I may be missing out on a prime opportunity to discuss the portrayal of women in pop music, what with the whole Miley Cyrus debacle, but I’m spinning out on a rather different track here. Perhaps it’s a trivial thing, but I’ve been thinking about the way some guitarists (usually men) refer to their guitars as ‘she’. I’ve heard it quite a bit over the years and it generally came across as an affectionate way of referring to a much cherished instrument. Martyn Joseph has a story about finding his Lowden guitar in a shop and propositioning her with the promise of international travel – and how one very special night, they will play ‘Skegness’ – or wherever the gig is that night. It’s a nice story and the guitar is wearing well with age and still sounds fabulous.
But I recently lent my guitar to a friend, and wanted to compliment him that my guitar has rarely sounded so good. Saying ‘it’ about my guitar seemed a bit impersonal – but I didn’t feel I could call the guitar ‘her’, and ‘him’ felt even weirder. And when he replied saying something about me ‘making her sing’ I felt a bit awkward and tried to figure out why. Having a head, neck and curvy body does suggest why guitars are ripe for anthropomorphising, and the curves are probably more stereotypically female rather than male. French, German, Spanish and Italian all make the word ‘guitar’ feminine. I can definitely understand that to many keen guitarists, a guitar is not just another possession but is something special. Potentially the love of your life.
However, the idea of taking the guitar in your arms and playing with her, closing your fingers round her neck and causing her to make sweet music starts to sound a bit dirty if not downright manipulative. That’s before the idea of picking her up and putting her down again at will, playing her, using her, and valuing her for the way she looks or sounds. Maybe these things happen to men as well, but I’m afraid it fits too closely with the objectification of women for me to be comfortable with it. I know saying a guitar is like a woman is different from saying a woman is like a guitar, and I’m not saying that anyone who uses feminine pronouns or names for a guitar is intending anything sexist or derogatory. Jakeacci on the jazzguitar.be forum started a similar discussion here, and there are a range of responses, mainly fairly dismissive of the issue.
I think part of my response is based on my own fairly traditional ideas of gender and romance. The idea of having a male guitar in my arms for me to manipulate is rather less appealing than being the one who is embraced and coaxed to sing. I don’t particularly want to romance my guitar, even though I am fond of it. I guess it’s more like a pet to me than a person, but pets are male and female I suppose. I wondered about an association with strum-pet but I think this is just a coincidence with strumpet and strumming having different words origins, although the Online Etymology Dictionary picks up one strange dictionary entry from 1796 –
TO STRUM: to have carnal knowledge of a woman, also to play badly on the harpsichord or any other stringed instrument. [Capt. Francis Grose, “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” 1796]
I might argue that some guitars in shops are more feminised, or at least, designed more to be marketed to women. Perhaps I’m the one judging my sex harshly now but I do think if the guitar looks cool but sounds average/poor then it’s not a good choice – but I was very tempted by a few blue guitars in the past. When I commented that another male friend’s guitar was perhaps a bit of a girly-looking guitar (judgemental? Me?) he did admit that it actually belonged to his wife. It’s a nice looking guitar, and it sounds fine (but not, I would contend, as lovely as my more traditional-looking one). On the other hand I’m sure a lot of men buy guitars they think look cool as well.
I have to admit that colour is one of the few things I notice about cars – I am terrible at saying much else of any consequence about a car and that’s another possibly unjust stereotype but I don’t think I know any men who are quite as disinterested in cars as I am. Cars and ships are the other items that regularly get talked about as ‘she’, although cars might more often be talked of as either gender. Being somewhat more powerful and load-bearing I can see more positive parallels for women with ships and cars. There’s perhaps something more maternal about the way a ship carries sailors – I might suggest it carries rather more respect than a guitar. Sometimes when man and ship or car collide, the ship or car wins. I was going to say that a guitar rarely wins, but I guess there are a lot of guitars out there that are barely used. Someone has tried to master the guitar but has found it too difficult and given up. I’m not too keen on the ‘woman on the shelf’ analogy however relevant it might be. A guitar is not a woman. A woman is not a guitar. Who am I trying to convince?