Spinning Tales of Gender Disparity: Bias and misogyny in EDM on full display in new doc Underplayed

To put it her own vernacular, Stacey Lee is pretty stoked her debut feature-length film is being released on International Women’s Day. 

After all, the Kiwi filmmaker’s inspiring documentary examining the chasm of gender inequality in the electronic music industry may just be a tonic for the times.

“It’s pretty cool. We never want anything to feel token or jumping on a bandwagon,” Lee says from her home in New Zealand. “But I think that after the year that everybody’s just had, it does feel good to be back in a celebratory, giving-back-to-the-world type-mode, and I think this documentary will do that for a lot of young folks who are really creative and at home right now.”

Produced in part by Canadian filmmaker Director X (who has helmed iconic videos by the likes of Drake and Rihanna), Underplayed studies the professional and personal lives of female EDM pioneers like Alison Wonderland and REZZ (who hails from Niagara Falls), as well as breakthrough artists like Jamaican-born BIPOC producer and DJ Tygapaw.

Even as electronic music is intended to be inclusive and promote unity, these female artists remain the minority in the multi-billion dollar industry. In fact, women only made up seven per cent of Billboard’s Top 100 DJs in the past two years. With Underplayed, Lee not only intimately shows how these underrepresented artists navigate and struggle in an industry wrought with misogyny and exclusivity, it also reveals how they are carving out new pathways to success in the EDM genre.

“When each of these artists were coming up, there was no one else who either looked like them or blazing a path like them,” says Lee, who notes today’s female artists have had to also overcome personal hurdles like a lifetime of gender disparity in electronic music.

“REZZ was an interesting one, too, because not only was she an unlikely candidate in this world but she was doing a genre of music at a speed — she really slows her music down and everyone was like ‘that’s not going to work’ — and she was just so convinced about what she did that she ended up creating something much more original. She’s almost created her own lane within the EDM space.”

REZZ has since found chart success, won a Juno Award for Electronic Album of the Year and amassed over 624,000 dedicated followers on Instagram. 

Other artists in Underplayed have met similar acts of overt sexism and faced paralyzing obstacles including racism and homophobia. However, it doesn’t take long to realize these artists embrace grace and positivity.

“A big part in making this for us was really getting the tone right. The last thing anyone wants to watch is a bunch of women complaining onscreen for 90 minutes,” says Lee, who adds that even some of the artists are fatigued about having to talk about gender issues. 

“Many people didn’t want to be a part of the film because they are sick of the conversation, but when you flip it and you talk about doing something more demonstrative, something that shows you in your element, that shows you doing what you love doing and how passionate you are about it, then there is no denying the challenge.”

Lee found the story began to focus on the inspiration behind female entrepreneurship and showcase that, when faced with doubt and denial, these cutting-edge EDM artists created their own opportunities. As a director who faced similar struggles over a decade in film, Lee was even inspired to hire an all-female film crew — giving some members, like her first-time director of photography, a much-needed opportunity.

“It was a long, hard road for me and it took a long time for people to believe in me as a filmmaker,” adds Lee, who recalls hiding a pregnant belly during business meetings fearing it would affect decisions of male counterparts. 

“I really felt a responsibility that, wherever we could, we would always give opportunities to people who really deserved it,” says Lee. “And it kind of works awesome because when you give people those chances, they tend to work even harder because they know it’s unique and a special opportunity.”

Underplayed will be released on all streaming platforms March 8.