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December 8, 2010

These women rock — in research and in life

News and Information

Instead of a bumper sticker that says “Soccer Mom,” Women Studies Professor Michelle Habell-Pallan used to have a bumper sticker that read “Rocker Mom.”

Thats because Habell-Pallan is the director of the Women Who Rock Research Project, co-directed by Sonnet Retman. The project provides courses and cross-academic discussion examining the politics of gender, race and sexuality generated by popular music. Its goals are to create dialogue between academic researchers and music practitioners, and strengthen relationships among musicians and their communities and educational institutions.

Nicole Robert, left, and Michelle Habell-Pallan hold a reproduction of the cover of Lysa Floses's album, 'The Making of A Trophy Girl.' A Chicana rocker from East Los Angeles, Flores was included in Habell-Pallan's research for the class Gender, Music and Nation. | Photo by Mary Levin

Under the projects umbrella is the Women Who Rock Collective, made up of graduate students and local musicians.

“The collective is not limited to women, but we wanted the subject to be about women who rock, not necessarily women in rock, we wanted to move away from a static image,” Habell-Pallan explained. “Who counts as women who rock? What counts as rock? It doesnt necessarily have to be commercialized music.”

Students of the collective have taken this idea and studied a wide array of issues concerning the representation of women who rock and women in rock.

Nicole Robert, for example, is studying the representation of gender in the Experience Music Project (EMP) in downtown Seattle. At the same time, Rebecca Clark is researching the representation of motherhood in rock journalism through rock star Gwen Stefani. And Jaye Sablan is researching the indigenous performances of Pacific Islanders who identify as queer.

Robert, using her masters in museology and doctoral work in Women Studies, discovered some startling statistics at the EMP. She found that of the 441 non-video images of musicians and fans in the exhibit, 406, or 92 percent, represented men. In addition, 331, or 75 percent of these images represented white people.

“It is in response to these kinds of erasures that we formed the Women Who Rock Collective, to promote both the study and the performance of cultural production and its intersections with gender, race and nation,” Robert said.

Such research allowed the collective to organically form.

“Students were inspired to form the collective on their own. The Women Who Rock Research Project already existed,” Habell-Pallan said. “Right now the collective is made up of graduate students but is open to undergraduates too. We would hope to attract more students curious about the role of women of color; we are trying to break down the idea that rock is a ‘white genre.  The sound of rock is such a rich and under-analyzed contact zone of cultures and unconventional gender experimentation.”

The students forming the collective also share some basic understanding.

“Something that we all have in common in the group is that we all value cultural representation and production and we believe that these are an important part of creating community, identity, nation, and where I represent this is in culture and knowledge. I have always had this interest,” Robert said.

Through the collective, the students have come to support each other, read each others work, and present panels together.

Students from within and outside the collective have the opportunity to present their research at the “Women Who Rock: Making Scenes, Building Community” conference Feb. 17-18 at the UW and Seattle University. This conference will foster academic and musical conversation within local communities. This will be the first year of what is planned to be an annual event.

Unfortunately, Habell-Pallan no longer has her “Rocker Mom” bumper sticker. Her partner removed it after experiencing hostile driving in reaction to it.

“We live in a time that it seems passé to talk about women as a specific category, yet many of the gendered structures that were developed before this moment are still held firmly in place,” Habell-Pallan said.