Bias Against Sexy Female Performance Attire Is Not A Gender Issue

In the October/November 2010 issue of American Music Teacher, Rebecca Johnson pointed out a study done on whether female attire affects how audiences perceive females’ performances. Griffiths, the author of the study, concluded (in my own blunt summary) that women who dress in sexy clothes on stage are perceived as having less musical ability than those who dress in non-sexy clothes (whether formal concert dress or informal jeans).1 There were an equal number of men and women in the audience of this study, so it can’t be chalked up to male chauvinism.  At first it would seem to show that women are judged unfairly based on how they dress.  But I believe men would be subject to the same judgments if they showed up on stage with an outfit that is obviously designed to be “sexy.”

First of all, what would “sexy” classical concert attire even look like for men? Are we talking about a white spandex shirt paired with tight-fitting leather pants and jacket? Would such a suit show skin?  (Perhaps some chest or armpit hair?)  Seriously, I’ve never personally seen a single male pianist attempt to wear clothes that come across as sexy on stage the same way a sexy dress does, unless you happen to find the orange pants that Christopher Taylor wore to the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition “sexy.” While there is a moderate variety of mens’ attire in clothing magazines (only moderate though, compared to womens’ magazines), the concert stage puts far more rigid restrictions on what men can wear.  In live performances given by males, I’ve seen suits of various colors (black, white, and almost all colors between), suits with ties, suits without ties, suits with mock turtlenecks, shirts with ties, shirts without ties, and once in a while, a silk shirt and slacks.  I’ve also seen male performers dress down when performing jazz music, but I always get the impression that this is an attempt to portray a certain attitude rather than a certain level of sexuality:  they want to promote themselves as being perhaps more genuine, down-to-earth and connected to the audience (a way to humble themselves in front of the audience), or perhaps convey a sense of security and confidence on stage since they’re comfortable enough in front of the audience to appear in their regular clothes.  Ironically, this is either an attitude of extreme humility or extreme confidence.

In reality, the contrast that exists between “conservative” and “outwardly sexy” womens’ attire is drastically reduced in mens’ attire, and the suggestion that women are uniquely affected by bias against sexy clothing is flawed for this reason alone.  No fair comparison really exists for men.

But even if such male concert attire existed, I don’t think we’re even talking about a gender issue here. We’re talking about the natural feeling every audience member gets when they either consciously or subconsciously realize that the performer might be attempting to “compensate” for something in any way, the same way (according to the old joke we’ve all heard) that men might be compensating for certain inadequacies when they drive big trucks. I like to call this the peacock effect: once you get past the beautiful and temporary outward display of the peacock, one is often left only with disappointment.  One might also think of this as over-selling:  it could take the form of sexy attire, loud decorations at a concert, or too many fonts/font sizes/font colors on a flyer or book cover.

So although this study seems to be implying that women are being judged differently than men, this is not what the study actually shows.  It merely shows women are being judged without exploring the other side of the coin to see if men are being (or would be under similar circumstances) judged the same way.  This is not to say that men and women aren’t judged differently – it is only to say that if we are trying to figure out if gender bias exists on the performance stage, this is not the study to look at.

Not only does this study only give half of the picture by looking only at females, it also does not take into account the level of the performer.  A 2006 study2 had undergraduate and graduate music students as well as music faculty rate 18 of the 30 participants from the Eleventh Van Cliburn Competition three different ways:  audio, audiovisual, and visual-only.  Results showed that “high-level pianists are not affected in the same way by the apparent attractiveness bias that has been found in studies of novice and college-level musicians.”  This makes perfect sense to me.  When you’re good enough, you can look, dress and behave however you wish without it affecting how people perceive your ability to perform, but if you’re not good enough, people may very well think you’re trying to compensate for something.

Also, dressing sexy is not to be confused with appearing attractive.  Believe it or not, when performers are attractive, the opposite results are observed.  A 2004 study3 found, “The bias was found to favor the more attractive pianists among the female performers and among the best players, and the less attractive pianists among the male performers.”  It seems then, at least in the case of females, that the goal should be to appear as attractive as possible without coming across as deliberately sexy.  As for males, this study indicates that attractive ones are penalized, and it’s tempting to assume that they would be equally or more penalized if they too walked on stage in outwardly sexy clothes, although a 1989 study4 indicates that women think more highly of sexy male strangers than what males think of sexy female strangers.  I’m not sure if this study would hold true on the concert stage when performers are held up to higher standards.  While women can wear dresses, suits, skirts and a huge variety of styles of each (it’s even acceptable for women to wear mens’ clothes), men have far fewer options that appear “normal” to society, and this is even more apparent on the concert stage.  It goes against my best intuition to think that men would be less penalized than women when they try to be daring on stage.

Update on 11/11/11: a new study5 shows that men are not the only ones who show bias against less-clothed members of the opposite sex.

What Not To Wear?

