UNITED STATES--One of the known practices of American political and humanitarian relief organizations in determining which countries are and which countries are not in need of intervention or aid is to understand the state of that nation’s women—the half of the population oppressed in theocratic and authoritarian states and without access to tools such as public education and birth control in impoverished ones. While the United Nations, the Red Cross and like organizations use such meters to understand the states of nations abroad, it is rarer that Americans look at the state of women at home, where obvious legal equalities and a pseudo social equality many neglect to analyze or criticize often eclipse more nuanced forms of discrimination and prejudice enacted against the determined “fairer” sex. In order to understand American misogyny I’ll endeavor, instead of in pursuit image of America’s women, in pursuit of the portrayal of these women in musical media. The tracing of the misogynist’s progress and the societal refection his (and her) voice captures calls for the preface John Bunyan employed for a similar such journey: “This hill, though high, I covet to ascend . . . Better, though difficult, the right way to go, than wrong . . . [for] the road of denial leads to the precipice of destruction” and so like his Christian, end route to the Celestial City, we begin our auditory field trip here: incipiamus; let us commence).
The first stop is 1930’s America, a time of great turmoil and fear for many American, given the fear surrounding life fractured by the Great Depression following the October Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the rise of fascist states such as Spain and Germany abroad. The jazz music which had been pioneered as part of the Harlem Renaissance in the twenties was brought as a safety blanket into the Depression era, though in a time when people stored money in baking soda boxes and entire fields lay barren of crops the luxurious crooning of velvet-bedded hotel bars bore little proximity to the average American. In many ways music was a comforting force during the time, and it can be guessed that one which the media acted as such a force was through the familiar depiction of a sexist and paternalistic attitude towards women. This attitude can be seen in songs such as Gene Autry’s 1939 “South of the Border,” and Cab Calloway’s 1931 “Minnie the Moocher” both of which portray women as helpless and dependent creatures.
In “South of the Boder,” Autry sings of an encounter with a woman “South of the border, down Mexico way . . . where [he] fell in love when the stars above came out to play.” The definition of objectification, the misogynist’s behavioral cornerstone, is “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.” This worldview is most obviously at play in Autry’s song, where the woman is captured not as a human being of equal worth, with as much ability to think and act as Autry, which would give her the same degree of unpredictability as the surrounding Depression, but instead as an inanimate object which, unlike Autry and other men’s circumstances, man had complete control over: “She was a vision, in old Spanish lace / Just for a while, I kissed the smile upon her face.” Another of the misogynist’s hallmarks, selfish use of women, is also at play, as Autry sings the excuse that “it was fiesta” and that while “she smiles as she whispered manana (tomorrow) / And I lied as I whispered manana . . . I rode back . . . the mission bells told me that I mustn’t stay.” This same sexism roams in Calloway’s song, which describes a woman as “a red-hot-hoochie-coocher” and a “frail.” Rather than depict her, like a man, as an autonomous being equipped with her free will, he describes that a man “took her down to Chinatown / And showed her how to kick the gong around,” subtracting her autonomy by implying that she could not have learned how to exist in the world without this man’s having “showed her how. Calloway continues this paternalism where he next croons of how a man “gave her things that she was needin'. . . a home built of gold . . . his townhouse and his racing horses,” as though she, by definition of her sex, was not capable of achieving these things herself through her own hard work or individual effort.
While America emerged into the 1940s from the Depression intact, it was with its prejudices in the same state. The second world war in many ways provided the same national strain the Depression had, if with more patriotism and less suffering, and public attention was so preoccupied with triumphing over the Axis powers that those few voices which organizes to seek gender equality were stifled as completely as is music when the radio nob is turned off. Basic products such as sugar, butter and meat were rationed, men were drafted into war, and just as famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose face and perspective had worn sheepskin and national admiration in the twenties and thirties, opposed intervention abroad much of America opposed delving into questioning of traditional gender norms, a phenomenon apparent in the music which captures the attitudes of the period. One inference as to why misogyny thrived in the war-time period is that men, in participating in the sacrifice of giving their lives to their country, felt entitled to the same sacrifice of autonomy from their girlfriends and wives. The reinforcement of the misogynistic attitude can be found in songs such as Dooley Wilson’s 1942 “As Time Goes By,” which states that “No matter what the future brings . . . Woman needs man, and man must have his mate.” This attitude is similarly obvious in Miller’s warning, “Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me / Till I come marching home,” as well as the Andrews Sisters line that the American men “wearin' the navy blue” will return to provide for their women “a life of ease.”
