In June, Slate ran a piece about country music’s “bro problem” and singer Miranda Lambert’s aim to take down “bro country,” a (not so recent, but recently more obtuse) trend in country music to objectify women, aggressively corner them in bars, and reduce them to tailgate-dancin’, truckbed-climbin’, flip-flop floozies in tight jeans and/or cut-offs (depending, I guess, on the season).
But these days it’s not Miranda who’s saving the day. Newcomers Maddie and Tae are the dark horses riding up to restore order to country music. The lyrics to their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” takes direct aim at the male megastars who’ve been bankrolling their musical success on the willingness of the prophetic “girl in a country song” to get drunk enough to go for a ride in some dude’s truck.
It’s a gutsy move to take on the likes of Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, and Florida-Georgia Line (who do not seem amused by the song at all). And it’s clear from the two women’s comments about the song that they are conscious of the tight-rope they’re walking, playing down the song’s feminism by rejecting that label (a problem I’ve written about before) and cutes-ing up their language with oh-my-goshes. But as the biting role-reversal scenes in the song’s video make clear, these two ladies are tired of the sexist, objectifying nonsense that has lately been dominating the country scene (“Conway and George Strait never did it this way,” they lament).
Calling out “bro country” in a song is a step in the right direction, but first we need to be clear about something: Country doesn’t just have a “bro” problem. It has a straight-up misogyny problem.
The first time I heard Tyler Farr’s song “Redneck Crazy” on the radio, I found it tasteless and uncouth. Then a disturbed young man went on a deadly misogynist rampage in Isla Vista, and now I change the station if it comes on. To summarize the song’s events: Girl dumps boy. Boy stalks girl at her home and taunts her new boyfriend (“I didn’t come here to start a fight / but I’m up for anything tonight”). Boy’s misery is girl’s fault, because, “you know you broke the wrong heart baby / and drove me redneck crazy.”
The similarities between the tragedy in Isla Vista and the song’s sense of entitlement to sex with a woman, and the violent response to not being able to have her, are too eerie. “I’m about to get my pissed off on,” Farr sings, and each verse just gets creepier from there. (In fairness, the song’s subject seems to want to attack both the woman he can’t have and her new man, singing “He won’t be getting any sleep tonight.” Which, in fairness, only makes the Isla Vista comparison even more frightening, given the majority of that day’s victims were men.)
There is a joke in the South about women who shoot their husbands: “She just snapped” is the punchline. I guess in this case, going “redneck crazy” is meant to be the male equivalent of that phenomenon. Yay, equality? The problem with both defenses is they shift blame for a violent crime onto the victim. Not a great fix, considering violence is never the answer and victim-blaming is never okay.
Country music has a long history of celebrating traditional gender roles, roles that progressive society has been moving away from but country music is slow to let go of. In defense of country music—and the women of country who are also topping the charts—it is trying to shift this norm so that women can be empowered, too. But because men in country music are stereotyped for their way of exerting power over women and other men through violence, violence is therefore the medium by which some women in country music, like Miranda Lambert, are trying to assert their own independence and strength.
I’ll be the first to admit that Miranda Lambert is my country music idol, but I also have to admit that many of her songs are uncomfortable examples of the violent female revenge fantasy. Her 2010 platinum hit “Gunpowder and Lead” is about a woman who gets tired of being beaten up by her man, so she shoots him:
He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll
Don’t that sound like a real man
I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead
While I give this song credit for the important observation that a “real man” isn’t an abusive one, I’m not sure two wrongs make a right here. This song is from the album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an image that has become integral Lambert’s brand. Her latest hit “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, is yet another effort to assert female power by drinking as hard and being as bad as the baddest man in town. But is matching men drink for drink and punch for punch really the only avenue available for women who want to be taken seriously in country music?
Many responded to the Isla Vista shootings by pointing out that misogyny hurts men as well as women. This excellent graphic art captures how problematic it is to associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. When it comes to taking a jab at a man, Lambert has some impressively emasculating zingers. In “Hurts to Think” she sings, “you’ll never be half the man your mama is,” a brilliant two-for that praises a woman’s strength by diminishing a man’s. But while lines like this might seem refreshing to female listeners who are tired of the same old weepy “I can’t live without a man” bit, we have to stop and admit that these sentiments aren’t helping anyone demonstrate strength. When we allow these destructive, misogynist sentiments to become part of the ether of our everyday lives, we encourage a culture that tolerates and perpetuates the cycle of violence between men and women.
I know some will argue these are “just songs,” or “just fantasies,” and therefore their content is not meant to be taken seriously. But it is a serious matter when everywhere you look in country music, you see men and women embracing attitudes toward each other that, well, just ain’t right. I’m picking on Farr and Lambert in particular, but they’re not alone. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” cites a man’s inability to keep it in his pants as justification for property destruction, and frankly I have a hard time finding Scotty McCreery’s uninvited arrival at a woman’s home late at night to be as friendly as I’m sure he means it to be. The list goes on.
And yet: these songs come on the radio, and more often than I care to admit, I turn it up. It’s confusing to be a socially progressive woman with an addiction to country music. I’m just as guilty as anyone who ever declared “Blurred Lines” is a creepy tune while bopping along to it anyway. I don’t want to stop listening to country—for one thing, ignoring it isn’t going to make the industry’s misogyny problem go away. So I’ll keep listening, but I’m going to start talking, too, with my fellow country music fans about why these songs are not okay. Maybe if enough of us speak out, the artists I admire like Miranda Lambert will follow Maddie and Tae’s brave lead and find more empowering and less violent ways to make country music a better place for women and men to showcase their strengths and successes. Until then, I’ll keep struggling with the decision to turn it up, or turn it off.
