Monday, February 11, 2013

What a Girl Wants: 8 Songs on the Feminist's Dilemma

In the consistent push for the equality of women in society, there have obviously been any number of significant changes in the way that the fairer sex is treated. But the question that no one seems to ask is whether "equality" is really the right word for what we should be trying to accomplish on behalf of women. In other words, should the goal of the feminist be to convince society that- except for that pesky burden of fertility- women are really just men in woman's clothing (we used to call this something different, but I digress). What I am getting at is that the problem of equality involves more than just pretending that women are men. The real question is does a woman have a distinct vocation from a man, or are her anatomical differences little more than skin deep. To be clear, I am not speaking here about the kind of vocation that is imposed from the outside by societal norms, but rather the kind that is imposed from the inside by the individual's conscience. My intention is not to debate whether or not women should be at home or at the office all day, but instead to observe the complexity of this issue through the vehicle of music. What I found most fascinating about the songs I selected (the majority of which were written by women), was that they seemed to express in a most eloquent fashion the genuine ambivalence that seems to haunt the footsteps of the liberated woman. The "prison bars" of traditional family life have finally been dissolved, and now you might expect pure and unadulterated joy on the part of this woman- but what these artists describe is something a little more complicated.

Restless - Alison Kraus and Union Station

Alison Krauss is probably the furthest thing from Gloria Steinem when it comes to music, but Ms. Krauss may nevertheless have something to teach us all about what it means to live the life of an independent woman. Women are naturally independent. By virtue of their femininity, they possess a sense of identity within their very being, whereas men seem to struggle a bit more when it comes to finding their voice. Yet this does not mean that women have no need of men. Indeed, it may be a great mystery to us all as to why any women could need the help or aid of a man, but plain observation confirms this instinct. I could have chosen one of any number of songs by Alison Krauss because there seems to be a relatively constant theme in her music (which is the struggle between her desire for romance and her personal ambition). Musicians are in some ways like Franciscan monks. They are troubadours who are trying to woo the world. The problem from a musician's standpoint is that they often try to maintain some kind of monogamous relationship alongside this other form of romance. In this sense the Franciscan is much smarter, for he recognizes the impossibility of holding the two in balance. Thus, it is no wonder that there are so many stories of infidelity when it comes to musicians on the road. As for a woman, the dynamic takes on an even more complex form. Being on the road away from family and friends may allow one to fulfill their desire for personal success, but there is in any case a simultaneous kind of loneliness which accompanies that success; "I just can't stand being alone, I'm going to have to change that someday. There's a restless feeling in my bones and I know at times it just won't go away..." Here you can see clearly the dilemma. It's not just a "feeling", it is- as she describes it- "in her bones." She wants to share a life with somebody, but she has another lover to whom she feels even more obligated. Consequently, it seems she is stuck in a whole series of romantic relationships that can't ever really go anywhere. This provokes her to say in essence "I've got to change myself so that I don't need to be with someone." Notice that she doesn't say that she is going to have to change her career to suit a relationship. "The one thing I know is when I turn out the light, visions of you dance in the night..." No doubt she's "restless" because she's committed to two lovers, though it is clear in the end which one she's more committed to. It must be particularly lonely when a woman is on the road by herself, for generally speaking (to her credit) she doesn't seem to seek the same kind of hedonistic consolations that many male artists do. The larger point is not that Ms. Krauss is wrong for being conflicted, but only that she reveals what is at the heart of the feminine struggle. With her mouth she can declare all day long that she is an independent woman, but a woman is more than an ideology or a philosophy, she is also a biology and a psychology. And so if she chooses not to settle down that is undeniably her choice, and may she ever have it. However, it should at least be acknowledged that in spite of all this talk of liberation, a woman cannot wish away her need or desire for real companionship, nor can she completely annihilate her urge to be united to a husband. We are not made for complete autonomy. In fact, it is apostasy to the soul to demand it. In any case, Ms. Krauss offers a frank and honest testimony of this need, not by explicitly telling anyone her political views, but by speaking from the heart. She is simply and honestly acknowledging what the Gloria Steinem's and the Madeleine O'Hares of the world will only say when no one else is around; "It is not good for woman to be alone."