The continuation of misogyny into the 1950s is undeniable, in a period QUOTE in which ketchup ads ran slogans such as “You mean a woman can open it? Easily—without a knife blade, a bottle opener, or even a husband!,” Dacron Leggs pants sold slacks with an ad featuring a woman’s head affixed to a tiger-skin rug and the phrase “It’s nice to have a girl around the house,” and, as Van Huesen ties proclaimed in an add which features a tie-sporting man in bed with his hands knit in a relaxed triangle behind his head and in which a woman kneels before him wearing a look of admiration and a salmon colored robe, it was most definitively considered “a man’s world.” With men back from the Second World War, women were expected to produce children, an expectation responsible for the creation of the “housewife” stereotype and the advent of the Baby Boom. This national understanding is captured in Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 hit “Black Coffee,” where she laments that whereas a man is “born to go a lovin’ / A woman’s born to weep and fret / To stay at home and tend her oven / And drown her past regrets / In coffee.” Charming, isn’t it? The same sentiment is espoused as alarmingly in another song, The Mills Brothers’ 1957 “Paper Doll,” which sings of wanting to “buy a Paper Doll that I can call my own / A doll that other fellows cannot steal,” which, rather than being like the “dollies that are real.” Elvis Presley’s 1954 “Baby, Let’s Play House,” drawing on the same sexist attitude, succeeds to put the cherry on this drugstore sundae of an era, where he croons, “Well, you may go to college, / You may go to school” but that this woman better not “be nobody’s fool” for he would “rather see you dead, little girl, / Than to be with another man.”
The 60s brought go-go boots and paisley dresses, willow-legged models, the floppy, English pop of the Beatles British Invasion, and the advent of the birth control pill which fueled America’s sexual liberation. Despite the distribution of this tool for liberation, however, gender norms saw less fluidity in this period than is often understood. America’s brief history has been, in a way, one ridled with war, and the preoccupation with martial measures and in the case of this decades Vietnam War, preoccupation with either showing at-home support or participating in the country’s immense opposition protests, women’s fight for equality was often a cause stifled by the more immediate and concrete demands posed by war. The continuation of sexism is obvious in “King of Cool” crooner Dean Martin’s 1962 hit “You Belong To Me”, which tells a loved one that while they might “Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle / See the pyramids along the Nile” or “Fly the ocean in a silver plane / See the jungle when it's wet with rain,” so long as she remembers that “All the while / You belong to me,” depicts as much, as do the lyrics of the Beach Boys same-year hit “California Girls” which lusts after girls who “get so tanned” and are “dolls by a palm tree in the sand.”
Despite the continued efforts of the feminist movements which emerged in the prior decade, the advancement of moon travel and the invention of such groundbreaking inventions as the portable calculator and the Walkman, the music of the 70’s suggests the period wasn’t all cross-forehead headbands and suede jumper dresses. Misogyny continued with great inertia in the 1970s, and while some gains for equality, such as the welcoming of the birth control into everyday life, equality-countering social developments, such as the creation of Penthouse magazine and the exploitative culture it encouraged provided feminists of the Feel Good era plenty to target. The period was in many ways one defined by a dichotomy between liberation and objectification. While Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill,” which revolutionarily sing of “making up for all those years” before the pill with “Miniskirts hot pants and a few little fancy frills,” other songs of the era, such as Freda Payne’s 1970 ballad “Band of Gold,” in which a woman pathetically laments a lost lover by stating that since he has been gone “All that’s left of the dreams” she holds are a wedding ring’s “band of gold,” or the controversial Rolling Stones 1971 song “Brown Sugar,” in which Mick Jagger mixes a cocktail of taboos, such as slavery and oral sex, into a raunchy and objectifying tune: “I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like / You shoulda heard me just around midnight / Brown sugar how come you taste so good, baby? / Ah, brown sugar just like a young girl should.”
