Metric, the music writer, and the leering grip of the male gaze

Emily Haines — the singer, the rocker, the songwriter, the woman — is a real person in this world, a real person with form and voice.

Yet it is not her voice, but her absence that defines Ben Kaplan’s oily National Post article on Haines and her band, Metric. In 800-odd uncomfortable words, Kaplan draws us the shape of her career. But it is not one that fans of the band would recognize, because she is not in it, not really.

Instead, Kaplan replaces her with a proxy, with a fantasy woman outlined only by the searing eye of his male gaze.

“One of the distinct pleasures of being a male Canadian music journalist is the opportunity every few years to interview Emily Haines,” Kaplan writes, but Haines promptly disappears from his view. In the real world, she retreated to a side room of the band’s Toronto recording studio, while Kaplan contented himself with interviewing Metric guitarist Jimmy Shaw instead. Haines is Shaw’s “muse,” Kaplan writes; but what Shaw describes is something more akin to an equal creative partnership.

Why Haines retreated from this conversation is hers to know; Haines, in my professional experience, has never been quick to engage the media. Perhaps it was just that. Or perhaps, Kaplan says, she avoided him “out of fear she’d be the recipient of another unwanted hug,” after an event years earlier where Kaplan breathlessly reports he was “even” able to hug her, albeit “awkwardly.”

In a world unmarred by privilege, women have another word for “unwanted” hugs from leering men.

An “unwanted hug” may be the most physical way that Kaplan has invaded Haines’ space. But in this article, he commits a kind of invasion again and again, smothering her artistic voice with his lust. In the process, he removes from her (and women like her) agency, achievement and identity.

Haines, he writes, is “the closest thing Canadian music has to a smart sex symbol since Buffy Sainte-Marie took to the stage.”

He says this as if he cannot even simply call her both smart and sexy; she is just “the closest thing” to being both in decades.

He says this as if the last 40 years of Canadian music has not produced women such as Sarah Slean, Jann Arden, k.d. lang, Holly Cole, Diana Krall, Tegan Quin, Sara Quin and Leslie Feist, women who have found their art through a marriage of their brilliance and their human sensuality.

Most of all, Kaplan says this as if oblivious to the fact that, while many men and women artists find sexuality a conduit to beauty, it is only women who are outlined as “sex symbols” because of it. (Hawksley Workman’s early work was sinuously, sometimes even luridly sexual; he was never widely called a “sex symbol.” See also: Leonard Cohen.)

It is only women whose sexual viability is deemed contingent on public approval, only women whose bodies are routinely allowed to be treated as a “symbol” or a cultural shorthand for sex — or, specifically, for the kind of sex that men like Kaplan want to have with women who are diminished to a vessel for their desire. He has done this before, too.

Emily Haines “attracts male journalists like free booze,” Kaplan writes.

Key difference: free booze is there for the taking. It’s there to be consumed.

A woman’s body is not.

Originally, I sat down to deconstruct here all the ways Kaplan’s article drips with sexism, ownership and enforcement of women as objects of display for the heterosexual male gaze. The task quickly became overwhelming, primarily because it was so basic: if you respect women, you should at least feel what’s wrong with this article, even if you lack the words.

You should feel what’s wrong when Kaplan turns an unwitting publicist into an accessory for his tale: she was “lovely, and very pregnant” he wrote, as if either of those details were relevant to a story about the band Metric. But of course, in the way this story unfolds, they are relevant: Kaplan was greeted at the door by the stated object of his desire, but then “gathered” by a woman who, in the final stages of a pregnancy, is likely sexually unavailable to him.

And we should definitely see what’s wrong when Kaplan, after admitting to the “unwanted hug,” and after describing how Haines walked away from his interview and would not be “harangued” into joining it, makes the largely-absent Haines what is surely then an unwanted promise.

“I’ll see you in another few years, Emily,” he writes. “Hopefully after you’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone.”

In a culture where somewhere between one in three and one in six women are sexually assaulted in their lives, and where almost every woman has at least once been a victim of stalking, sexual harassment, street harassment, or invasions of their consent and autonomy of all kinds, that last line isn’t cute, it isn’t funny and it certainly isn’t clever. It’s just really chilling, an echo of all of the times we’ve heard such promises from men who felt entitled to our bodies, and our time.

So since all that stuff is so incredibly clear — and since it’s been covered before — let me simplify this blog post down to a more bite-sized mission statement.

Ben Kaplan is my archnemesis.

This is the part where I, like Kaplan, insert myself into the story.

When I was 17, I tumbled into music journalism in the most awkward of ways. It was a fitting entrance for the most awkward of teens, and in my fall I found myself a home. So I cut off my hair and dyed it black and purple, and wore six-inch boots and lots of black leather. Or rather, pleather — freelance music journalism didn’t pay so well, back then.

I was still wearing all that when I was 20, leaning against the bar at a greasy dark dive while the metal bands raged and the night came alive, and this man sidled up to me and said — “You write for the Free Press, right? So what made you get into music writing?”

Because my mouth sometimes floods over with feeling, I dove into the question and told him everything: I told him about storytelling and the music, about the music and the words; I told him about the rush of the deadline. I even told him about how a misfit girl found herself a misfit’s home. I told him how in this world I could dance through the crowds and feel, finally, not so very alone.

“Nah,” he said. And he poked his fingers into my ribs and winked, like we were sharing a secret that I had yet to be told. “I know why you do this. You do this so you can meet the guys in bands.”

And I looked down at my body, at my boots and my pleather, and felt the hot flush of shame. After that, I smiled less, crossed my arms more. I kept my distance. I retreated from the men I had to interview.

Success, our culture never fails to remind us, is defined by men’s access to women. Even women’s success.

“One of the distinct pleasures of being a male Canadian music journalist is the opportunity every few years…”

“I’ll see you in another few years, Emily…”

No, Ben Kaplan. It doesn’t work like that. Being a music writer does not guarantee you access to Emily Haines, or her “lovely” publicist, or Norah Jones’ bedroom, or any other object of your lust.

And until you understand that, until you really and truly understand that, you will be my archnemesis.


+ My colleague Jen Zoratti at Winnipeg’s own Uptown Magazine did a blog on the topic too! Check out another voice from a rad music writer.

+ And another one! Natalie Zina Walschots, who I’ll just call @NatalieZed cause we met via this mess when we were totes ogling each other from across the Twitte, carries the dialogue forward in the Toronto Standard on how we need to do better. With everything. I agree! Let’s do that.

ETA: Well holy crap, I didn’t expect this to make its way around as much as it has. Thanks and cheers to those who enjoyed it, and to those who didn’t — that’s cool too. Thanks for dropping by and considering it, even if we don’t agree.

I have to close comments now because there’s a zillion in the queue, and half of them are blatant trolling. So as much as I’d normally enjoy further discussion, I frankly don’t have the time to wade through them by my lonesome. At least, not on a workday.