Show Us Your Racks! – The Sexualization of Recording Gear As Exclusionary Ritual

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INTRODUCTION

Within the audioworker community, “show us your racks” and “gear porn” are a commands used to initiate web-based exchanges in which people post pictures of their recording equipment (mounted in 19” racks) and then discuss the pictures as they are posted. The ensuing “thread” documents this ritualized social interaction in which participants sexualize recording equipment through an erotic critique. The rituals initiated by the phrases “show us your racks” and “gear porn” employ subtle innuendo, overt puns and layered metaphors that form a complexly tangled and exclusionary discourse (or way of thinking and talking) about recording equipment and recording itself.

Considering these rituals provides a view into the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that segments of the audioworker community set up gender and sexuality barriers around the profession. This essay dissects these rituals in order to expose the inner workings of these exclusionary social practices. Closer examination reveals alarming connections to American gun culture, deer hunting culture and breast fetishization culture. Questions are raised as to why sectors of this technical-creative community would sustain such affiliations when far more accurate analogs exist in professional fields like architecture, photography and filmmaking around which intelligent and inclusive dialogue have emerged as the norm.

SHOW US YOUR RACKS – ANTLERS, BREASTS & COMPRESSORS

The phrase “show us your racks” has its origins among deer hunters, and it means “show us your deer antlers.” This use of ‘rack’ to mean deer antlers dates back to the 1940s, and the phrase “show us your racks” seems to have emerged in the 1990s along with the advents of the internet and digital photography. At various web-forums, hunters share, view and comment on images of deer kill, sometimes in weekly contests through radio stations, outdoor equipment stores and gun shops. This ritual continues today.

Also during the 1990s, ‘rack’ came to signify a pair of women’s breasts, and since then the phrase “show us your rack” is more commonly used to mean “show us your breasts.” These breast-viewing rituals can take place online or in person, sometimes as part of organized, sponsored public events. Typically the women themselves offer up their breasts for evaluation, sometimes in order to vie for prize money, though often just for the sake of participating in the ritual of having men evaluate their breasts, which appears to have its own inherent value.

It is worth noting that the use of the phrase “show us your rack” among breast enthusiasts operates as a kind of pun on the original usage among deer hunters. The same phrase among audioworkers, in turn, seems to be punning on the use of the phrase among breast enthusiasts. 

Chronological Usage of “Show Us Your Racks”

  • Early 1990s – 1st Use, Deer Hunters
  • Mid 1990s – 1st Pun, Breast Enthusiasts
  • Late 1990s to Early 2000s – 2nd Pun, Recording Community

It is not clear exactly when “show us your rack” became a ritual among audioworkers, but instances of the phrase on the internet forum gearslutz.com (the recording community’s largest internet gathering place) appear as early as 2006, a banner year for the US economy during which boutique-grade recording equipment manufacturing and sales were cresting.

The “show us your rack” rituals among the recording community are carried out as exact imitations of the rituals among both deer hunters and breast enthusiasts.

“Show Us Your Racks” Ritual Structure

  • call to action: someone begins a thread titled “show us your racks”
  • image posting: people being to post images of antlers, breasts or recording equipment
  • discussion/critique: interlaced with more image posting is an often lengthy and complex evaluation of the images
  • end via attrition: eventually the ritual comes to a close, typically by attrition of the participants from the thread

When members of the recording community employ the phrase “show us your rack,” the call to action literally means “show us your recording equipment,” but the connotations of ‘rack’ as both ‘deer antlers’ (material goods earned by the rugged male) and ‘breasts’ (eroticized objects of desire) are clearly in play. This is a rather potent semiotic combination that conflates material conquest and sexual desire in complex ways.

Filling one’s recording equipment racks is expensive, and throughout the “show us your racks” ritual men are carrying on a subtextual display of wealth. Displays of wealth have operated as signifiers of masculine prowess for millennia, and since the emergence of free-market economies and the development of social-Darwinism, wealth has stood metaphorically as a man’s ability to survive in the wild. An image of a hunter holding a slain deer and that of an audioworker near an obviously expensive collection of gear operate almost identically to indicate the fitness of that man’s ability to survive in his given environment — the former in the woods, the latter in the dog-eat-dog world of the recording economy.