From the time feminist sentiment came onto the American music scene in the 70s, music has been a platform for the dichotomy which emerged within the era. Whereas songs such as Madonna’s 1984 hit “Like a Virgin”—“I was beat incomplete . . . sad and blue / But you made me feel . . . Shiny and new”—and Mariah Carey’s 1993 “Dream Lover”—“Dreamlover come rescue me . . . Take me anywhere you want to baby now / I need you so desperately”—painted women as weak creatures in need of men’s guidance, concurrent songs such as Missy Eliot’s 1999 hit “She’s a Bitch”—“[You] stole my car . . . Oh, say bye-bye / I'mma give your body to the sky”—and Katy Perry’s 2008 top-charter “I Kissed a Girl”—“I got so brave . . . I liked it, the taste of her cherry chapstick. I kissed a girl”—capture a contrasting female autonomy. More recent songs have the same trend, with Usher’s uber-sexist 2004 “Yeah”—“I won't stop till I get 'em in they birthday suits”—and Amine’s 2016 hit Caroline—“Caroline, listen up, don't wanna hear / About ya horoscope or what the future holds / Shut up and shut up and / Let's get gory”—standing in stark contrast to liberating anthems such as Beyonce’s 2016 “Freedom” where she commandingly states, “Won’t let my freedom rot in hell . . . I’ma keep running . . . I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
If the history of American music tells us anything, it is that misogyny, a modern buzzword, is no new concept to the minds, or the ears, of the American people. I came across this phenomenon one afternoon when my sister and I were sitting in the parking lot of our local Safeway waiting for our grandparents. We listened to a rap song at my sister’s selection, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s rap hit “Ni**as in Paris,” a song which, in response to the amplified bass my sister had set on the stereo, reverberated loudly the words “Prince William’s ain’t do it right if you ask me / Cause I was him I would have married Kate & Ashley” through the walls of our graphite colored Honda Pilot.
When my grandparents returned to the car it was with two sand colored bags stamped with the fat letter ‘S’ of the Safeway logo and with a clear disapproval of the music. After we packed the car and reassembled in the space of the gray leather seats, we selected a new song at my grandmother’s request, Frank Sinatra’s 1968 “All I Need is the Girl.” “Got my tweed pressed, got my best vest, all I need now is the girl” my grandparents and I sang, leaving my rap-inclined sister alone in her lack of familiarity with the lyrics. It was short that I enjoyed the communal crooning, however, because within minutes I came to understand that there was, ironically, as evident misogyny in the replacement song as in that which had been switched off. Sinatra’s lullabaic reference to a woman as an accessory to be picked up in a string of errands, though softer in tone than West’s rough glorification of polygamy, was no more acceptable.
The good news about this excavated past misogyny? It means that the sexism so rampant in our world today isn’t singularly the side effect of our times. The bad news about this same discovery? It means that the sexism so rampant in our world today isn’t singularly the side effect of our times. In other words, our society’s inclination towards sexism is much greater than an issue which can be faced with the weak efforts of no-filter selfies or female pop anthems.
That American misogyny runs so deep tells that our effort to combat it must be that much more concerted. It means that like Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who orates on the value of raising his sons as feminists, or like family friends whose graham-headed boys have been encouraged as enthusiastically their parents’ belief in human equality as they have a love for the New England Patriots, we must foster in the next generation of Americans a compassion for others as equals, a vigilance to the abuses of one gender’s sense of entitlement.
It means that although, as Bunyan wrote in conclusion of his own journey, “none throws away the apple for the core,” or that none discard the good for the bad, it is difficult to focus on our society’s plights rather than its virtues, it is vital that we monitor them. It means that while we may occasionally enjoy the pace of a Kanye West song as a study aid or the lyrics of Frank Sinatra as a tribute to bygone times, we must beware of that rotten core which stands so reprehensibly as a pillar of our society—an artifact, like a Roman projection of marble, of both past times and present—so as not to swallow or chew on bits of its dangerous rhetoric, so as to guard against planting any further such of its seeds in the minds of the younger Americans, which is the remaining expanse of soil capable of supporting its growth.
“The Pilgrim's Progress,” John Bunyan
“South of the Border” 1939, Gene Autry
“Minnie the Moocher” 1931, Cab Calloway
“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” 1942, Glenn Miller