No Scrubs - TLC

Ironically, one of the unintended consequences of the liberation of women is their subsequent degradation. One of the staples of women's liberation is the availability of contraception and abortion. From the perspective of a feminist, this leaves her career/life options open; from the perspective of a man who is simply looking to hookup, this means she's open for business. The comedian Chris Rock once put it even more impolitely than that. He said essentially that men like women who are pro-abortion because we know that they are probably easy (I cleaned it up). In the olden days a father might have said to his son; "If you're ready to have sex, then you better be ready to be a father." Today, a father and mother simply say, "if you're going to do it, make sure you're protected." The pill may have given a woman more "options", but it certainly hasn't made men respect her more. With the advent of the contraceptive pill, the burden is no less on women than it was before, the only difference is now the man can simply wash their hands of the whole incident. Indeed, he is practically free to say "I didn't intend for that to happen," or (at best) "here's some money for an abortion." Unfortunately, this contraceptive mentality has given rise to a whole generation of "scrubs:"; that is, men whose only aim it is, not to start a family, but rather to hook up with women. Or as the lecherous 20-something Matthew McConaughey said in Dazed and Confused; "Great thing about this town is I keep gettin' older, but the girls stay the same age..." This is not to say that the scrub has not always existed, but who can deny that this self-serving creature has proliferated of late? Anyhow, the scrub comes in many forms, but a common characteristic can be seen in how he perceives women. He sees them not as an equal or as a companion, but as a tool for his satisfaction (hence the express "to objectify"). She is a sport, and he a playboy, which may explain why Sports Illustrated has a swimsuit issue. The band TLC details in rather amusing fashion the behavior of this perpetual adolescent, describing him as someone who lives with his mother and is "hanging out the passenger side of his best friends ride, tryin' to holla at me." If the pill keeps a woman "autonomous", than the unfortunate side effect of this freedom must certainly be that it keeps men from growing into responsible men. Hence, by failing to demand greater respect from men, women ultimately find themselves more dissatisfied with their relationships than they ever were before. Why? because (surprise) they don't feel as respected. Without the demands placed on a man by a woman's chastity, he will inevitably fall into the trap of seeing women, not as a beloved companion, but as an object to be used and degraded.

You're the One That I Want - John Travolta and Olivia Newton John

Early in the movie Grease there is a song called Summer Nights, which details  a summer romance that took place between a girl named Sandy and a boy named Danny. What the song also details is the profound difference between how a man views romance and how a woman does. Though Sandy is the furthest thing from a feminist, she nevertheless demonstrates why there is often such a communication breakdown between men and women. When Danny recounts their summer together, he seems to emphasize how far he went with her, while she emphasizes how he made her feel. He is interested in conquests (or so he pretends to his boys), and she emphasizes how well he treated her. Respect is important to men (especially coming from their peers), but unfortunately at the same time it often inspires a kind of machismo which creates tension in a relationship. And if a man is ruled by this mentality, he will often leave a trail of broken hearts with little regard for those who has hurt. Rizzo is a classic example of what happens when a girl is treated (and allows herself to be treated) this way. At some point she despairs and insists that "chivalry is dead" and that any talk of true romance "sounds like a drag." Anyhow, throughout the film there is a tremendous friction between these two ways of looking at things. Danny wants Sandy to "loosen up" a little, and Sandy wants Danny to show greater respect for her and her old fashioned values. Both are presented as two equally extreme positions. Danny is going too far because he is attempting to coerce Sandy into a sexual relationship, and Sandy is  going to far because she is too prudish and behaves a little bit too much like a high school version of June Cleaver. Sandy is black and white, and Danny is in color. In some ways this situation perfectly represents feminist's dilemma. On the one hand, she does not want to live in Pleasantville with Sandy- where she will probably wind up in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant (or at least that is how she envisions it), nor does she want to have an ignorant ape like Danny use her for the purposes of bragging to his buddies. Fair enough. But the solution of the movie, as embodied by the song "You're the One That I Want", is a cold compromise indeed. For the solution is little more than a sleight of hand, a parlor trick perpetrated to give Danny what he wants, while pretending to do the same for Sandy. The lesson of this song and the movie is if Sandy will only put out, then Danny will respect her more; if she is more aggressive, like a man, then Danny will bow to her authority. This may be true up to a point, but not in the way that makes a woman really happy. Simply watch the video and see how Danny bows down to her new persona. It is not the bow of chivalry, rather it is the shameless prostration of a dog in heat. Yes, the sexualizing of Sandy may get him to "heel" for the time being, but it will not be long before he becomes a "dog" in another sense.

