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The Unladylike Instrument: The Cello’s Sexual and Gendered Metaphors

This is the second article on cellos and gender in a series by Dr. Shulamit Sarid. 

Neither Female Nor Male

“The cello is no more essentially male than a lightbulb or a desk,” cello historian George Kennaway rightly proclaimed. Indeed, while the cello itself is neither female nor male, its historical process of gendering attests to social imaginaries intimately connected with the acceptance of women cellists in society.


Since the Renaissance, women instrumentalists faced restrictions because of the sexual connotations of their instruments. Some instruments, like the harp and the piano, were deemed socially desirable because they could be played demurely, requiring no alteration in facial expression or physical demeanor. Other instruments, including the cello, woodwinds, and brasses, have at various times been frowned upon or even prohibited for women for their sexually suggestive postures.

Overall, the biggest, loudest, and most technologically advanced instruments represented the greatest interruption to patriarchal notions of femininity; the keyboard was an obvious exception as it could be used for entertaining, accompanying, and tutoring in the private sphere of the home.

Sexual Metaphors

Because of their visual resemblance to the shape of a woman’s body and the way they were held, the cello and its predecessor, the viola da gamba, have been seen as sexual metaphors. In Renaissance plays and poems, these innuendos were primarily used to amuse the audience or shock the more conservative theatergoers. Shakespeare used the viola da gamba in Twelfth Night to imply that Sir Andrew Augecheek is sexually impotent and therefore plays the instrument instead of having a human lover.

Late 18th-Century “Masculine” Attributes

French Cello Method Book

The cello’s process of gendering culminated at the end of the eighteenth century as it was assigned a male gender due to its low range. Cellists were even criticized for defying the cello’s “masculine” attributes by playing too high on the instrument. To take one example, the Paris Conservatoire’s cello method book describes the somber, manly qualities of the cello:

“Violoncello possesses by the nature of its tone, the length of its strings, and the extent of its sounds, a grave, earnest and expressive character. In the execution of melody, it loses nothing of its majesty…When the Violoncello performs a solo, its tone becomes touching and sublime, not so much as points and excites the passions, but moderates them, by raising the mind to a higher region.”

Late 19th-Century Feminization

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, the masculine character of the cello became feminized as more women played the cello in public. For example, French critic Alfred Guichon notes how attractive the cello is when played by a woman, “so noble, so flattering to a white arm, and in the hand of a virgin or a woman.” In addition, depictions of the cello were imbued with “feminized,” weeping, and passionate gender traits, such as in the poem “Le violoncelle” (1896), in which poet Émile Goudeau used the cello as an emblem of exasperation, excessive emotions, and misery:

“Yes, the cello! All the dreadful moaning music of Parisian struggles seem enclosed in this box in the shape of a coffin, from where the Bow, living, vibrant, biting, fierce as Destiny and sometimes honeyed like a kiss of feminine light, knows how to draw moans, ritornellos, sobs and hymns, at length, at length, until the final hoped-for silence.”

20th-Century Innuendo

Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924, Man Ray

Le Violon d’Ingres (cropped), 1924, Man Ray.

In the twentieth century, the cello was still seen as sexually charged, as evident in an extraordinary 1928 article about Guilhermina Suggia, in which reviewer Stephen Gwyn refers to the cello as a “rigid partner” or “that huge tortoise” between Suggia’s knees as she sits down…

“…to the ride: erect at first and watchful, till gradually, caught by the stream she created she swung with it, gently, sleepily, languidly, until the mood shifted, the stream grew a torrent and the group rocked and swayed almost to wreckage.”

Toned Down, but Present Sexual Symbolism

If I Stay and The Perfection

Today, although such explicit innuendos about professional female cellists have toned down, the cello’s sexual symbolism is still apparent in movies such as If I Stay (2014) and The Perfection (2018). These films continue what I call the “Jacqueline du Pré trope” of the beautiful, young, dying woman cellist.

More recently, Hauser’s 2021 video Wicked Game demonstrates how the cello epitomizes the female body, becoming objectified and submissive as it is played upon by the male cellist. Thousands of Google Images search results of naked female cellists reinforce the popularity of this theme.

While the cello’s prevailing gendered attributions are often ridiculous, they attest to the human obsession to see the world through a binary gendered lens. This lens becomes acutely problematic, however, as some women cellists strive to distance themselves from this gendered discourse in order to be taken seriously as musicians. Others, like transgressive cellist Charlotte Moorman, who, in the 1960s, was arrested for performing topless, continue to utilize the cello’s sexual metaphors as a source of creativity and power.

Charlotte Moorman performs Jim McWilliams’s Ice Music for London, International Carnival of Experimental Sound, London, 1972. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library.

Charlotte Moorman performs Jim McWilliams’s Ice Music for London, International Carnival of Experimental Sound, London, 1972. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Charlotte Moorman Archive, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library.