Young Lions (and things I’ll never be)

Though as a professional musician who’s friends with other professional musicians, I live my life in a deluge of Facebook event invitations, I do try to take the time to read through most of them so I know who’s playing and what’s happening. A recent one caught my eye: “We have chosen Michael Kocour to give voice to some of the ‘young lions’ of the Phoenix jazz scene . . .” The description was apt—the lineup was full of folks who are skilled and particularly roar-inclined—but “young lions” made me pause. First, because it shouldn’t be in quotes if you really want to sell it, and second, because it’s one of those terms I instinctively know would never be ascribed to me as a default.

This morning, I wandered into our office (which, despite its stated purpose, is not where I do most of my work) and mused about this to my partner. “You’d be a young lioness,” he reassured me, but I was having none of it.

“I don’t want to be a lioness! I realize they do all the work, but . . . I’m the one with the cool hair!” As you might expect, I shook my head for emphasis.

He shrugged up at me (he’d been basking on the floor, reveling in the plushness of his favorite rug). “I don’t know, dear . . . cross-dressing?”

Young lions, as a term, isn’t inherently problematic—as I mentioned earlier, I actually really love it. It invokes an image of ambition, of strength, of potential; it’s a moment of “see the heavyweights before they’re heavyweights.” However, its use is overwhelmingly gendered.

I don’t have to tell you how many women or androgynous-to-femme nonbinary people were on the bandstand that night. We all know the answer is zero.

For once, though, that’s not my gripe, because it was a great band, and everyone up there was exactly where they should have been. I don’t always argue with an all-male group put together for a single show. No, today I want to point our focus toward how we talk about groups with various gender balances.

Because here’s the thing: when I say I don’t want to be a young lioness, I’m not saying that because I don’t think lionesses are the shit. They’re amazing and badass and the ones who do most of the work. On that fundamental level, it’s a great term. My concern is that in the United States, when we hear a feminized term or title, we instantly weaken the person holding it. (Think prince versus princess, duke versus duchess, steward versus stewardess, waiter versus waitress . . . the list goes on.) By denoting us as different, you (a general “you” here) denote us as less than. And that matters.

Here’s the other thing: no one’s calling those guys on stage young lions because they want the takeaway to be, Hey, Check It Out: They’re Men! Yes, it’s a throwback to Marsalis et al, but the point that’s being made is that these cats are up-and-coming, they know their shit, and they’re radical performers. Differentiating by gender would only undermine that point, but in the same breath, I know if a woman was up there the marketing strategy would be tempted to say “young lions and lionesses.” Because those words I used to expand on the young lions idea earlier? Ambition, strength, potential, heavyweight? They are heavily gendered.

Ambition is reserved for men (to the extent that I actively thought it was a bad thing for me to be well into young adulthood). Women aren’t referred to as heavyweights—hell, we’re barely allowed to take up space on a societal level, expected to make ourselves as small and unobtrusive as possible. We’re not supposed to be heavy in any sense of the word. Strength and potential are sometimes extended to us, but often conditionally. Being strong as a woman tends to be a metric of how much gendered bullshit you can put up with and not what kind of player you are; potential is something we have until we seek justice for harm a man has committed against us. Then his future overrides our own. (Just ask Chanel Miller.)

These terms are gendered, and a particularly sticky part of undoing the white patriarchy in music and in the world at large is allowing gender-marginalized people to inhabit traits and terms beyond those we are stereotyped as. We talk about this with men, too, when we tackle toxic masculinity and the limited emotional range that permits. Just as men should be able to be sensitive and vulnerable and openly emotional, women and gender-diverse people should be able to inhabit qualities like ambition and strength and unabashed excellence without being made to feel like that’s different or wrong or deficient—or extraordinary to an absurd degree.

Because that’s the crux of it, really. Being billed as a young lion means you’re allowed to be good at what you do without apologizing for it or minimizing your accomplishments. It doesn’t come with strings attached about how beautiful you are or how different you are or how much gendered bullshit you had to put up with to get to where you are. Sometimes those things are important—sometimes they’re critical—but sometimes it’s most respectful to acknowledge skill and success without stipulating why or how. Sometimes you can just be reverent without strings attached, because being a young lioness when your bandmates are young lions is just another way of saying, “she’s good, for a girl.”

Reclaiming traits and names and descriptions takes time and differs drastically from person to person. Some might term themselves young lionesses. That’s different, and it’s important to acknowledge that self-description always trumps all else from an identity standpoint. I’m just saying that in mixed-gender groups, it matters how we talk about the performers. It matters if we’re Othering people without their consent.

Because honestly? It would be a dream to be a young lion someday. ♦

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