Within the rituals as played out by audioworkers, it is also common to express frustrations over one’s inability to obtain more equipment. The most typical barrier to the required money is the thread participant’s wife who, it appears, shares financial decision-making with her husband. (“If the old lady didn’t need a new kitchen, I’d fill this rack up,” and so on.) Some men even confess to having bought equipment without telling their wives — a kind of financial infidelity that hints at the sexualization of the purchased equipment (a wife might also stand between her husband and another woman’s breasts). Other obstacles to acquisition might include a boss who failed to offer up a raise, the high price of an item, or the obscurity of an item itself. In accordance with all that, two of the greatest claims to gear conquest are (1) the “great deal” in which the owner paid below market value and (2) “the unbelievable find,” the most rare and coveted of opportunities in which the piece of recording gear is acquired almost by accident for next to nothing. These financial conquests are typically showered with praise and envy, almost identical to that given to a hunter who happened upon a particularly large buck and shot him dead. It seems there is always an element of good luck to coming out a winner.

Photographs of men near large racks of gear often look and feel like photos of men posing with a large deer or with a large-breasted woman — the mens’ chests are often pushed forward while smiles of satisfaction and pride spread across their faces. It’s a photographic cliche in all three subcultures, to be sure, yet one with alarming endurance.

While the material acquisition of recording equipment as a parallel to deer hunting is somewhat subtle and complex, the sexualization of recording equipment as a parallel to breast gazing is overt and direct. Audioworkers carrying out the “show us your racks” ritual readily ramp up the sexualization though the use of standardized catch-phrases like: “I’m drooling over that rack,” “I’d love to get my hands on those knobs,” “That is one sexy rack,” and the ubiquitous “Nice rack!” These catch-phrases operate as an outward projection of the speaker’s heterosexuality and virility: “we are straight, breast-loving men who love recording equipment.” This conflation of overt male heterosexuality and being an audioworker is one of the strongest exclusionary aspects of these rituals.

The weaving together of the deer hunter’s material conquest with the breast enthusiast’s sexual desire makes for a complex semiotic game among audioworkers. On the surface this game appears to be just a bit of playful goofing around — just punning, really — but when examined more closely we find a somewhat troubling expression of evolutionary fitness. Sexual virility indicates the willingness to reproduce and material conquest indicates the ability to provide for offspring: a Darwinian one-two punch in the form of playful banter. And like many exclusive, men-only social rituals, the veneer of light-hearted play is maintained to conceal the more sophisticated and problematic inner workings of that humor. It is a classic fall-back position: “Ah, we’re just kidding around, just guys being guys” thus undermining through passive-aggression any objection to the ritual.

GEAR PORN

“Gear porn” operates almost identically to “show us your racks.” It can be used to describe a photo that includes a great deal of, or particularly “sexy,” recording equipment or as a call to action when used in the title of a new thread. “Gear porn” forms the same sexualized metaphor between the human body and recording equipment, so we don’t need to unpack “gear porn” much more than this. It’s quite obvious what’s going on here.

What is interesting, however, is that “gear porn” has its roots in American gun culture. A Google search for “Gear Porn” calls up the website ar15.com first, where one can find hundreds of threads of people posting images of semi-automatic assault rifles and affiliated paraphernalia.  ar15.com is immediately followed militarytimes.com and then by gearslutz.com, where we find hundreds of threads containing the phrase “gear porn” dating back to 2002 with a thread titled “What Comes After Gear Slut?,” to which one poster answered “are gear manufacturers gear porn producers?” This thread is an intriguing demonstration of self-awareness among this segment of the audioworker community, as well as a display of their willingness to extend and play with the pun which names the site. However self-aware they may be, it is not clear that the audioworkers using the phrase “gear porn” realize that it has its roots in gun culture. Nonetheless, the similarities between ar15.com and gearslutz.com are striking; structurally and behaviorally the sites are seemingly indistinguishable, and the ritual of initiating a thread titled “gear porn” is identical.

