An Open Letter: Lord Mantis, Gruesome Covers, and Taking Responsibility for Pushing the Boundaries

Content Note/Trigger Warning: transmisogyny; potentially disturbing interview quotes; links to graphic content

To the metal community (musicians, labels, writers, fans):

It’s time that we stopped ignoring, overlooking, and apologizing for the fact that we as a community so often fail to call out art or commentary that is, intentionally or not, sexist and transmisogynist. The cover for the latest Lord Mantis album, The Death Mask is an example of such art.

There are only so many interpretations of this cover, and none of them speak well of the judgment of artist Jef Whitehead, the band Lord Mantis, or the label Profound Lore, whatever their intentions. Asked about any possible controversy that might emerge from the cover image in a February 27th interview with Noisey, Lord Mantis vocalist/bassist Charlie Fell pleaded ignorance:

Trans awareness? I had no idea that this was going be such an issue. I thought maybe the trans community would be pumped that they’re getting some culture points! I tend to watch people a lot and in that I feel pretty detached from being human. It’s like being in a monkey cage, you start seeing people for the animals they are; laughing, eating, smoking, dick sucking, cum loving, piss-in-the-mouth monkeys. It’s strange thinking of sex when you see it from an outside perspective; meat slipping into meat; female, male. It’s blurred. I think everybody’s half gay when you remove the shame.”

This confusing response, which distracts from the issue at hand (transphobia, transmysogynistic violence), is symptomatic of a long-running trend. Metal media, artists, musicians, writers, and fans continue to appropriate the struggles of marginalized people. Marginalized people’s experiences are used to create morbid spectacles or to provide seemingly deep commentary that reduces those experiences to often simplistic understandings of “human nature” or “society.” These representations are often sold as “edgy” or “pushing boundaries.” These well-meaning rationales ignore the on-going structural issues that so many people must deal with a daily basis.

Is Lord Mantis intending to send a misogynistic, anti-trans message with this cover? Probably not, much as most metal albums depicting violence against women have probably not been intended to directly threaten women. This is not the first time an album cover has used a woman as a prop for representing violence, and it is presumably not going to be the last time. Still, it’s worth pressing the issue of why Lord Mantis, a band composed of presumably cisgender men, chose to objectify a trans woman in order to exemplify their feelings of being “detached from being human.” Why make this choice, particularly when transgender women are at disproportionally high risk of violence in their daily lives? Why not, for example, objectify a nude man, someone whose body could be portrayed as equally abject, fascinating, distasteful, and perverted in any number of ways? Why choose a trans woman if not to suggest that her body in particular represents something disturbing or wrong about the current human condition?

What further complicates things is that the cover image is the work of Jef Whitehead, an artist who has a troublesome history with women, as evidenced by his domestic battery conviction in 2012, and the way he represents women in his art. Labels like Profound Lore and bands like Lord Mantis continue to support and defend him, as well as provide him with an artistic platform.

It’s possible that most of the people involved are probably thinking of the cover and the album’s music as “just art,” but art is never “just art.” It is always political and invites conversation between the artist and the people who profit from and consume their art. Our complicity with problematic images is not only an issue in the metal music scene; it’s a broader cultural issue as well. Divorcing art from the social world (“art for art’s sake”) is a long-standing position in Western intellectual and political history, and it’s one that has been debated by artists, scholars, and activists for just as long.

As a white male, I have a great deal of social privilege. I know that I have at times willfully overlooked the ethically troublesome words, actions, and images of the artists whose work I admire. I’ve often argued with myself that they probably aren’t that serious, or that they are just ignorant of the issues, or that their words don’t really have that much impact, or that they deserve to be heard as much as anyone else. One or more of these things might even be true in many cases, but through reading and listening to the public words of marginalized fans, writers, and musicians, I’ve come to realize that it’s disingenuous to leave it at that. For those of us who are privileged in one way or another, whether it be because of our gender identity, skin color, or sexual orientation (or a combination of those things), it’s so very easy to distance ourselves from the socio-political questions that our consumption of art raises. We can get away with claiming no investment in – or responsibility for – the issues that affect those on the social margins.

To believe that the metal community is a level playing field is to preserve a norm that is strikingly similar to the cultural and political status quos so many of us criticize. We often hold back our criticism of our music, explaining to ourselves that x album or y artist are simply “too artistically important” to the scene to be given bad press. We refuse to hold these artists and ourselves accountable for what they/we say and do, accepting our own limp excuse that these artists and this music are “not political.”

I’m writing this open letter because I care about how this music affects all women. I am tired of the way in which so many of us look the other way, or stand against these issues only in private, or don’t criticize others’ art or words because we’re anxious about what our criticism might say about ourselves, or how it might affect our position in the scene. I want to be part of a metal community that takes the opportunity to hear out those who feel threatened or hurt by an interview, an album cover, or certain lyrics. I would like us to listen to their perspectives and not get defensive when their experience conflicts with ours, or calls into question the music we love. I would like us to consider whether a band, a label, or any particular sound is more important than the ripples they make in the lives of those of us who can’t or won’t pretend it’s “just about the music.” I want us to stop financially supporting artists like Lord Mantis and labels like Profound Lore until they take meaningful steps to address the criticisms they receive. In doing so, I want us to help tastemaker labels such as Profound Lore understand why this sort of thing is a problem, and I want us to support them all the more if they make changes and rise above the status quo.

Achieving the kind of critical community I envision would entail a different level of grassroots engagement with our music and its creators. I am not suggesting each of us must scrub ourselves and our music collections clean of the stink of any particular artist or band (though I believe this is a valid choice). Instead, I am arguing that we might be skeptical of those artists, labels, and fans that refuse to acknowledge their own privileged positions, whether that refusal takes the shape of simplistic claims of “free speech,” being “non-political,” or silence. I am not arguing that we should censor our scenes, but rather that we engage in meaningful dialogue about what free speech actually means and how it can be used to explore possibilities rather than shut down debate.

This different kind of engagement would mean all of us taking time to listen to the concerns of marginalized members of our community and to self-educate on issues such as systemic sexism and transphobia. This engagement may be particularly difficult for those who, by no fault of their own, are not acquainted with the complex and entangled nature of these issues via their own experience or education. However, taking time to learn about these perspectives and histories will be worthwhile if it means our community can match its dedication to extreme music and art with concern for the well being of its more marginalized members.

A Brief Resource List

The Anti.Violence.Project

A University of Victoria collection of resources and statistics on violence against transgender individuals.

Lord Mantis, Transmisogyny, and Questions of Intent

An earlier article by a fellow metal fan on this issue.

A Day In The Life of an Angry Transsexual

You don’t have to agree with this site’s political views in order to understand this author’s depiction of daily microaggressions faced by many trans individuals.

Cis Privilege

An article on the many unspoken and often unrecognized daily privileges possessed by people whose preferred gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth.