no less present. One spoke eloquently about trying to put together a competition set as an all-male collegiate group, and wanting to be high energy (and maybe a bit goofy) without being perceived as a bunch of frat-boys.

I’m certainly not equating the magnitude of the problem for each gender, and frankly, only having been one gender since birth, I’m in no position to assert that one way or the other. But come on – really?

I realize we are in a subjective medium, and that art is, after all, art. So as humans who have a biologically-driven need to classify and categorize, we put labels on things in one way or another. Certainly, some competitive events don’t always help this, either, when they don’t provide thoughtful normative rubrics for evaluation. (After all, without some kind of guide beyond “xx% for artistic expression,” we are all left to fill in the gaps, which can lead to trouble.)

But maybe we can decide that all-male groups can be coquettish and all-female groups can be frat boys. Or, even better, something entirely of their own making. The next time you see or hear a group that’s unfamiliar to you, perhaps start by trying to figure out what their artistic intent is to begin with. Then you’ll have a better way to determine if they’re hitting the mark.

And if you can’t tell, then that might tell you something about the quality all by itself. Instead of making assumptions based on gender, which is more telling about you than the performers.

What do you think?