That this analogy between assault weapons and recording equipment is problematically wrapped up in a complex discourse of heterosexual masculinity and (in this case) aggression and violence, is an understatement. A deeper analysis of the gun culture is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that treating images of weapons designed to kill multiple humans from a distance as pornography points to a material obsession gone awry, and that affiliating that sexualized obsession with the audioworker community’s obsession with recording equipment is most certainly at odds with the agenda of creating an inclusive, intelligent career field.

“Food porn,” “shoe porn,” “tool porn,” “car porn” and many more “___ porn” phrases have emerged over time and gained currency in popular usage. These playful puns point out the human obsession looking at images of objects of desire, often in a magazine, perhaps while on the toilet if one wants to extend the pun further. The word ‘pronography’ derives from the greek porneia (prostitution) and graphia (pictures), an etymology that points as much to our modern digital-image-saturated lifestyles as it does to the ancient roots of seeking pleasure in looking at pictures of purchased sex. Even with the gun culture more or less dissociated, these “____ porn” phrases express the human tendency toward object obsession, and in a field like recordmaking it is worth questioning the extent to which such obsession pulls focus from the creative, performative and intellectual aspects of the artform that call on us to be more vulnerable, open, sensitive and nuanced. To what extent is object obsession part of a gender performance that puts a boundary around more thoughtful dialogue? And in the case of audioworkers’ use of “gear porn,” how are the inherent sexualization and gun culture affiliations pushing some people out of the dialogue all together?

GEARSLUTZ – MEN WHO WANT IT BAD

We now arrive at the problems of gearslutz.com itself. As the largest internet gathering-point for audioworkers and recordmakers, this internet forum is a kind of global town center for our field. The name gearslutz obviously sexualizes recording gear, and while most people understand what a slut is, it’s important to recognize slut-shaming and the anti-woman sentiments inherent to the term. 

‘Slut’ dates back to Middle English and has always been applied to women said to have loose sexual morals, a low character and a proclivity for sexually promiscuous behavior. The term has always operated by shaming female sexuality within a restrictive set of mores (mostly Christian in origin) through which any perceived display of eroticism, and even femininity, has been made nearly criminal. Slut-shaming at its worse has been employed in rape cases that blame the woman for “asking for it” or “wanting it,” and there is no question that the term ‘slut’ still has currency within sexist institutions (courtrooms, religions, industries) and male-dominated social scenes with chauvinistic leanings.

A ‘gearslut’, then, is one who shamefully throws themself into sexual encounters with recording equipment. This is a playful term in which those who identify as gearsluts (or gearslutz) are pretending to shame themselves while openly admitting their seemingly uncontrollable erotic desire for recording equipment. The analogy here is slightly complicated by the fact that it is mostly men who occupy gearslutz.com, but aside form that twist ‘gearslutz’ is merely and overt and obvious tribute (and contributor) to the heterosexualization of recording equipment. gearslutz.com reinforces the ideas inherent in the sexualized rituals of “show us your racks” and “gear porn” while simultaneously providing the infrastructure in which these rituals are staged.

This isn’t to say that the heterosexualization of recording equipment and assertions of virility and material prowess are all that happens at gearslutz.com — far from it. However, the name of the forum does send a strong outward message about for whom this site is intended, and as the most densely populated gathering point for audioworkers, gearslutz.com is propagating exclusionary discourses, perhaps more powerfully than any other outlet.

THE ENDURING TRIUMVIRATE

Taken together, “show us your racks,” “gear porn” and “gearslutz” constitute a highly problematic triumvirate of heterosexualization and material obsession, expressions of which form an enduringly exclusive discourse around the audioworker community that helps to maintain the male, heterosexual domination of the field. Veiled in playful punning, and thus easily dismissed through passive-aggressive tactics, this discursive triumvirate has yet to be publicly challenged in any organized way, as it most certainly would have been long ago in other career fields.