My theory is that gender is less to blame for bias in judging performers when their attire, environment or attitude appears to strive too hard for our attention.  An example of this might be pianist Richard Kastle and his punk rocker look.  His punker attire may have nothing to do with appealing to the opposite sex;  in fact, it’s probably a visual manifestation of his attitude, which comes across clearly on the rest of his website and on his YouTube interview.  According to him, he’s the only pianist in recorded history other than Liszt himself to not “fake” the end of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2:

Whether his efforts are motivated by attracting women or by increasing album sales in the ‘hood, I believe the effect on his audience is the same:  even ignoring his attitude, his efforts to address his own appearances go way beyond the subtle.  But his attitude is a double-whammy on top of his appearances:  even if this one Liszt passage (which is far from being the most difficult passage in all of standard repertoire) were played better by Kastle than by other pianists, it seems to me that trying to build a performing and recording career off of this one passage would be as relevant as a tennis player trying to build a tennis career off of some really good backhand stroke they landed in a match 20 years ago.  Who wouldn’t be bothered by this?  If we’re “biased” in this case, I would argue that our bias is a good, healthy kind of bias.  (Be sure to also read what Richard Kastle has to say about American Exceptionalism!6)

As another example, Cameron Carpenter used to have YouTube videos that showed his performances in somewhat normal mens’ attire.  But now, his videos have been replaced with videos like this:

… and while I usually take pride in being able to overlook physical appearances when listening to music, I will just confess right now that I find the Michael Jackson suit downright annoying.  All the way through I continue to wonder, “Isn’t his insane organ technique enough?” Don’t get me wrong – while it affects my personal enjoyment, the clothes do not prevent me from respecting the high-caliber organist that he is.  But referencing the high-level performance study above, Mr. Carpenter compels me to state that there is indeed an upper limit to just how much we’re willing to tolerate when it comes to the philosophy, “If you’re really good, you can wear anything you want.”  Trying to “top it off” with this attire seems to me like trying to get more enjoyment out of a glass of beer by drinking it through a curly straw.  I can only hope that this promotion strategy was the result of a marketing blunder on the part of Telarc International (which would make Carpenter a victim here).

While the previous two examples seem far more silly to me than they seem sexy, Yuja Wang gives us a prime example of how sexiness on stage might go too far.  I say “might” because I personally think Yuja is good enough to wear just about anything short of showing up on stage wearing lingerie or nothing at all.  As I embed the following YouTube video of a Chinese news broadcast about Yuja Wang, there are 4 “likes” and 23 “dislikes,” and comments for the video are disabled.  I’m assuming the dislikes are aimed at the Chinese conservatism (and possibly disrespect toward American culture) expressed in the video rather than expressing disapproval of Yuja Wang’s concert attire, but I could be wrong:

Just Because It’s Bias Doesn’t Mean It’s Wrong

It was much easier to find the Yuja Wang example than it was to find examples of “sexy males” on the concert stage.  Again, mens’ clothing must meet far more restrictions than womens’ clothing, so in that way, men might even be judged more harshly than women if they attempt to appear sexy on stage, even in light of the 1989 study.

Regardless, I don’t think this all boils down to gender bias.  It boils down to bias against performers whose efforts to make a visual impression on the audience exceed a certain line that society draws.  That line might be differently-drawn for Chinese society than for American society, but the lines will always exist, and whether or not those lines are a good thing depends less on the gender of the performer and more on what side of the line you find yourself on.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

  1. Noola Griffiths, “‘Posh music should equal posh dress': an investigation into the concert dress and physical appearance of female soloists”, Psychology of Music 38, No. 2 (2009): 159-177.
  2. Charlene Ryan, Joel Wapnick, Nathalie Lacaille, Alice-Ann Darrow, “The effects of various physical characteristics of high-level performers on adjudicators’ performance ratings,” Psychology of Music 34, No. 4 (2006): 559-572.
  3. Ryan, Charlene, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi. “Attractiveness Bias in the Evaluation of Young Pianists’ Performances.” Journal of Research in Music Education 52.2 (2004): 141-154.
  4. Cahoon, Delwin D., and Ed M. Edmonds. “Male-female estimates of opposite-sex first impressions concerning females’ clothing styles.” Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 27, No. 3 (1989): 280-281.
  5. Kurt Gray, Joshua Knobe, Mark Sheskin, Paul Bloom, Lisa Feldman Barrett. “More than a body: Mind perception and the nature of objectification.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0025883
  6. Note that on 11/26/12, my URL to this section of his website no longer worked since the word “Exceptionalism” in the URL had been changed on his website to “Exceptionaism”. If the URL changes again, simply go to www.richardkastle.com and find the option on his webpage.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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3 Responses to Bias Against Sexy Female Performance Attire Is Not A Gender Issue

  1. Thank you for this insightful and controversial topic. I am most appalled by the video of Yuja Wang’s outfit. This is highly inappropriate – almost feel like the superbowl performance of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake (well, may be not to that extent).
    It’s indeed quite sad for female performers to need to “spice up” their appearance in order to capture the attentions of the audience. After all, it should be their musical skills that matters!
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful articles, Chad!

    Yoke W.

  2. Pingback: What to wear… what to wear…. | LaDona's Music Studio

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