It was the Twitter ban heard ‘round the new-music world.
In June, composer Shelley Washington was banned from Twitter for 24 hours after a brief, confrontational exchange with a user by the online pseudonym of “Jack Steinbeck,” who made disparaging remarks to composer Gemma Peacocke in a discussion of female representation in orchestras. The ban attracted a high amount of attention, and sparked posts in support of Washington as well as calls to ignore a notorious instigator. (“Steinbeck” appears to have deleted his @jsteinbeck1939 account soon after.)
Zooming out, the exchange was one familiar to many women, one where a man drops unsolicited, often condescending advice to a woman after she expresses an opinion—in this case, “I am not responsible for what you fail to understand.” More pointedly, the Twitter saga served as a prime example of the woman retaliating against said man, only to get painted as the “bad guy” in the conversation—and here, punished outright.
The new-music community has grappled with social justice writ large in debate surrounding a slew of current events, from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer win to a salvo of negative press surrounding orchestras that continue to choose not to program composers who are women or people of color.
For me, what this relatively recent Twitter confrontation brought to light was the epidemic of sexist behavior by new music men on the interpersonal level. As an example, in a viral article for VAN Magazine, ethnomusicologist and journalist/critic Rebecca S. Lentjes (a Log contributor) chronicled her deeply personal experience of toxic masculinity at a new-music festival, Ostrava Days. Of particular focus in the article were “pseudo-woke” men, a clever shorthand for men who profess liberal, socially inclusive ideals in broad public statements and gestures, but act in misogynistic ways toward women in practice.
After Washington’s Twitter ban, my subsequent call for non cis males to share similar experiences yielded a shocking amount of material, as female and non-binary composers, performers, and musicologists alike reached out to me with their own examples of “mansplaining.”
Composer Emma O’Halloran, after sharing a deeply personal anecdote on Twitter about not knowing that a career as a female composer was possible until her early twenties, was publicly lectured by a man on the impossibility of such a childhood, where said man wondered if O’Halloran “grew up in a cave.”
An aspiring musicologist shared an encounter in which a man with little expertise gave an unsolicited explanation of the subject of her dissertation to her. A vocalist revealed that her criticisms of works written for her by men almost universally received enormous backlash from those composers: “I had man after man who was absolutely not a singer try to explain to me how my own voice type works, or say ‘well, I tried it out, so it’s fine and maybe you’re just bad.'”
Most humorously, this interaction with musicologist Imani Mosley, shared with permission, speaks for itself:
“Dave,” Mosley added, “went on to redress me in several tweets about music and how idiotic I was.”
I also received brilliant characterizations of sexism as experienced by women and non-binary musicians. A non-binary composer succinctly theorized to me in a direct message that “some men are theoretically supportive of diversity in new music but then get extremely defensive when they feel at all implicated.”
Another vocalist put it: “So much of what I experienced [at my old university] wasn’t necessarily overt sexism, the kind men see really easily—like, if someone had slapped my ass and called me sweetheart in the middle of composition seminar, I think most of them would have understood that was wrong. But there’s this sort of insidious sexism, where you spend your whole life asking ‘is this happening because I’m a woman or because I’m actually worse or wrong or I deserve it somehow? Is this person sexist or just an asshole, or am I the asshole?'”
Clearly, sexism still permeates the classical and new-music spheres, and more conversation needs to happen in order to remove it from the discourse. To dive deeper, I reached out to the two women most directly involved in the controversy – composers Gemma Peacocke, who was accosted on Twitter by “Jack Steinbeck,” and Shelley Washington, temporarily banned from the site for defending Peacocke – to get their perspectives on this common theme of inauthentic liberalism.
In insightful interviews, they shared their own take on the “Jack Steinbeck” affair, used their own spin on “pseudo-woke” men in the new music community – labelling some as #fwoke (shorthand for fake woke) – and shared specific advice for men in new music who want to be allies, but may have blind spots in their own behavior.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: In your own words, what happened on Twitter with “Jack Steinbeck”?
