Friday, November 06, 2009

The boy is mine!

Really fascinating discussion on Tiger Beatdown on girl-versus-girl pop songs.
AMANDA: [T]hese “other women” are romanticized and demonized in song. the “other woman” song is an interesting thing to talk about from a feminist perspective I think. for example, when Dolly Parton is begging Jolene not to take “her man,” she exerts ownership over another human being and even attempts to control another human (jolene) in order to keep that ownership. instead of being like, “fuck it,” which maybe would not have made for a very compelling song, i guess. and so, perhaps you could give a feminist reading to “Girlfriend” and “You Belong With Me” in that these are women reminding other humans that they aren’t property.

SADY: welllllll… possibly? i think both are actually ABOUT competition over territory (territory = actual human dude). in one case you are trying to lure a dude away, and in another, you are trying to keep hold of him. but, weirdly, i don’t think that is so feminist? because what a lot of these songs do is sort of make the dudes not responsible for who they cheat on you with / who they date, in order to transfer all of the animus onto another woman. women are always sort of the villains, even if it’s a dude who is making the choices you disagree with. compare this to one of my favorite dude-finds-out-his-lady-cheated songs, “take a letter, maria,” in which a dude rolls into the office, tells his secretary his wife’s been sleeping with another dude. then, asks her to draft a divorce letter. then, tells her she’s his girlfriend now. like, the dude just kind of keeps rolling on. the lady is STILL the villain, even in songs about cheating ladies sung from dudes’ perspectives. not the guy his wife slept with. (emphasis added)
Now I love basically all songs in this genre, and have a few disjointed thoughts on them.

The urge to put it all on the other woman instead of the man who makes the choices ... is there something that discourages women from being directly aggressive toward the men? Power dynamic, maybe? Patriarchal hangover? Men could (and maybe still can) get away with de facto polygamy, and women sometimes lack the physical, economic, and social leverage to enforce their objection. But women can much more easily control things within the women's sphere. Shades of Edith Wharton.

SADY: well, i think the vast majority of dudes would get a case of The Creeps if we were all under their windows performing dance-offs about them. which DOES kind of make the whole “you belong to me” genre weirdly feminist: it’s women being suitors, not desired objects. granted, it’s in some kind of wacky “i could totally fulfill all your needs better than she can” way, but WHATEVS.

AMANDA: right, and weirdly enough, the guys are hardly humanized.

SADY: exactly. like, it’s not about how dreamy they are or whatever. they’re not singing the dude’s praises. they’re just like, “WANT DUDE! DUDE MINE!”

AMANDA: it’s possible that these “empowering” other-woman songs are just co-opting the worst aspects of traditional male courting behavior. one of the things that irks me about both You Belong with Me and Girlfriend is the assumption that, well, the guy belongs with them.

The assertion of ownership does have the effect of minimizing the man's agency. But part of meaningful choice is full information. Is there really something dehumanizing about a woman laying out the case for why she's awesome? "You may not have been aware that I have the following desirable qualities! Compare this list with your current situation and the choice is clear!" Although it is a little too much like shopping for phone service or something.

And isn't the blanket condemnation of this genre a little dehumanizing itself? Women are people, men are people. Sometimes a person is in a relationship with someone who's all wrong for them: value mismatch, personality clash, no chemistry etc.* It's not sexist to say "Hey, your girlfriend never really understands your Monty Python jokes and gets all mad when you say her mother smelt of elderberries. Maybe you should date somebody a little dorkier."** And it's not sexist to put yourself forward as an alternative.***

The reason the songs aren't singing the guys' praises is because the guy presumably knows that's he's awesome ... the point is that he's overlooked the girl-next-door**** in favor of someone flashier but with less appropriate substance. (Or perhaps is with someone drab and boring out of habit and needs to make a change.)

I feel like there may be some country songs that have this gender dynamic in reverse: dude-on-dude, "your husband doesn't appreciate you/is a cheating cad, you deserve better in the form of my love" sort of songs, but nothing's coming to mind right away. Also some along the general line of "that dude you're cheating with, he sucks, please come back!" but generally in a mournful, non-aggressive, pleading, Jolene-ish way. Maybe because dude-on-dude aggression ... not so much manifesting with the singing, more with the breaking of jaws.

* Maybe s/he's a hot jerk. Or you're not really into them but you're trying to force it because you two get along so well. There's lots of reasons folks get involved with people who're obviously mismatches.

** Or, if you like it better, "Your girlfriend keeps dragging you to SCA events and gets mad when you don't want to go. Maybe you should date someone less dorky."

*** Whether it is jerky and wrong for other reasons, i.e. social norms against interfering with established exclusive relationships, I leave aside for now. It probably is.

**** Which is probably its own subgenre, cf. "Why Not Me?"
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