Interview with Ngaire Ruth: Research – Is being a feminist gonna fuck up my career?

Elena Mesa Galarza is wondering how being a feminist will manifest itself in her work and art. She quizzes academic and ACM lecturer Ngaire Ruth, a pioneer of the unconventional girls in the 90s for the mainstream music paper, Melody Maker. 


Do you consider yourself a feminist and stand by the feminist movement?

Yes! As the word movement implies, it’s a constant, changing, re-shaping, and re-defining its agenda, according to the needs of individual women, communities and culture. I use the term movement as a verb, not a noun. Boys and girls are feminist in the 21st century. Some make it their artistic, political agenda. I’m thinking that if you’re a woman the personal is political, and so if you’re a creative, it’s likely to be hard to separate the two?

Do you consider current feminism to be an effective method to combat inequality between men and women nowadays, or it’s not as strong and powerful as it used to be?

The main agenda of first-wave feminism was about the right to vote, and the second wave equality in every area of life.* 21st-century feminists continue to make a stand, such as the actor, Benedict Cumberpatch, taking part in the Not In My Name poster campaign, about equal pay for actresses. There are wider issues that reflect how unequal the world is for some women: FGM, abortion rights, child brides, grooming, slavery, and the treatment of women in the criminal justice system. For starters…

In essence the third wave and fourth, intersectional feminism, has a mutual goal, the right to control our bodies and the interpretation of that relates to the individual’s own agenda and choices of how that manifests itself: that’s equality.

 Professionals in certain fields continue to battle for equality, in terms of representation, such as engineers, coders, the digital gaming industry and producers and engineers in the music industry. For this, you need the feminist social scientists: statistics, research and recording in the correct technical format and language. It also represents well visually.

 In 2012 Annie Gardiner made an art installation out of the gender balance on the covers of the NME over a 20-year collection for LadiYfest Bristol.

annie Gardiner NME covers art installation LaDIYfest

Do you feel rejection towards artists who identify themselves as feminists?

If you’re questioning whether a feminist can also be commercially successful then you have a low opinion of your audience/demographic and need to research more artists/feminists. Although it’s good to have a realistic attitude, and knowledge of the political economy of popular music: a standard format, recognisable to its listeners through sound and stereotypical images that please the gaze and giving the music fan an illusion of free choice. (Adorno: 1944)

For example, MIA is every bit a proud feminist yet her work as a multi-disciplinary artist reflects a different political agenda. Feminist punk band Big Joannie do not let themselves be identified by their gender, colour, or sexuality, the silence is revolutionary. The current jazz circle is burgeoning with women promoters, collectives and artists – women to the front. Activism is about solutions, not just protest. That said, being a feminist requires you to stand up for yourself: Award-winning Canadian electronic artist, Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, spoke up in her Blog while she was at her most successful (2015).

Feminism manifests itself in many ways, it does not have to be a theme or lyrical topics, such as Bikini Kill and the Riot Grrrl phenomena which broke the back of the machismo citadel of rock’n’roll and punk. Yes, they experienced massive rejection and abuse.

Rejection just helps define who you are, only bringing your own community closer, and fast-tracking the joy and knowledge and understanding. If you’re a musician, writer or artist this is your demographic, or audience; it’s where you learn your craft or where you can make a lifestyle for yourself.

Honestly, I have been hurt in the past when male colleagues and friends (from the industry) have made derogatory remarks about an artist, in print or in the pub because they are forthright, loud, enthusiastic, a symptom of their size, attractiveness (by their subjective standards), or state of the mind, e.g. the crazy women; from Joan Jett and Kate Bush, to Lady Gaga, Neneh Cherry and Grace Jones. I chose to consider them all feminist punks, defining punk in terms of being independent of the normal and breaking boundaries with glee, ‘attention-seeking” is sadly the term more often used. And I’m bored with male writers thinking the term ‘strong’ is a positive they can scrape up.

Do you believe that the lack of activism on the feminist movement is due to the over-commercialisation of feminism? 

I don’t believe there is a lack of activism. You’ll have to give me examples that I can comment on specifically. The punk band, Pussy Riot is not about music, they’re about the protest. They were driven through necessity. Music and protest have a long friendship, especially when the music can be urgent and unaccomplished, such as punk.

Brands have not just adopted feminism into their identity (for their demographic), trainers and designer clothes are sold in the tone of “you know who you are”, representing the new trend for mindfulness, not “you need these to be cool”, as during the rise of consumerism in the 80s, which tallied with the rise of the brand in the media, particularly the magazine market. You could argue Coco-Cola has always adopted protest, and a sense of community through protest “I’d like to teach the world…” in their adverts.

The advertising companies actually give out awards for what they term as ‘Girl Power in Advertising’ now, inspiring ads “that call to women’s strength, power, and knowledge”, right there making a choice to judge a positive representation of women by character traits they assume are a massive compliment, and argue the agenda is to engage female consumers. 

The term femvertising has even been labelled the fourth-wave feminism since feminism was highjacked and went viral through adverts and social media for everything from soap, celebrating the female form, (Lux) to cosmetics (Cover Girl #GirlsCan), and sport (Nike, What Are Girls Made Of?