PEACOCKE: There are a lot of articles being written at the moment about the extreme underrepresentation of female composers in orchestral commissioning, and I happened to see an NPR post on Twitter about it. In response, someone had made a spurious claim that until Marin Alsop makes more recordings of works composed by women, nothing in the orchestral world will change. I challenged the poster, arguing that it’s not Marin Alsop’s job alone to change an entire system of patriarchy, and that both men and women have a responsibility to make change. Unsurprisingly, the guy wrote something pretty juvenile and dismissive in reply so I screenshotted it and posted it to my own feed because I thought people would find it funny.
I didn’t link to him because I didn’t think it was important to give him more air: he’s an anonymous troll in a troll troupe of millions. But my friend and colleague Shelley was infuriated with his condescending tone towards me, so she looped him in when she replied to my screenshot, and the troll did not like being trolled. He blocked both of us and was successful in having Shelley’s account suspended, presumably because she used the word “fuck.” He couldn’t shut mine down, though, because accusing someone of “man-spreading” does not violate Twitter’s guidelines!
WASHINGTON: Jack said something to Gemma along the lines of “quit being thin-skinned.” When it becomes a personal insult, for me that’s usually the last straw. This Twitter troll is broadly representative of a larger segment of men on the internet who feign interest in “rational discussion.” But in practice, these people are very selfish and just want to rustle feathers. In this case, Jack went beyond that to personally attack Gemma, and then had the nerve to lecture us on how we should have looked at his timeline before replying to see that he was also liberal.
Bottom line, no one fucks with my friends. So I clapped back with a SpongeBob meme and some cursing, and got reported.
I want to go a bit deeper than just a single Twitter troll. With many in new music who I spoke to, there is a specific frustration with sexism that seems specific to liberal-identifying men. Like Jack, they share token statements supporting women on social media, but then in their interactions with women behave in problematic ways. What’s your theory on the disconnect that these men have?
PEACOCKE: This is such a good question, and I’m glad it’s being addressed! There’s a lot there, and here come some very broad statements: I think men in general aren’t conditioned to be passive and to just listen and learn without actively engaging in dialogue. Some liberal guys want to make big statements in support of liberal causes rather than sitting back and working in the background or quietly offering support. It goes beyond virtue signaling—it’s a desire to be directly and publicly involved in everything.
I saw this around the Black Lives Matter movement, too, where a lot of white people wondered how they could get involved. I think we as white liberals need to learn when to be involved, when to use our privilege to amplify the voices of others, and when to simply listen and, god knows, maybe learn something. We don’t all need to make statements in support of female composers. We need to quietly and consistently build professional relationships with them and program their work and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t have to be public—most of these types of recommendations happen person-to-person rather than in broad Insta-statements. Women are entirely capable of advocating for ourselves, and it can be irritating when men put themselves in front of us to shout loudly what we were already saying.
WASHINGTON: I try to be forgiving, but you only get so many strikes before it’s obvious that you’re not actually trying that hard to be an ally. Like I can understand and forgive little mistakes, but only if you are then going to apologize for what you said and then you actually move forward to try to fix it. But with people like this, they don’t apologize for what they say. Like many others, when he was criticized Jack threw his hands up in the air and insisted that – and I’m paraphrasing – “well, you should see that I’m a feminist. If you scroll through my page you would see this.” He went up against Gemma, said personally mean things, and then accused her of not being thorough. It’s always shifting blame, right? Even if your Twitter timeline is the purest angel of feminism, if you’re perceived as being in the wrong for something you say, you need to own up to it.
PEACOCKE: I think it’s incredibly difficult to see past our own experience of the world. If you’re a liberal man, you most likely believe in egalitarianism and equal opportunities, and it can be shocking to learn that even in 2018 this is not at all how the world works. A lot of women were shocked to see how many of us had been sexually assaulted or harassed in the course of our lives when the #metoo movement came up. By contrast, it shocked a lot of liberal men that this had happened to any of us, and especially those of us with loud mouths and a fairly privileged place in society.
Men and women are conditioned to trust women less than men, which in turn makes it easier for us to question a woman’s abilities. I think the disconnect occurs when the privilege and power of some liberal-identifying men is reduced even a tiny, tiny bit. That allyship goes out the window when you take something they feel should belong to them. It also gets tested when you ask to be considered in place of or alongside their friends. A lot of commissions happen between people we like and people we trust, and if you aren’t friends with many or any female composers, how are you going to like and trust them?
