The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CII: The End of the Wife Acceptance Factor
It all started out innocently enough, An audiophile friend and fellow scribe, Malachi Kenney, invited me to participate on a thread at the Steve Hoffman Forums where audiophiles were discussing how to get more women interested in audio. I've talked about this many times before--we middle-aged audiophiles have spent the last few years lamenting the demise of our hobby. First, we worried about passing the torch to younger generations and getting the kids interested in sitting down and listening to music for pleasure instead of just listening to MP3 files in the background of their lives. The kids did figure it all out on their own, but they put a new twist on it with computer-based audio and then headphones. Both of those market segments are now thriving.
Getting women interested in our hobby, however, has been a little more problematic. Back at the Hoffman forum, posters were coming up with a variety of reasons why the high-end audio industry has failed to attract a reasonable amount of women. Some posters suggested that women aren't encouraged to study science and math and physics, so they aren't as intrigued by the gear as much as the music. Others felt that people in the industry tend to ignore women and make them feel unwelcome. For instance, some women say that when they visit a dealer with their male significant others, they are expected to languish in the back of the room while the man discusses what he wants. In many cases, the salesman won't even look at the woman and will direct all his energy toward the man. While there may be some truth to both of these positions, they were lost among more chauvinistic comments from men who claim to know what women want and why they want it.
So I decided to write about this. I just started writing for Part-Time Audiophile; I was approached to write articles from the perspective of someone who's an insider in the industry as opposed to a fellow audiophile--the latter group makes up the vast majority of audio reviewers these days. I've also been encouraged to shake things up and say the things no one else is saying, which is sometimes a dangerous thing to do. So I wrote an article about getting women into audio, or more appropriately, how to chase them away by doing the things we've been doing for decades. I recapped by telling all these male audiophiles that if they wanted to find out why women aren't interested in audio, they should talk to women and not go on Internet discussion forums and discuss the problem with other men.
I made two mistakes however. First, I brought up the fact that Malachi and I are both in relationships with women who are interested in audio. But I didn't say it that way. I said that Mal and I "had women," which some people translated into "we own/possess them" instead of "to have and to hold." My beloved Colleen didn't have an issue with it--because we "have each other." She didn't agree with the people who voiced their objections. Unfortunately, that group included Malachi and his wife Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney--an example of a woman who not only loves audio but loves to write about it as well. Mal called it "depressingly poor wording" when I suggested that "we have women in our lives," and I in turn said that's because we both have very different relationships with these women (in other words, I should have spoken only for myself). One more person--an Australian audio writer named John Darko--also took offense to my choice of verb and published an entire article about why I was wrong to use it.
My second mistake was mentioning the "Wife Acceptance Factor." I did it in passing, saying that the industry tried using it as a way to appeal to women. What I didn't know was that WAF has become a forbidden term in some circles, and that I was wrong for even bringing it up. Kirsten then wrote an article about why she disliked the term so much, which was also published in Part-Time Audiophile (note: she wasn't aware of my article when she wrote hers). Cookie Marenco, a recording engineer and another rare woman in the audio industry, also wrote a similar article about WAF and how she's had to deal with it in her line of work. Both were thoughtful, well-written articles that I initially thought complemented my thoughts on the subject. I was wrong.
You see, I tried to defend the use of the term by explaining that it was something that was brought up by retail customers to people inside the industry. WAF describes something very common in our business--a male audiophile makes a huge purchase at his local hi-fi shop and returns it the next day because his female significant other says something like, "There's no way you're bringing that monstrosity into our house." That scenario does seem to involve a few stereotypes about gender roles, but my point was that it happens, and it happens a lot. So much so, in fact, that it's considered a norm inside the industry, a factor to address when it comes to marketing luxury goods to consumers who don't necessarily live by themselves.
A certain number of people, it seems, object to the word "wife" in and of itself because they feel it excludes other types of domestic partnerships. One example that was brought to my attention was a famous audio reviewer who is openly gay and is married. The question was, how does WAF apply to him and his husband? Well, to put it frankly, it doesn't. If we're going to mention two men in a committed relationship, then we've stopped talking about getting women into audio... haven't we?
But that does bring up the point that many people want to change WAF to something else, like "Spousal Acceptance Factor." I'm all for that term because it's so inclusive. But if a retail customer tells me that "My wife would never let me bring that home," WAF becomes a very accurate description of what's going on. Do you think I'm going to correct him and inform him there's a more sensitive and politically correct way to phrase his predicament? In my opinion, that becomes poor customer service. That becomes "I hate dealing with high-end audio salesmen because they're so snobby and arrogant. One of them tried to tell me that ‘WAF' was offensive!"
Even when the discussion became heated between Mal, Kirsten and me, and they told me they were disappointed in my refusal to stop using the term "WAF" because they thought I was one of the most forward-thinking people in the industry, in my heart of hearts, I knew they were right. Mal went to the trouble to research the term and found it dated back to the 1950's, when a woman's place was in the home and the man made all the big purchasing decisions on his own. That sheds a little more light on the subject, but I still feel that "WAF" evolved differently in the world of high-end audio. As far as I can tell, the term started popping up in audio magazines a couple of decades ago when "serious" audiophiles used to say things like "it doesn't matter what's on the outside, it's the inside that matters." That type of thinking resulted in truly fugly pieces of gear that sounded great. So the issue of WAF wasn't quite the result of outdated gender roles as much as a simple courtesy--let's not disrupt our entire house so I can hear that last bit of detail from Jazz at the Pawnshop.
Kirsten, however, made her point most succinctly. Men want to know why women aren't as interested in audio? Terms like "wife acceptance factor" are certainly symptomatic of the problem. It's a big boys' club, and it always has been, and that's that. She's absolutely right.
I'm still a little torn on the issue. For every Mal and Kirsten and Cookie and John Darko, there have been at least a dozen people who have told me that there's nothing wrong with the phrase "WAF," that it describes a real world scenario that affects our industry's bottom line. A hefty percentage of these people have been women who aren't the least bit offended by the W-word. I keep thinking about what Mal said to me, that he was surprised I didn't condemn the use of the phrase because he's always thought of me as "forward-thinking." But here's the problem with being progressive: it occurs on a spectrum. Look ahead and you'll see people changing the world around you, whether it's same-sex marriage or the legalization of marijuana or even affordable health care. Look behind you and you'll see the old ways, discrimination and intolerance and double standards. Look ahead and you may think, "Those people are crazy!" Look behind you and you may think, "Those people are ignorant!" But no matter where you stand, you're not the first person in line, nor the last one.
In other words, it's time to retire the term "wife acceptance factor." At the same time, let's give the people toward the back of the line a chance to accept new ways of thinking before publicly calling them out. Let's give the people at the front of the line the benefit of the doubt, and listen to them closely when they want to change the ways in which we express ourselves.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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