August 6, 2005

"The Beatles helped feminize the culture."

From a WaPo review of "Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World":
"The Beatles helped feminize the culture," Stark writes, in part because they usually "displayed a more sympathetic attitude to women in their songs than most other rock writers." In addition, the band "not only sounded and looked feminine because of their style and their hair; they were more feminine in their group dynamic." Key to this inadvertent revolution were the deaths of Lennon's and McCartney's mothers when each Beatle was still in his teens (the "Julia" and "Mother Mary" immortalized on the "White" and "Let It Be" albums, respectively). These deeply traumatic events had the effect, Stark argues, of repeatedly driving both composers toward strong women who shaped them at every turn: Mona Best, mother of early drummer Pete and provider of the band's first regular gigs, at the Casbah Club she founded in her basement; Astrid Kirchherr, the German ingénue who gave the boys their distinctive haircuts and pushed them in the direction of her own black-leather art house sophistication; and later, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman, indomitable personalities who, at the close of the '60s, with Lennon and McCartney already drifting apart, "tended to spur their partners in opposite directions from one another, almost acting like lawyers in an ongoing dispute."

You need a hook to justify adding to the vast pile of Beatles writing, of course. But what do you think of this one?

Other discussion questions: Did the culture get feminized in the 1960s? Who did this feminizing -- men? If the Beatles only helped in this feminization, who else did the feminizing?

Bonus yes-or-no question to sort Althouse readers into two groups: Did you ever spend much time trying to figure out if the woman on the cover of "Bringing It All Back Home" was Dylan in drag? (Spending time now doesn't count, but feel free to do it.)

18 comments:

John Althouse Cohen said...

You can't get much less sympathetic to women than this.

Brendan said...

Instapundit readers have no idea how much homework's gonna hit them.

Ron said...

john: that song is certainly the exception, not the rule!

I think it was women that created the rock culture; notice that the sex objects in rock tend to be men, not women. A long series of changes were coming for women for quite awhile, and while there periods of "counter reformation" from time to time, I believe that it was the women who creating these changes and "feminizing" the culture. Rock is an odd way to do it, through a form of "religiousity" combined with consumerism!

Kathy Herrmann said...

The first question is "did society get feminized in the 60s?" I'd say a resounding sort of. Society may have gotten more sensitive on the surface but masculinity still ran strong below the surface. And yes, woman started to exert themselves more, but if anything, I'd say it was by imitating men and not following a feminine model.

I don't think the Beatles were the catalist of any of the surficial feminizaiton. Rather they rode the wave that was already building, as Ron mentioned in his post above.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Ron: Here's another (also by John). John even admitted it later, in his lyrical contribution to Paul's "Getting Better": "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her/And kept her apart from the things that she loved."

Women created the rock culture?! Make a list of the great originators of rock from the '50s. Are they women or men?

oregano said...

The Beatles were before my time. All I know is the time in which I've grown, and what I see disturbs me.

I think it would be accurate to say that gender roles no longer exist. They have never existed in my time. Yet, there is a masculine soul and a feminine soul. Men do want to be men. Women do want to be women. Both genders are yearning to express their identity, but we are not allowed to do so in our society.

peter hoh said...

No, I never spent any time looking at that Dylan album cover. Looking at it now, I think the woman's pouty lips are too unlike Dylan's lips. But damn, she's got that prominant philtrum, though.

As to the other question, someone in my past pointed out that when Rock and Roll began, guitars had feminine curves and were held gently in a chest-high embrace. By the end of the 60s, the feminine-style guitars had been supplanted by sleeker electric guitars, held in front of the groin and played in such a way that the phallic symbolism could hardly be missed.

peter hoh said...

I just read the book review, hoping to see the author's definition of "feminize." Alas, it's just a review, so no clear definition. Stark is quoted as writing that the Beatles "challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man."

I suspect that nearly every generation that has considered itself modern could argue that it challenged assumptions about gender. Mostly, this speaks to the way we view the generation that preceeded us, but it may also have something to do with the ongoing process of becoming "modern."

Flamen Dialis said...

