From vixens to valkyries: how female representation has evolved in heavy metal videos

Since metal's 1970s origins, women are now more powerful — and more diversely portrayed — than ever before.

Since metal's 1970s origins, women are now more powerful — and more diversely portrayed — than ever before

Evanescence's 'Bring me to Life' opened the wrought iron gates for a legion of Gothic heroines with flowing locks and frilly frocks fronting heavy bands. (Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Liisa Ladouceur

In the world of heavy metal, women have always been the minority. There are plenty of female fans but onstage, the musicians are almost exclusively men, and the scene is generally perceived as a last bastion of traditional masculinity. 

One place to find an alternate view is the music video. Since the scene was first birthed in England in the 1970s, heavy metal has had female representation on the screen. But if you were alive and watching MTV or MuchMusic in the '80s, you might think women only existed as scantily clad models and dancers for hair- and glam-metal bands. Much has happened since then, and women in heavy-metal videos are now more powerful — and more diversely portrayed — than ever before.

Below, we chart the evolution of women in metal with some classic video hits. 

Band: Girlschool
Video: "C'mon Let's Go" (1980)

Often cited as the first all-female rock band, and surely the first metal one, Girlschool was part of the new wave of British heavy metal in the late 1970s that transformed English hard rock into the denim-and-leather style we know as metal today. The four young women from London were like a classic girl group on speed: gang vocals, raw punk riffs and a piss 'n' vinegar attitude that earned the respect of Motörhead's iconic leader Lemmy, who took Girlschool on tour. 

In this early music video (typical of the era's lip-synched TV studio clips), Kim McAuliffe, Enid Williams, Kelly Johnson and Denise Dufort are all business as they attack their instruments, shouting, "We make our move/ and you know we never lose." Considering it's still rare to see female musicians actually playing in metal music videos, Girlschool blew some minds in 1980 with this one. 

Artist: Lee Aaron
Video: "Metal Queen" (1984)

Canada's own Lee Aaron dubbed herself the metal queen on her second album, and this video — a mix of Quest for Fire and the original Heavy Metal magazine —  throws every fantasy trope about women singers into the fake fire: Aaron rises onto the cheesy sci-fi movie set in a fierce warrior pose, brandishing a giant sword. The song's chorus is "Metal queen!/ Rocks your soul./ Metal queen!/ Takes control." But for every power stance there's confusing counterpoint: Aaron's wearing a loincloth; she gets chained up; but don't worry, she'll be rescued by a giant robot with lasers for eyes. Can't a metal queen just rock out in a cave with her tarantula? Aaron has since called this video "stupid," a relic of a time when women were highly objectified in all music videos. 

Band: Van Halen
Video: "Hot for Teacher" (1984)

In the golden age of MTV, scantily clad models were a surefire way to get heavy rotation for new metal bands. These models/actresses, dubbed "video vixens," were mostly background props, but sometimes became as famous as the bands themselves — check out future reality TV star Bobbie Brown getting hosed down in Warrant's "Cherry Pie." (Actually, don't.) Even the respected Van Halen, who surely didn't need to resort to such things for attention, made this ridiculous clip for "Hot For Teacher," in which not one but two different models (including Miss Canada runner-up Donna Rupert) play elementary-school teachers who strip down into bikinis and table dance for the titillation of — their child students?! Sorry Diamond Dave, this gets a failing grade.

Artist: Lita Ford
Video: "Kiss me Deadly" (1988)

I'm not sure what happened to Lita Ford between her years as lead guitarist in the seminal 1970s all-woman punk band the Runaways and this solo video. One of the most famous female axe-slingers to this day, she spends most of this clip crawling on the floor, strutting around a warehouse filled with ice sculptures and occasionally holding her guitar. This is basically a pop-metal version of Flashdance. With "Kiss me Deadly" coming in as her biggest hit, it's a shame more viewers didn't get to see Ford do what she's good at: shred. Alas, it was the '80s, when even Heart's Wilson sisters were pressured to make big hair and cleavage the main focus of their music videos. It would be a whole decade before a new generation changed that. 