If I Were a Boy - Beyonce

In many ways this next song picks up where Grease left off. I call it the Rizzo effect. Indeed, once a woman compromises herself and loses herself sense of self-respect, she finds herself in a terrible position. Realizing that sleeping with a man does the opposite of what she hopes it will do, she is immediately confronted with two options. She can recognize the folly of her decision and re-commit herself to living her ideals, or she can harden her heart and resolve that there is no turning back. This is the problem oftentimes with feminism, would that it were an attempt to mimic what is most praiseworthy in men. To the contrary, it often mimics the worst that men have to offer. If men are callous and superficial about sex, then so should women. If men are corporate cutthroats, then women should be to. If men are cold and calculating, then women should follow suit. If I Were a Boy successfully illustrates this struggle in the heart of every women; the battle between feminine vulnerability and the desire to avoid being hurt; "If I were a boy, I think I could understand, how it feels to love a girl. I swear I'd be a better man. I'd listen to her. 'Cause I know how it hurts..." On the one hand, she muses that if she were "a boy" she would know exactly what it is a women needs. It is as if the lyricist is pleading; "Why don't you care enough to do these things. If you loved her you would try to 'be a better man'." In the next breath she takes a different approach; "If I were a boy, I'd turn off my phone, tell everyone it's broken so they'd think I was sleeping alone..." These words express a kind of despair, viz. "if I can't get you to hear me, then I will simply become what I hate." There seems some question in the song which approach she will settle on, but in the ends she concludes with something of a whimper; "But you're just a boy, you don't understand..." I would argue that that the lyrics of this song describe in painful detail at least one of the reasons some in the feminist camp develop a relative disdain for men, and in some cases even turn to relationships with women because they "do understand." I would never deign to argue that such disdain is acceptable, but considering the absolute failure on the part of some men in this regard, I "do understand" the temptation to despair on the part of these women. I suppose it is more than a little ironic that a woman must await the love and understanding of a creature that seems adept at neither one nor the other. For a happier conclusion to this story, I recommend watching Beauty and the Beast.

Modern Woman - Billy Joel

This song by Billy Joel rather effectively points out that it is not only women who feel a sense of uncertainty and ambivalence in this age. Men have always struggled when it comes to the question of how to behave around a woman- but now he really hasn't a clue. "Should I pay for the dinner, or will she think that I am being too presumptuous? Should I open the door for her, or will she think I am patronizing her?" If men didn't get it before, now they are really in for it. This fickle dictatorship of mixed signals not only leads to the complete neutering of men, it leaves them utterly confused as to what role they should play. The woman doesn't seem to want him to treat her in a special way- or maybe she does; "Do I look like some sort of cripple to you? I can pull out my own chair, thank you!" At least in the former state of affairs, women wanted to be treated as queens, and if you failed at it you at least knew what you failed at. Now not even she is sure exactly how she wants to be treated, only that if you get it wrong, you should be prepared to deal with the consequences. Billy Joel puts it this way; "She looks sleek and seems so professional. She's got a lot of confidence, it's easy to see. You want to make a move but you feel so inferior, 'cause under that exterior is someone who's free. She's got style and she's got her own money. So she's not another honey you can quickly disarm... You've got your plan of attack but that won't attract a modern woman. And you're an old-fashioned man she understands the things you're doin'. She's a modern woman." Obviously there is nothing wrong with the idea of a woman who isn't a doormat and knows exactly what she's looking for, but oftentimes this "modern woman" is not only confident, she's downright superior. Moreover, there seems to be in her too much of a readiness to be offended. "Her long cool stare", as Joel puts it, does not so much arise out of insecurity as it does from her Vasser education, the place where she first learned about the evils of patriarchy. Hence, this particular woman is not fueled by a history of bad relationships, rather what motivates her is a steady dose of self-serving ideology. Yet before she goes about burning all of her bras, and dancing on the grave of chivalry with delight, it might be instructive for her to know the original purpose of chivalry. What chivalry is not is a patronizing and paternalistic attempt to demonstrate that men are stronger and thus superior to women. To the contrary, this is precisely what Christian chivalry corrected in the pagan world. In fact, it was because of the Christian conception of women that so many of them converted in the early Church. No longer would a young woman be sold at 12 years old to some creepy old dude so that dear ol' dad could get paid (just to give one example). Chivalry is a way of recognizing the dignity of a woman without annihilating masculinity. It allows men to use their strength and vigor to elevate women, not to denigrate them. Thus, wherever you see men behaving like misogynists, do not consider this typical Christian behavior, for it was Christ who laid the groundwork for the end of all such despicable treatment. This is not to suggest that there is no tension between the sexes when it comes to their particular roles. But better a tension than a warmed-over androgyny.

