Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Leader of the Pack, Regardless of Plumbing

Our copyeditor, who I sometimes lovingly refer to as the Steel Stringbean, pointed out last week some inconsistency involving our paper’s house style and the general effort the chose gender-neutral language whenever possible — chair instead of chairman or chairwoman, congressmember instead of congressman or congresswoman, actors inclusively instead of actors and actresses. The idea, of course, is that specifying a person as being the feminine version of a given profession can often be read as sexist. For example: “You’re not an author. You’re an authoress,” as if the feminine version of the profession is somehow less than the “standard” male version — writing about flower arrangements and doilies and how you don’t know where your babies comes from. And, of course, there’s that John G. Schmitz’s 1981 remark about Gloria Allred being a “slick, butch lawyeress,” with the first two adjectives clearly carrying negative connotations and the unusual decision to use the rare, feminine version of lawyer seemingly demeaning her all the more. I’ve found that this business often sounds silly to people who don’t work in words, but I buy it — those gendered suffixes make a huge difference.

The Steel Stringbean opined that the arts section’s use of frontman and frontwoman would seem to violate the paper’s pro-neuter policy. (That is, grammatical neuters.) And she’s right, I guess. However, I feel like frontman/frontwoman is acceptable, even though I see the problems inherent in chairwoman, congressman, and aviatrix (in her pink and purple plane, with the propellers painted to look like daisies). For one, I feel like any of the problems that arise when a person’s gender is specified are mitigated somewhat by the fact that the person in front — whether man or woman — is the one in charge, the face behind which the other bandmembers are just playing back-up. Poetess may rankle, but to me frontwoman doesn’t. I don’t think of it as frontman (like it should be) and uppity frontwoman (why isn’t she baking a pie?).

For another, frontman and frontwoman don’t conveniently abbreviate the way chairman and chairwoman, do at least to my ears. For example: Yeah Yeah Yeahs front Karen O. Sound okay to you? It might be something that could eventually catch on if people heard it enough. (I suppose the traditionalists balked and still may balk at chair being used to name the person in charge, but it’s fairly common now. Change won, once again.) Besides, front, in hipper circles has negative connotations — to front, “to assume false or disingenuous appearances.”

The obvious solution to the problem, as I see it, would just be to call the band leader something else. Like band leader, if that term didn’t call to mind the likes of Glenn Miller and other honchos of jazz, blues, or R&B musical groups instead of out-and-out rockers and rockeresses. And nothing else seems like a good enough replacement. (From the Bean’s list of possible synonyms: top popster, band boss, honcho of hipness, top cat, big wig, ringleader, number one, and mike-meister.

I did some searching online to see if anyone else has attempted to solve this problem or even considered it. Didn’t find anything of interest. So now I’m putting this up here, to see if any of my readers has any ideas — or, barring that, and Googlers down the line who may be searching can at least see that they’re not the only ones to ponder the verbal implications of what rock stars have in their pants.

Blog posts about non-verbal implications of what rock stars have in their pants are, of course, plentiful.


  1. Hmmmm, *ponders*, I think giving one person in a band more importance than another is probably not the right way to go in the first place. What makes up a band is everyone, the whole crew, without even one of those the band would not be whole and would become imperfect.

    I guess some times it may not be able to be avoided, so how about something using the word fore instead of front, or forte (okay it just sounds cool). There's always just "the lead" someone who holds the front but it also implies that they have a crew that is needed too. Maybe conductor (wait, would that mean there is a conductress? it just unnatural for it to have genderal implications, but that may be the physics in me), it's like bringing back the old school into the new school. How about forefronter? It makes no sense but it doesn't have to.

    Good luck in your search, if I think of anything else I'll give you a call, er, comment.

  2. It really depends how pretentious you want to seem. Lead, guide, overseer, bandmaster, conductor, maestro, kapellmeister, chironomist, and so forth.

    Personally, I would try sticking to frontman and frontwoman. If that's still no good, just refer to their position in the band. The singer is usually the "front," so that should work just fine. Guitarist, singer, songwriter, and of course, singer-songwriter.

    Good luck on your quest, Roget help you.

  3. spence12:42 AM

    The entire -- and I do mean entire -- time, I was waiting for a "copy editrix" joke. Do you get off on being withholding?

  4. I agree with that first comment. I don't think the singer should be more important than the keyboarder or drummist. (Yes...I know those aren't real words...but I love the way "drummist" sounds.) But I'd say "singer".

    I don't really think there's a problem with frontwoman or frontman, though.