Band: Kittie
Video: "Brackish" (2000)

Skipping past the 1990s — where the explosion of extreme metal genres like death metal and black metal didn't leave much room for women, at least at first  — we arrive in the era of nu metal. Thanks to Limp Bizkit and Woodstock '99, this scene was beyond bro-centric. But that made it even more exciting to see Kittie, a teen girl band from London, Ont., break onto MTV with "Brackish." The high-school friends can be seen actually playing instruments, captured in fast cuts that emphasize the energy of the club and mosh pit more than their outfits — a mix of rave and riot grrrl styling. Kittie didn't dress up like some kind of metal queens: its members looked like typical alternative kids of the era, breaking down barriers between fan and performer and motivating even more young women to grab a guitar, tune down and give 'er.

Band: Evanescence
Video: "Bring me to Life" (2003)

She's lying in bed. In lingerie. And heavy make-up. A real damsel in distress. This is the first glimpse millions of music fans had of Amy Lee, lead singer of Evanescence, the American band that went absolutely nuclear on the charts with the smash hit "Bring me to Life." You'd be forgiven for mistaking Lee for a video vixen, as her band is performing in another building, which she tries to get to but slips and falls before being rescued from a ledge by Paul McCoy — the male rapper who Lee's label insisted do guest vocals on the otherwise "too feminine" track so that it could get on the radio. "Bring me to Life" was the lead single for the band's debut album, Fallen, which was on the Billboard charts for more than a year, sold seven times platinum and won two Grammy awards. It had an influence. It also opened the wrought iron gates for a legion of Gothic heroines with flowing locks and frilly frocks fronting heavy bands, a gateway for many listeners to the European symphonic metal bands like Lacuna Coil and Nightwish, who had been wandering these moors for years.

Band: Arch Enemy
Video: "My Apocalypse" (2005)

When German vocalist Angela Gossow joined Swedish melodic death-metal band Arch Enemy in 2000, she broke ground in the field of extreme metal as one of few women to perfect the style's signature — and masculine-sounding — death growls. On record, it was not immediately clear that the new singer was female. And while she quickly landed on plenty of those Hottest Women in Rock magazine spreads, Gossow was also one of the first women to be given proper respect as an equal to her male peers, and proved no metal subgenre is closed to women who want to give it a go. In videos from this era Gossow dresses down, just like her male bandmates, in the standard issue black metal T-shirt, tight pants and big boots. All the better to stomp on your soul.

Band: Babymetal
Video: "Karate" (2015)

Breastplate armour and petticoats? Only in Japan. The Babymetal phenomenon is controversial to some because the Tokyo-based band combines a variety of heavy-metal styles with Japanese idol singers, but the trio of Su-Metal, Yuimetal and Moametal has truly changed the face of what metal can be. Girls with Lolita ringlets singing pretty over pummelling blastbeat drums — in the YouTube era, who wouldn't click? The metal God himself, Judas Priest singer Rob Halford, has already approved. This video for "Karate" shows off martial arts-inspired dance choreo that leaves no doubt where this girl gang is coming from.

Band: Unleash the Archers
Video: "Tonight we Ride" (2015)

Thirty years after Lee Aaron's "Metal Queen," Victoria's Unleash the Archers showed us how a music video with a powerful female warrior can be done. Inspired by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the video sees singer Brittney Hayes (a.k.a. Brittney Slayes) leading her charges to battle across the desert. This style of epic power metal has traditionally been hyper masculine, the domain of wannabe vikings (and the occasional real viking). New bands like Unleash the Archers are making sure fans also get to see and hear some valkyries. 

Band: The Grindmother
Video: "Any Cost" (2016)

Meet the Grindmother, a 70-year-old Canadian grandmother who went viral with this lo-fi video of her growling for a grindcore band. Is it novelty? Sort of. But if you can make out the screaming vocals you'll know she's railing against "corporate masters" who are wrecking the environment. Sometimes you need a grandmother to tell it like it is. And whether you enjoy this kind of fast, brutal extreme metal or not, it smashes stereotypes that metal is only for, and by, young men. 

Band: Nervosa
Video: "Kill the Silence" (2018)

For all its evolutions, metal remains a fiercely traditional genre. And so the most exciting new thing sometimes sounds a lot like an old thing: this all-girl power trio from Brazil plays aggressive, old-school thrash metal, often with a political bent. Much like Girlschool, Nervosa's music videos are all about the performance; playing hard is what matters. In this one, the band sings about mental health, telling listeners, "You have the power/ just scream out louder." Good advice for all genders. 


Listen to CBC Music's Canadian Metal playlist now.