Have you had similar experiences in your personal life?
WASHINGTON: In the classical realm, I spoke on the Hear All Composers panel at the New Music Gathering, and there was a gentleman who sat in the front row and seemed to be present and seemed to be very congratulatory and engaged throughout. Afterwards I was with a friend, who was not on the panel, for dinner, and this man tagged along. He said all the right things of an ally: “I loved your panel. I’m so glad you said all of the things that you did.”
He seemed great, and I was excited that what we said made a difference to someone. But as the meal progressed, so many tiny micro aggressions came up. He would speak over me or contradict my opinion in a way that was putting it down—not in friendly banter, but in a commanding and condescending way. I was disappointed, but not particularly surprised. I’d do something, and he’d say things that like, “oh, I don’t like when my girlfriend does that. I tell my girlfriend not to do that.” Dude, you can’t tell your girlfriend not to do shit because she is an adult and does what she wants! Even more, when the check came, he handed money in my face and had the nerve to instruct me: “Put this in the envelope when it comes out.” I got a little sassy with him—I told him to put it on the table. I’m not doing anything for you.
That to me is the poster child of a dude performing the act of “standing up for women,” while his actions and attitude told a different story.
PEACOCKE: I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again that every single time I’ve had something good happen in my composing career, a liberal man has popped up to be scathing and to question my abilities. When I got into NYU, a former student colleague sent me multiple messages on Facebook telling me I wasn’t good enough to be a professional composer and that I should consider a career in fashion (which is not something I’ve ever studied or shown a particular interest in). Would he ever have slid into the DMs of a male composer and suggested that he switch to a career in fashion?
When I got into Princeton, a male liberal student at my former university told professors, other students, and some of my friends that I wasn’t good enough to have been accepted. Of course, he had applied, too, and was presumably hurt at not being accepted. I doubt he would ever have seen his behavior as sexist, but I also know that he would never have felt able to denigrate a male colleague in that way. That’s why I came up with the word combroser; there are these groups of liberal male composers who flock together and prop each other up in a way that’s reminiscent of members of a sports team.
I have also had a lot of wonderful support from men and women when good things have happened. It’s just noticeable that the Debbie Downers have been liberal-identifying men.
A popular retort against charges of sexism is to mock the “hurt feelings” of women. Why do you think cis men respond in this way?
PEACOCKE: These kinds of responses often seem defensive to me. In belittling a group of people, they’re trying to make themselves feel less raw and embarrassed, and avoid dealing with their own insecurities. I’ve been in male-dominated circles for most of my life and I always think of that great Margaret Atwood quote about threat: “…when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, ‘They are afraid women will laugh at them.’ When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, ‘We’re afraid of being killed.'” Men are not trained to be receptive to women challenging them. Women are trained to be afraid of conflict with men. I think mocking women for “hurt feelings” is a way to dismiss them, and when you dismiss half of the world, you’re causing harm.
WASHINGTON: With these #fwoke men, especially the ones who are male composers, it can feel like people who say “All Lives Matter” as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In new music, these men are kind of like the “All Composers Matter” movement of the new-music world—they think that when we’re saying “all women composers matter,” we’re declaring that all men composers are bad. No, we’re not saying that. We are saying that marginalized communities, including women, have been historically looked over, while white male composers have been boosted up. There’s an opportunity to discover previously overlooked talent if we do the work, which won’t be easy, to shift how and where we look for talent.
So when these men are debating you and say, “oh, you just have hurt feelings,” I feel like they’re covering up that they don’t really know what the real issues are and they’re communicating that in a defensive way. It’s as if it’s a conditioned response: to be correct, to be the winner, to dominate. In regards to my feelings, they are hurt because these men don’t actually understand the real issue of what I’m going through, or care enough to learn. I’m not giving up and saying “Oh my God, this person is right, I’ll never be as good as Bach.” I’m upset at the fact that this person refuses to respect me as a person. I’m upset that they’re not respecting the fact that women and marginalized people have gone through so much. I’m upset that they don’t actually care.
By contrast, I’m sure you know liberal men in new music who are allies “the right way.” I’m sure many men will be reading, myself included, nervous that their good intentions may have unintentionally sexist overtones. What do you see in common among strong male allies, and what advice would you give to men who would like to follow suit?