But remember, music crit history bears out that the very same charges were leveled at Little Richard and, to some degree, Jerry Lee Lewis just a few years before. I don't necessarily believe the Fab4 feminized rock n roll as much as spread a very thin layer of their variety of it around the world in a more equitable manner than many of the British Invasion darlings of the era. I mean, the Beatles got there first, but give Mick Jagger just a "leetle" credit. The be honest with you, I think it's quite a stretch to hang that particular bit of worldwide social awareness on the Beatles (which comes off as more of a "wishful thinking" gender studies screed), and one could certainly produce far better examples of gender deconstruction in the history of rock that had a farther-reaching impact on modern culture, albeit somewhat later (but not too far) down the road...

Ron said...

John: Why do you think that the rock stars themselves, the originators, are the ones responsible for that culture? The men (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Jim Morrison) were the sex objects! Who's screaming and fainting at those Beatles shows? ( and even Sinatra before them had a similar reaction! ) More importantly, whose money do you think is fueling the whole thing? Young women! The culture was created by the women, for the women! In rock (not pop, that might be Cher or Nancy Sinatra) who would be the first female "sex symbol?" My first guess would be Debbie Harry, and that's not til quite late, late '70's....( I thought of Marianne Faithful, but she burned out too quickly)

Yes, I'm very familar with John's approach to women both in lyrics and more importantly in life, and I still think the broader point about the Beatles (and even John) is still a valid one.

Ron said...

It's also interesting to note that during the first major tour of the Beatles in '63, the interest in them came from young women quite strongly...except in France where it was the boys who were interested, and the girls were not...comment as you will!

Ron said...

Plus, when Colonel Parker saw Bill Haley ( of Rock around the clock fame) he thought that what he needed to get the girls at the shows was a hot young stud, not a "fat cowboy with a cowlick." (I think that's right)

Hence, Elvis, as much a creation as Brittany Spears...

Hamsun56 said...

No, I never thought that the lady on the cover of BIABH was Dylan in drag. I read somewhere that it was Albert Grossman's wife.

Hamsun56 said...

I was a huge Beatles fan during the period that I was forming my male sexual identity. For me, the Beatles offered a different role model for what a successful male could be. Didn't need to be a cowboy, soldier or quarterback of the football team to have your pick of women. Cuteness, wit and amiability seemed to be desired traits.

Perhaps the British invasion brought with it a different type of masculinity - different from the rugged individualism of the American ideal. Could this difference be why Americans often consider English males to be "feminine".

Roger Sweeny said...

John,

To rephrase what Ron said, women provided the demand and men provided the supply. And as Alfred Marshall asserted, you need both--like you need both blades of a scissors.

Sex roles were bound to get less distinct as the 20th century wore on. At the beginning of the century, many children and low life expectancies made bringing up the kids a potentially life-time job. Cooking and cleaning required special skill and a lot of time. Homemaker was a full-time life-time job.

By the end of the century, all this had changed. Women were pushed out into the workforce at the same time as paying jobs had less and less need for brute force. So the more public life of America became "feminized" while the private life became less "feminine."

(The preceeding was a committe report by Gary Becker, Isaac Asimov, and Karl Marx.)

miklos rosza said...

i've heard a lot of stuff from someone who was there about linda eastman as groupie... a rich groupie looking for a famous husband (and paul wasn't her first choice).

yoko was/is/will always be a fool. she had no respect for the medium. it took tremendous talent to be a beatle; for her to step in and expect to be literally as good as john was the folly of a collossal poseur.

patti smith, for about three albums, was the big influence not only on "women in rock" but on an entire idea of rock as art.

she was also, according to richard meltzer (the first rock critic ever, who also lived in a house with patti while she was enamoured of blue oyster cult's allen lanier) -- the single worst example meltzer ever saw of someone affected by stardom, becoming a diva and all that implies.

this doesn't take away from her influence at the time.

miklos rosza said...

otto weininger in his book "sex and character" (1903) predicted that in the 20th century men were going to become feminized and women more masculine.

i don't think the beatles had much to do with it. radical "difference" feminism (aka "essentialism") did, however.

pb said...

How much more feminine do you get than Elvis in a gold lame suit?

Or the Spanish dandies depicted in Roman Polanski's Pirates!?

James Cagney learned boxing and dancing. Elvis' suit was designed by a boxer-turned-clothes designer. We're as feminine and masculine as we ever were. Bar room brawls aren't as popular as they used to be, but neither is duelling.

(For anyone who thinks sex is a matter of social construction, not biology: why do so many transgendered persons get expensive surgery and take hormones?)