To what extent do the people who participate in these rituals realize any of this?  It is unlikely that they would have unearthed more deeply-seated tropes of masculinity and sexualization as described above, but to some extent these men know what they’re up to. In fact, these rituals rely on the assumed absence of women and/or bisexual and homosexual men, so on a very basic level, at least, these men know exactly who these rituals are excluding. And this knowingly exclusive behavior constitutes a breach of the possibility that the broader audioworker/recordmaking community might become a more forward-looking, inclusive, diverse, intelligent and professional community.

THE MALE GAZE IN GEAR ADVERTISING

The concept the male gaze was brought forward in feminist theory by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and the male gaze has remained an important concept in feminism to this day. The male gaze is the product of giving an audience the perspective of a heterosexual male, thereby objectifying what is viewed according to straight male values. Mulvey looked at how films dominantly used the heterosexual male perspective (literally giving the seated viewers that perspective), but the male gaze was a nimble concept used to describe and unpack nearly any presentation (visual, verbal or written) that offered the viewer the perspective of the heterosexual male.

The sexualization of recording equipment examined above can be said to employ and enforce the male gaze, and when we turn our attention to the ways that recording equipment is advertised we are confronted with another area that begs for similar investigation.

It would be meaningless to generalize about any realm of advertising, but one thing remains certain in the filed of recording gear advertising: the photographic fetishization of recording equipment and the norms of photographing men posing with recording equipment is a direct application of the male gaze that echoes the semantic play involved in “show us your racks” “gear porn” and gearslutz.com. Again, one can not condemn the entire pro audio advertising field, as some of the ads are quite tasteful and devoid of the male gaze, but there is a continuum upon which sexualizing and fetishizing advertisements of recording equipment can be said to sit. Drawing awareness to that continuum opens a dialogue about how the advertisements that do employ the male gaze (again, by offering the heterosexual male perspective) are sustaining exclusionary and unprofessional discourses.

Setting a critical eye on advertising among the pro audio manufacturers reveals a set of standardized and predictable image-making practices, and while one may be tempted to set up a prescriptive set of guidelines by which such ads could drop the male gaze and help sustain a more inclusive discourse around the field in general, it is perhaps a better strategy to simply initiate dialogue about these images with the hope that a professional self-awareness might emerge among the field that could permeate the marketing departments of the gear manufacturers. With that said, it is worth noting that both the heterosexualizaion of recording equipment (e.g., a stiletto heel and riding crop on a tape machine) and the equivocation of recording equipment with military-grade weapons (e.g., a mic named AK47, or the ubiquitous use of the phrase “secret weapon”) are drawing on the same tropes as “show us your racks” “gear porn” and “gearslutz,” and so there is room for immediate and direct critique in hope of jumpstarting the desired self-aware dialogue.

THE COMPANY WE KEEP

Panning out from the detailed dissection of the discourses around recording equipment, there is a larger question left unanswered: As a professional career field, with which other fields do audioworkers and recordmakers want to be affiliated? There are other creative-tech-based fields in which the equipment is not sexualized, fields in which creative work and technical tool use are bound together and require great skill, intelligence, creativity and nuance. These include architecture, photography, filmmaking, design, theater, lighting, painting, sculpture – technical art forms capable of delivering humankind’s greatest expressions. This is not to argue that these fields are somehow purified of the male gaze, or beyond all socio-political problems — far from it, to be sure. But these fields have space within them for intelligent dialogue about those issues. These fields have made great strides over the past half century to include members from vastly diverse groups who have, in turn, helped broaden the intelligent dialogue needed to make the field increasingly inclusive of a multiplicity of voices. That multiplicity of voices has deeply enriched these fields, nurtured cross-cultural and international dialogues and broadened awareness of diverse schools of thought. 

Can audioworkers and recordmakers begin to engage in an intelligent dialogue about the kind of professional environment we want to maintain? If the field fails to engage in this dialogue, audioworkers, it seems, will continue to imitate deer hunters and breast fetishists at the expense of the field’s own professionalism. In the long run, a lack of professionalism can only degrade the quality of the work itself.

Author: Allen Farmelo

Publish Date: October 26, 2014

Original Publication: Pink Noise