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miss destiny sad grrrls fest
Miss Destiny – performers at Sad Grrrls Fest

Does a woman-dominated lineup help progression in music?

We speak to Sad Grrrls Club about whether or not throwing a festival with compulsory girls on the bill widens the gap even further or sends a useful message

As festival season rapidly rolls in, we’re constantly being reminded of the continuing lack of diversity on our lineups. With a recent study indicating 86 per cent of the lineups of 12 major music festivals last year including Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds and Creamfields were male, it seems that the ears at the top are still unwilling to break up the boys club that makes up our live music industry.

That’s not to say the diversity – and demand – isn’t there. With collectives such as SIREN and Discwoman championing female talent in the electronic music scene, and artists such as Björk, Grimes and Kesha speaking out in defence of women’s rights in the industry, there’s never seemed a more appropriate time to shake up our lineups. One group unwilling to wait for the wider industry to take note is Sad Grrrls Club. Originally founded by Rachel Maria Cox as a record label and booking agency in order for them to support non-binary and female acts and challenge Australia’s male-dominated live music scene, Cox has grown the organisation from it’s DIY roots to fully fledged music festival taking place across two cities.

Inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement as well as Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory, Sad Grrrls Fest showcases bands and musicians that have at least one female or non-binary member. But are all-female lineups breaking down the gender divide, or widening it even further? Below we caught up with the festival’s founder to discuss safer space policies, reverse sexism and the power of expressing our emotions

What would you say to people who argue safe spaces and all-female lineups are counterproductive, ‘reverse sexist’ or overly PC?

Rachel Maria Cox: I personally don’t feel like being “politically correct” is a bad thing 99 per cent of the time, since it’s all about making sure people aren’t hurt and I don’t understand how that could ever be a bad thing? I can kind of understand how someone might think an all-female lineup is counterproductive, but the thing is that Sad Grrrls Fest (and the vast majority of these feminist music events) are not all-female lineups, they just emphasise including women and non-binary people. The fact that it’s so difficult to put together an all-female lineup – but all-male lineups still exist – proves to me that the gender disparity within music is still pretty big, and the statistics support that.

At the end of the day, Safer Spaces are just about making sure everyone can have a good time, and putting on events that require gender diversity is just about making sure we don’t get so caught up in a purely academic discussion about gender and music. Conversation is important but it can put a lot of people off, putting on a show is just about having a rad time, listening to tunes, dancing, and meeting cool people.

“Conversation is important but it can put a lot of people off, putting on a show is just about having a rad time, listening to tunes, dancing, and meeting cool people” – Rachel Maria Cox

Why do you think now is the time to speak up on the lack of diversity in the music industry?

Rachel Maria Cox: As feminism comes more and more into the mainstream, more people are becoming aware of gender disparity in lots of areas of their life. Whenever people start to speak out about something, as soon as there are a few prominent figures behind it, more people start to feel comfortable in saying “this is an issue for me too”. Recently we’ve had everyone from Bethany Cosentino, to Nicki Minaj, Grimes, Björk, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kesha, Laura Jane Grace, Tigerlily, Courtney Barnett and heaps more really prominent musicians in their genres, all speaking out in some way about gender inequality in music. This trickles down into local music communities and makes it a lot easier for female and non-binary musicians to share their experiences because they know there’s a fair chance people will support them. But this isn’t always the case – I’ve seen women who spoke up about gender inequality threatened, bullied, or just dismissed as  ‘overreacting’ when they’ve tried to call out instances of inequality. But the more people who speak out, the better it will get.

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People have long been talking about all female festivals but few seem to have actually materialised, why do you think this is?

Rachel Maria Cox: You really only have to take one look at my eyes after two weeks on an average of three hours sleep a night to know why most people choose not to do this! Putting on a festival of any description is hard work. There’s also an inevitable amount of backlash whenever something like this emerges, there are always people who insist that an event like Sad Grrrls Fest is ‘reverse sexism’ or ‘just as bad’ as an all male line up. I think the amount of work required, combined with the number of people who are willing to then dismiss or argue against something you worked so hard to put on, puts a lot of people off organizing an event like this

Where did the name come from?

Rachel Maria Cox: The name marries Riot Grrrl ideals and Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory together. Both take a different approach to expressions of female emotion – one is more about anger and strength and the other about sadness and delicacy. However  both of them are underpinned by the idea that in a culture where women are painted as overly emotional – as a means to discredit or lessen our contributions – to own those emotions is an act of defiance.

Women get told a lot that we’re not allowed to express our emotions. There’s a great line in The Simpsons Movie where Lisa says “I’m so angry” and Marge replies “you’re a woman, you can bottle it up forever”. When women get angry, especially discussing feminism or other forms of inequality, we get tone policed a lot, we get told we need to calm down and stop being so emotional otherwise no one will take us seriously. Women are constantly being told to smile by complete strangers. We’re told that we’re too emotional and hormonal so we’ll never make good leaders. All of that is rubbish, and Sad Grrrls Club is about using music to express emotions we’re told not to express

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Sad Grrrls Club started as a record label and booking agency, why did you decide to progress the idea to a music festival?

Rachel Maria Cox: Sad Grrrls Fest grew out of a dissatisfaction with the fact that a lot of my female and gender-diverse musician friends were having trouble with sexism and lack of representation in the industry. When I first started playing shows, I played a couple of small feminist influenced shows which were amazing – and then when I left that community and looked out into the wider music community, I found myself so frequently the only non-male performer on bills. Sad Grrrls Club began as a bit of a joke, I had read into Sad Girls Theory and Riot Grrrl and was talking to some friends about it at a gig we played, and we were all having a laugh that we were basically just a Sad Grrrls Club.

“Women are constantly being told to smile by complete strangers. We’re told that we’re too emotional and hormonal so we’ll never make good leaders. All of that is rubbish” – Rachel Maria Cox

What safer safe and inclusive audience policies do you implement at the events?

Rachel Maria Cox: We have a Safer Spaces policy at all events based on the ones from last year’s tour which were written up for us by Stono River Caves from DEQY. The policy outlines a few basic things; firstly that all events are preceded by an Acknowledgement of Country which says we respect that all land in Australia was stolen from the Indigenous people of this country and paying respects to their elders. We also ask that people don’t make assumptions about anyone’s gender or pronouns, that no one touches anyone else without their consent, and that behavior and language is free from any form of bigotry. It also outlines what to do if someone does something in breach of the policy – I give out my personal phone number so that anyone can text me if they need to be anonymous, but fortunately in the fifteen or so events we’ve put on, It’s never been needed.

What practical things music listeners and lovers do to improve the gender divide in their scene?

Rachel Maria Cox: Definitely support local music, events and artists that are gender diverse or female. Go to shows if you can, buy their music if you can, and share it with your friends. There is nothing more important than supporting your local community. Also, question all male line ups – ask the organisers if they’ve considered including more diversity on their bills, because nine times out of then if the booker is also male they simply haven’t noticed it. Essentially, consumers create demand, so if you demand more diversity on your line ups and in your music it will eventually happen. And finally, if you’re female or non-binary and you’ve ever considered learning an instrument, singing, DJing, starting a band or getting involved in music in any other capacity – go for it.

For more info on Sad Grrrls fest click here