That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be - Carly Simon

If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were a song, this is what it would sound like. If it were a black and white movie it would be Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. "That's the Way I Always Heard it Should Be" is a depressing slice of Americana, wherein all of the idealism which characterized the previous period (or so we were always told) gives way to a darker reality, one that was there the whole time, but went unspoken. Anyhow, this Carly Simon song really does reveal the practical disenchantment that so many have in this day and age when it comes to the ideal of marriage. With so many marriages "hanging on in quiet desperation" (if they even hang on at all), it is somewhat of a natural impulse to give up on the institution altogether. It is for this reason that so many have turned to cohabitation in order to compensate for the general loss of faith in that thing called the vow. Indeed, there is such a profound sense of distrust, not just in the idea of marriage, but between the sexes in general. The fact that 40% of children are born out of wedlock today shows what a profound reluctance there is on the part of couples to enter into any kind of permanent commitment. Such is the dilemma for Ms. Simon who looks around at the marriage fatalities of friends and family and questions whether this is the way things really ought to be. Adding to the melancholy of the song, is the fact that Ms. Simon's own romantic history is one that seems to echo all of her concerns. She sees a catalogue of reasons to run in the opposite direction from traditional family life, but her heart is resigned- despite the seeming inevitability of failure- to give itself to this godforsaken cause; "My friends from college their all married now; they have their houses and their lawns. They have their silent noons; tearful nights. Their children hate them for the things their not; they hate themselves for what they are... But you say its time to move in together. And raised a family of our own you and me. Well that's the way I've always heard it should be. You want to marry me. We'll marry." The saddest thing about this dark and pessimistic view of  marriage is that in her case it is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, there is plenty of misery out there to channel, and if you want to feel vindicated by your own sour view of the world, then you will find plenty of examples. But the mistake of Ms. Simon, and all those who have given up on traditional romance, is that they have an entirely flawed view of what love and romance is in the first place. They forgot that the fairytale has tragedy as well as comedy. They thought happily ever after meant that a happy marriage would be something like a reflex. They accepted as dogma every single pop song and Hallmark card. But these sorts of good intentions alone will not translate into a good marriage. The best way to guarantee failure and disillusionment in marriage is to imagine that your spouse exists entirely for the sake of making you feel the way you did when you first met them. There is a lot of blame to go around on both sides of the gender isle on this one, but what is most certainly part of that blame, is the almost exclusively worldly and superficial understanding of what the marriage vow means. If you are not getting married in order to learn how to die for someone (namely your spouse), then you have mistaken marriage for something else. Without true sacrifice, love is a lot like a Lionel Ritchie song: pleasant-sounding, but about as binding as his marriages.

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? - Paula Cole

The Lilith Fair festival, which reached the height of its success in the late 1990s, was meant to be a celebration of everything female. Its name comes from an apocryphal account of Creation, wherein Lilith, Adam's first wife, rebels against his authority. Thus she is regarded, from a the author's standpoint, as a sorceress and an enemy of God. Proudly bearing this standard, the ladies touting this tour (which included the likes of Sarah McLaughlin, Jewel, Meredith Brooks, and the Indigo Girls to name a few), used it as a platform to advances various feminist causes (one of them of course being abortion). Another one of the performers on the tour was a woman by the name of Paula Cole, who boasted hairy armpits, a classically trained voice, and a quirky style. Her breakout hit Where Have All the Cowboys Gone is a prime example of her unique delivery. I say this all by way of introduction so as to disavow anyone from saying that Ms. Cole is some sort of clandestine conservative. She is/was not. In any case, the song itself is a strange lament about the absence of what used to be called a "man's man". Today I suspect that phrase might have a slightly different connotation. In essence she argues that she would be glad to "do the dishes", "the laundry", "cook dinner", and "raise the children" if he will only go out there and put in a hard days work, which apparently includes "working on the tractor". One might even be tempted to call the lyrics misogynistic were it not for the fact that it was written by one of the Lilith ladies. Ironically, the very movement that demands that men stand down from their patriarchal post is the same one, at least in this case, who decries the Bieberization of all men (do you think that it is merely a coincidence that practically every other commercial today is about a man's failing testosterone?).