One of the most talked-about examples of femvertising is filmmaker Lauren Greenfield #LikeAGirl for Always, (sanitary towels), equally famous for being played at the hallowed U.S. Superbowl (2014). The film showed real girls running like girls, hard and fast, unlike the adults who were asked to imitate running like a girl; cue flailing arms and legs, feigning embarrassment. So one myth was broken but another re-established with a new edge: ALWAYS know what girls’ are really like, ALWAYS is your brand (for the average 450 periods of your lifetime). In 2016 this report was published on the Independent website [accessed 2019]. Another thing to watch out for: who’s behind the sponsorship, charity, campaign? What corporation wishes to be aligned with its demographic, as a form of re-branding. Have you not noticed that everyone, including the Co-Op most recently, wishes to be associated with the LGBT community at the moment, this is the new trend. 

Let’s not forget that sexism in advertising is still out there – in the rush to moan about normalising so many girls and women on our screens, two at a time not talking about boys is an actual breakthrough (Bechdel Technique). [accessed 2019]

Some artists are afraid of the label “feminist” because of the negative connotations that the term brings, do you think this affects positively or negatively on the movement? 


 I’ve been hurt by artists rejecting the term feminism, such as P J Harvey in an interview with me in Siren magazine, 1991. That said, she took complete control of her style, images, songs, the order of songs and so on employing people she knew and trusted, giving people a brief and working with them as a curator on projects, such as an album release or promotional tour. For a woman artist, artistic and business autonomy is feminism. But her attitude to the term feminism is cowardly. THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE. WE DON’T ALL LOOK AND RESPOND THE SAME. BREAK THE MYTHS. You are what a feminist looks like.

Feminism has become more of an individual identity than a movement over the past few years, do you think that in part this has been caused by celebrity feminism?

No. This is because we have learned that feminism cannot help everybody’s own issues and agendas; intersectionality is the name for this manifestation, and it’s the right direction but harder to identify as a movement – particularly by the mainstream. It’s one of the positives of the Internet and social media, Habermas’ (1962) optimistic view of the (pre-internet) public sphere.

Women judging other women and suggesting that they’re not good enough has a long and storied history well outside of the feminist movement. Do you think the music industry is worse? What do you think we can do to improve this?

I can’t answer this in a day, let alone a paragraph! In brief, the media gives the impression that women compete and bitch fight because this is their focus. This is what’s expected. This point is taken further by music journalism, Clapham student, Jasmine

What can we do to improve this?

Communicate, organise, create and collaborate, share details of people you work with, places you play or record, computers and FX you buy – find other women into your thing. Find your tribe. Start your tribe. Start your own social media Facebook page; Bossy for girls in the theatre and music is one already active. It certainly gets you going, no mansplaining or everyday sexism will speed up the creative process considerably. The level of commitment is up to you.

 I was a pioneer of the unconventional girls in my fulltime role at MM, which was different from other women writing for the paper. I wrote my own little manifesto, one included, always try to give musical reference points of women. I suggest continuing to make ripples because the ripple thing does work, now I notice, thirty years on.

Positivity. Wear a necklace that says Grumpy Feminist and smile A LOT. These days I assume that the men and women around me are feminist. Try not to see things as either-or, right or wrong, negative or positive, if you avoid binary thinking that’s a feminist act. For an artist or women pioneer of any kind, this leaves a whole new realm to explore, what’s in-between?

What is your opinion on celebrity feminism? Do you think that artists defining themselves as feminists helps the feminist movement by raising social awareness or damages it by increasing the commodification of the movement?

 It’s no one’s job to decide on a person’s type of feminism, except that person. Celebrity feminists have proven to be approachable for active feminists to support causes that raise awareness. Feminism is not a religion.

 That said: Did Spice Girls help feminism?

I do believe that a one-dimensional viewpoint of girl power, the power to influence and control, through making themselves desirable to an imagined or real audience is a dangerous illusion, except in the most skilful hands, on many levels. My 21-year-old feminist daughter, a poet, performer and curator may very well disagree with me, although we both believe emphatically that women should have control over their own bodies.

Feminists have to first agree to disagree to get things done, we’ve been learning that since the 70s, we analysis what is missing from the scenario not just what is given to signify meaning: this is a great skill that cultural and social theory is beginning to adopt, in my opinion, and that manifests itself in powerful ways by artists, musicians, writers and performers.

Do you think female musicians should be more cautious when they talk about feminism? 

No! That said, I ask again: did Spice Girls help feminism?

 It’s important to decide your own agenda as a feminist. Bring answers to questions back to your agenda. Change your agenda over time. Bring your audience in on it – be a mentor, music is a universal language.

What is your opinion on female artists identifying themselves as feminists in order to promote their work? How much authenticity do you think is involved?

Authenticity is a subjective description, and equally the notion of ‘finding your own truth’.  I like it when the feminism is a surprise: such as a music video distorting the notion of the male gaze (Laura Mulvey: 1975). Riot Grrrl had to happen.

I often recommend music business entrepreneurs and artists to refine their target market focus on women-centred language and images – in terms of finding your demographic, making contacts, creating a community. Some music business students have created blogs for women (in the music business), taking the ideas of the Riot Grrrl manifesto into the 21st century.

 It’s important to know the legacy and progression and be able to articulate how you are taking this forward; if not to your audience to the people you collaborate with, with yourself.

When you look into the mirror, who are you? (Helene Cixous: 1976)

Pssst – this may also help [accessed July 2019]

*Sentence updated, for clarity, 19th July.  

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