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Gender Studies

Lori Burns (University of Ottawa), Chair

The Sonic Construction of White Femininity in the Music of Taylor Swift

Michèle Duguay (Indiana University)


This paper analyzes the construction of white femininity in singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s music. I contend that her album Folklore (2020) makes use of recording technology to create a sense of white femininity built through sonic markers of intimacy, domesticity, and isolation. In the track “Exile,” Swift vocally constructs a white and feminine persona that relies on sonic conventions and extramusical tropes of white-coded indie music. By emulating a private in-person performance setting that has not been altered by recording technology, Swift’s vocal placement depicts her as a neutral subject devoid of racial markers. This persona allows her to align with other white indie artists who have built their artistic identities through narratives of intimacy, isolation, and exile into nature. I draw on studies of whiteness in indie music (Delciampo 2019; Hsu 2019) to link the “cabin-in-the-woods” imagery at play in the music video with Swift’s aesthetic rebranding as an indie artist. Building on previous scholarship that analyzes musical representations of femininity (Hisama 1999, 2001; Heidemann 2014, 2016; Malawey 2020), this paper demonstrates how white womanhood, a hegemonic identity that is often depicted as natural or unmarked (Rowe 2008; Butler 2013), is constructed through sound.

2B or Not 2B: Representations of Gender in Nier: Automata

Hayden Harper (Florida State University)


It is no secret that the video game industry codifies gendered stereotypes; these appear in marketing campaigns promoting games to specific audiences, in mechanics and visual illustrations of characters in games, and in various video game genres. In this paper, I scrutinize the construction of gender in the musical elements of soundtracks in role-playing games. Expanding upon Michael Austin’s work (2018), I examine how musical gender construction compares with the visual and interactive representations of gender on the screen. 

Using Nier: Automata as the primary case, I employ neo-Riemannian theory to demonstrate how harmony and texture subvert typical gendered expectations established by other role-playing games like Final Fantasy VII. For example, many boss-battle music cues in Nier: Automata showcase harmonic progressions employing slide transformations. Moments like these replace the historically-masculinized aeolian “victory cadence” first established in the original Super Mario Bros. and later adopted by the Final Fantasy series.

However, a conflict exists when we contrast musical observations with the visual and interactive elements. Hypersexualization of main character Android “2B,” portrayals of male fantasy, and hegemonic power dynamics comprise some of the gendered stereotypes experienced in-game. A ludomusical dissonance sustains between the aural and visual images of the main characters. This specific disjunction characterizes only one of the various relationships between the gendered musical and visual elements in video games. In examining the gendered ludomusical dissonance in Nier: Automata, my paper shows that dissecting musical representations of gender, in relation to the visual and interactive constructions, transforms unnecessarily gendered perceptions.

Experiencing Album Forms and Dialectics of Gender through Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods

Gabriel Lubell (Indiana University)


Even without clear overtures to unity or coherence, an album’s fixed nature necessarily yields emergent forms through macroscopic inter-song connections. These full-album structures, borne by interactions between diverse musical parameters, are capable of supporting elaborate discursive spaces concerned with any number of topics. Complex expressions of gender present themselves as one example of the medium’s potential; as album experiences are richly multivalent, so too are gender dialectics. Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods (2005) provides an ideal case study. As a whole, it forms a locus of nuanced confrontation between listener experience, the band members’ gender identities, their music and lyrics, and gender conventions associated with hard rock. To show this, I have developed the analytical framework of experiential counterpoint. This phenomenology-based methodology involves generating multiparametric diagrams that map experience-informing trajectories over time. It is flexible and subjective; one isolates the constellation of parameters that most inform their listening and analytic priorities for any given album. In the case of The Woods — whose individual songs develop no single concept — aspects of tonality, tempo, text, sound, space, and voice are shown to collectively thematize disruption as a defining formal characteristic. That this is true of an album populated by female voices renders an environment in which listeners are implicitly and critically engaged with societal pressures germane to gender expression. To further highlight the album’s unique formal and discursive traits, and to demonstrate the generalizability of experiential counterpoint, brief comparisons to other albums are also made.

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