But let us not make light of what Ms. Cole is proposing here, because I believe that it possesses some real insight into how a man might find his way back into the heart of the ice princess. What she reveals is not so much that women do not want men to be men, but rather the problem as she sees it is that men aren't being men at all. The difference between the expression "be a man" and "boys will be boys" is as different as the difference between heaven and hell. It is the difference between Christ and Satan. One gives his entire being physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the good of his spouse, while the other is the immortal adolescent, too wrapped up in himself and his own personal pleasure to devote himself to anyone or anything. In the immortal words of Ms. Cole; "I will do the laundry if you pay all the bills..." If men will preoccupy themselves with trying to serve their lady in all that they do, the woman naturally wishes to do the same. What so often causes dissatisfaction in relationships is that men are either doormats, or serially inattentive. The truth is if men were genuinely chivalrous, then women would be much more inclined to serve, but as it is men often become more and more remote as the relationship progresses, which is the ultimate source of frustration for any woman. At one point in the song, she laments the fact that she is "wearing her new dress, but you don't even notice..." This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it further explains what foments the "battle of the sexes". A man must above all other things make his woman feel like his love for her is unlike any other affection he has. By contrast, a man can inspire despair in the heart of a woman if he makes her feel like just another face in the crowd, one who goes "unnoticed." The cheap compromise  is the Bieberized man. Because they can't have a man who will make them feel like a queen, they get a marionette-man to do it for them at their behest. But a woman's heart will betray her every time. And Ms. Cole is no exception, for she tells her audience in essence: "I just can't take this cold compromise anymore! If you go out there and break your back for me, show me a little concern, I will do all those things that women like me have sworn off since the dawn of feminism."

Simple Kind of Life - No Doubt

The first big hit from the band No Doubt was the song, "I'm Just a Girl". And if there were ever a "girl power" soundtrack, this would certainly be on it. Anyhow, the song expresses rather sarcastically how girls are often treated as if they are fragile little creatures. The video and the lyrics suggest that she wants to tear down this silly wall of conventions that stand between her and those "those little things she holds so dear". Fast Forward five years to the release of their second album, which included on it the hit single "Simple Kind of Life". This is notable because in some ways it expresses the exact opposite sentiment of the former song. In a short period of time she went from "girl power" to grieving the fact that she had gotten everything she wanted. She had received all the kingdoms of the world and all she really wanted was "to be a girl"; "And all I wanted were the simple things, a simple kind of life. And all I needed was a simple man, so I could be a wife..." It shouldn't surprise us too much that our ambitions often work to take us to the moon. But the problem with reaching the moon is a very practical one. The moon is much prettier from a distance. Being on the moon in reality, however, is a cold and lonely condition; "I always thought I'd be a mom. Sometimes I wish for a mistake. The longer that I wait, the more selfish that I get. You seem like you'd be a good dad." The modern woman is divided within herself. She wants to be able to go on living a life governed by her ambitions, but she also wants desperately to have a family. Thus, we get the Stefani solution. 'I want a baby, but the conditions on the ground don't seem optimal for this... at least not in the conventional way.' From nannies, to surrogacy, to IVF babies, to three parent scenarios, to pet children (the last one serves as substitute for children altogether), such is the mentality of the one who wishes to have it both ways. Whether or not this person can provide a stable and happy environment for their children is secondary to filling this need. Whether there is no father involved, or the father is only superficially involved in the process, is beside the point. The point is the woman got precisely what she wanted and satisfied that aching need in her heart. If she had to break a few eggs to do it, so be it. I would not be so presumptuous as to tell any woman not to pursue a noble career. What I would presume to say- as a psychological fact- is that if she divides her heart between her marriage her children and her career, she is likely to feel a deep sense of regret about the whole thing. This is not to suggest that men are off the hook by any means. Marriage is in itself a kind of submission for them, one that often brings an end to many a fancy he might have about himself. Add children into the mix, and now there are two parties that he must put before himself (which may include working a job that makes him completely miserable). In today's world we have practically made mandatory the regret about which Stefani speaks. We have said that a woman must have a heart divided, otherwise she might miss out on something. Yet if peace of mind and heart is really what a women wants (as opposed to running herself ragged trying to be all things to all people), then she must learn to defy the fickle fashions of the world. She must be in the truest sense an independent woman, rejecting the notion that she must live according to "all the latest trends." She must make a distinction between what she aches for in her heart of hearts, and what may be desirable to the touch, and pleasing to the eye, but which is nevertheless inessential. Such a decision may not include getting married or even having children, but what it most certainly should not include is a division of the soul wherein one never actually commits to anything, but rather continually finds themselves fluttering from one project to the next.              


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