Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Master of Liberal Arts (M.L.A.)

Degree Granting Department

Humanities and Cultural Studies

Major Professor

Andrew Berish, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Brook Sadler, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Maria Cizmic, Ph.D.


Age, Esperanza Spalding, Gender, Jazz, Race


Women often harbor ingrained attitudes that restrain them from achieving a successful career. They retain deep-seated attitudes that confine them to a self-defined space based on internalized patriarchal standards. Some women do achieve success in spite of the challenges they face. Esperanza Spalding, a young, African-American woman jazz instrumentalist is one such success story. She defies convention, plays an unconventional musical instrument in a musical genre that is historically deemed a masculine world. My thesis discusses the difficult path she traverses between feminist ideals and commercial success. It discusses what characteristics of femininity she chooses to display. Some intentional, some based on ingrained stereotypical standards set by society. Like wearing a gown to perform at the White House. It seems a normal standard of dress for a female in the West for such an occasion but it is based on a standard of what is appropriate dress for a man and for a woman. It is based on binary gender roles created by a patriarchal system.

Esperanza was relatively unknown by the general public before she beat out Justin Bieber to win the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist, yet she had already released three solo albums and was highly regarded by both critics and her jazz peers. Although extremely talented, it was not until her performance persona was molded by her management company that she became famous. The music industry and her management team are mostly controlled by men. Her mentors were mostly men. The male ideal of femininity is reinforced by the music industry, mass media, and in some cases, women themselves.

Frequently, a female instrumentalist who plays the upright bass, a seemingly masculine instrument, is perceived as a novelty, but Spalding transcends that patriarchal ideology. She successfully negotiates the chauvinistic world of jazz. This paper explores Spalding’s performance through the lens of feminine consciousness as described by Sandra Bartky, and discusses the social construction of a female jazz instrumentalist’s identity based on Judith Butler’s theory of performativity. While this paper classifies a musician as female or male, which implies that they are each a separate and distinct category, it does not discount that each gender may possess qualities of the other.

Chapter two discusses elements of Esperanza’s physical appearance which embrace feminine ideals and simultaneously fight against them. She uses make-up to enhance her appearance, she wears clothes that adhere to a double standard, yet she defies the white ideal of femininity with her afro hairstyle and callused hands and blunt nails. Spalding is a dedicated professional. Her appearance is important to her livelihood. Feeling good about oneself instills self-confidence to engage with the audience. The patriarchal point of view is so ingrained in a woman’s subconscious, reinforced in the media and in marketing that women often dress with the visualization of the gaze of the ‘Other,’ which reinforces gendered significations.

Signifiers of femininity are not only characterized by physical attributes, but also by elements of sound, body movements, occupied space, and appurtenant objects that historically represent a masculine or feminine frame of reference. Chapter Three discusses how Esperanza Spalding’s music tends to resist society’s views of gender roles. Jazz musicians, in particular, construct a distinctive role or persona based on the conventions of the genre, the marketing strategies of the music industry, and the individual talents of the artist. [rock star and jazz].

Spalding, as band leader, occupies center stage. Standing center stage in the spotlight leading the band on an upright bass is a seemingly aggressive, masculine position. Spalding challenges gender appropriate norms and expectations and embodies a strong, confident band leader, yet not with the negative effects of the Double Bind. Two aspects of the jazz musician is their stance and their ability to improvise. Spalding’s stance communicates to the audience her competence and leadership ability without sexual innuendo. Her improvisational style communicates her musical talents. It is traditionally viewed as a masculine skill and a competitive exercise but Spalding’s display is not aggressive and competitive. She uses her creative musical talent to carry on a musical conversation. Improvisation is creation of music in the moment. Spalding exhibits courage and a willingness to take a risk which are perceived historically as masculine traits. Spalding provides an individualized path to femininity. Women tend not to pursue paths that are not already fully occupied by women. Spalding is doing some remarkable things in terms of a woman in a male-dominated field. Spalding challenges socially constructed gender roles and serves as a role model for future generations.