WASHINGTON: Some of the successful male allies that I know that have affected me personally show their work in the background. For instance, I recently received a Twitter DM from a very well known white cis-male composer saying: “I had a commission come across my desk and I thought of you and I thought this would be interesting.”
He didn’t publicize it. He wasn’t publicly declaring that “I’m trying to boost up Shelley Washington!” He just very quietly approached me about an opportunity. Even if I’m not able to do this commission, the fact that he is very quietly behind the scenes, not asking for any accolade… you can do little things to boost people up without seeking public reward or merit. I’m not saying that doing good shouldn’t be recognized, but when they are “doing good” only for the sake of recognition, it comes across as disingenuous and mean.
Even on Facebook, white ally friends have gone up to bat for me before. When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize, I had engaged in some vigorous debate over why KL’s award was legitimate and deserved in the comments of a famous composer’s Facebook status. I eventually got tired of dealing with the bad faith arguments, but one of my white friends took up the bat on Facebook for me. He didn’t have to, but he did!
PEACOCKE: Shelley’s former saxophone teacher, José Antonio Zayas Cabán, is an amazing ally. He has advocated on behalf of both of us in a specific way, and he has performed and recorded our music and quietly and proudly promoted it. He works really hard and is a beautiful musician, and he has an innate humility which is really disarming. I’ve never even talked to him about being a female composer; it’s never come up since he’s just treated me like a… composer. Jim Staley at Roulette is another quiet advocate of female composers. I haven’t talked to Jim about being a woman in this industry either; he just programs great music across the board irrespective of the composer’s or performer’s gender identity.
My professors at Princeton, NYU, and the New Zealand School of Music have all been wonderful advocates, and my new BFFs in Eighth Blackbird are all wonderful allies. There were four female composers out of six composer fellows at the Blackbird Creative Lab. All of the fellows at the Lab are amazing human beings and invested in playing and commissioning music written by women and men, and perhaps that’s one of the facets that made it such a transformative project to be a part of. Eighth Blackbird spent years designing a utopian summer festival, and hopefully the Lab will inspire other groups to create their own initiatives in which everyone involved is not only talented and hard-working, but loving, outrageously creative, ambitious, and hopeful for the future.
Be an ally in private spheres first. Talk to your friends and colleagues about composers whose work you love. Promote their work directly by performing it, recording it, posting on social media about it, and commissioning it. You’re not going to change the system by making broad statements of support. Get inside the wheels and make some wonderful crunchy screeching sounds by leaving a spanner in there.
WASHINGTON: I mess up a lot, too. For people trying to be allies of marginalized people, it’s inevitable. If I make a mistake, I try to follow up on it, not just with the person but with my own research. After you mess up, you have to at least try to learn as much as you can. And yeah, it’s a lot of legwork! It’s a lot of tiny, subtle nuances. Little things like people asking to touch my hair seem harmless, but are exhausting in day to day life. Those nuances are often forgotten about, but often those little things are the most harmful.
Most importantly, I hope that people can just be aware that there are more issues that affect marginalized people than the very broad topics of, say, representation in orchestras. I want people to understand the bigger things, but people need to dig into the lower levels as well. I think that is one of the most crucial thing that’s missing—it shouldn’t be up to marginalized people to teach other people all of our problems. We’re already carrying the cross, we shouldn’t also be expected to nail ourselves to it. Google is free! If you just type in “microaggressions against POC people,” tons of stuff comes up for you to educate yourself. That kind of proactive learning by all of us is, to me, a key to a better future.
Shelley Washington and Gemma Peacocke are composers based in New York City. They are members of the Kinds of Kings composer collective.
John Hong, a trained clarinetist warmly reviewed as a “deft solo player” by the Chicago Tribune and praised for performing “with aplomb” by The New York Times, is a lifelong devotee of amplifying the narratives behind classical music, whether in print or through performance. Hong has performed for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival and the American Ballet Theatre, and appears in both audio and video during the fourth season of the Emmy-winning TV show Mozart in the Jungle. He conceived and co-writes the weekly National Sawdust Log newsletter, and holds a Master of Music diploma from The Juilliard School.