Liz Egan earned her MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2014, and served as Fiction Editor of So to Speak 2013-2014. Currently Liz is a co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press that is a project of Fall for the Book and the George Mason MFA program. She lives near Jackson, Mississippi, where she teaches writing and works as Writing Center Coordinator at Millsaps College.
Filed under: Music, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists
The following is a guest post by Sheryl Rivett, George Mason University MFA Fiction student and StS 2013-2014 Blog Editor.
During the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies, my mother referred to herself as a “feminist.” She was a schoolteacher, a mother of three, and the daughter of an educated, single mother who had divorced her first husband in 1945, despite public shunning in the Catholic community where she was raised and despite the cultural expectation that women were to stay in their marriages. Feminism didn’t fall far from the tree. When Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” topped the charts in the seventies, my mother and her friends, all college-educated women who were juggling work and family and cultural chauvinism, would gather in their living rooms to dance and sing the Reddy lyrics at the top of their lungs.
When I attended college in the late eighties, feminism was the last thing with which I wanted to identify. I wanted to be anything BUT like my mother. In fact, I remember raising my hand in Public Communication and asking my professor, “I don’t understand what the big deal is about words. I don’t care if we say MANkind, or “man” for woman.” By the end of that class, my eyes were open to the reality of the power of language, of the nuances of word choices, and the inherent misogyny in the cultural rhetoric. By the end of my undergraduate education, I would understand the importance of feminist theory, whether male or female, white or black, gay or straight.
A year ago, my oldest daughter started her freshman year of college at a private, all-girls school, known for its progressive academics and culture. Leaving the relative stability of a middle-class upbringing in a small town in Virginia, where most families looked like hers, she entered a new world on the college campus. Feminism was a word used proudly and liberally, it was the vogue ideal to ascribe to, and she saw freshman girls acting out their ideas of feminism in ways that didn’t match what her feminist mother had modeled during her childhood: working for equality in women’s healthcare, lobbying for choice in maternity care settings and providers, supporting and fighting for marginalized populations. She arrived home confused, uncomfortable and uneasy with feminism. I struggled in those moments, feeling as if generations of strong women who came before me were staring at me, waiting for the proper response, waiting for me to give voice to the importance of all their hard work, their sacrifices, their need to be heard.
As we talked, I reminded her that when a person has felt oppressed or silenced that it’s natural to feel anger, to strike out and act out, and that being a feminist was not about imitation and what was in vogue, but about being true to yourself and your sense of personal power. I explained that even among feminists, there can be divides. Radical feminism is the outgrowth of years of women, often lesbian women, feeling silenced and marginalized. Radical feminism was an enthusiastic, sometimes angry and sometimes joyful, expression of a marginalized population for which feminism was a necessary outlet—and they advocated for radical social upheaval as a necessary end. But, radical feminism is not what all feminism is about. It co-exists with liberal feminism, which is considered the more moderate feminist thought, a movement that advocates for political and social equality. What was happening on her campus was not necessarily political feminism, but actually typical teen and young adult behavior – a wide range of experimentation and a stretching of boundaries.
Over the weekend, we talked about feminism at length. Sitting on her bed, listening to her worries and concerns, I thought about my great-great-great grandmother who locked her husband, a physician, out of the birthing room, so that she could birth on her own terms with the African-American midwife; about my great-great-grandmother who stood up in a town meeting to give a speech about illegal moonshine and the effects of alcoholism on women and children; about my great-grandmother who was widowed at a young age and who sewed baseballs for a living so that she could send her daughters to college; about my grandmother who had a college education and economic independence and who divorced her first husband and embraced single motherhood for more than seven years in the 1940s and 1950s; about my mother who danced in the living room with her friends to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and I thought about the day that I told the vice president of a large corporation that there was no amount of money or title that she could give me to make up for the time that I wanted to have with my daughter when I chose to stay at home and leave my career. These were the stories that I wanted most to tell her about. This matrilineal line, these women who she came from, they were all feminists in their own way—facing life on their own terms and finding their voice. I told her finally, whatever choices you make, if you make them on your own terms and with full agency, then that is what feminism is about.
by Jill Leininger
“The word is more sincere than concrete, so words are not trifles. Once noble people mobilize, their words will crush concrete.”–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were held without bail for their February 21, 2012 protest performance in the Christ the Savior Cathedral after the election of Vladmir Putin. On March 3rd, they were arrested. On August 17th, they were found guilty. Here is a summary of the protest in their words:
“The fact that Christ the Savior Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers-that-be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former [KGB] colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Savior Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power [in Russia]…Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Out’ violated the integrity of this media image, generated and maintained by the authorities for so long, and revealed its falsity.” From Yekaterina Samutsevich’s (Katya’s) closing statement at the trial, August 8, 2012 Video here.
“I thought the church loves all its children, but it appears that the church only loves those who vote for Putin,” said Maria Alekhina (Masha). Read more in Masha Lipman’s New Yorker article.
“[We are not happy with] the enforced civic passivity of the bulk of the population or the complete domination of executive structures over the legislature and judiciary.” from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s (Nadia’s) closing statement, August 8, 2012 Read more. Video here.
If you’ve read the statements in full, you’ll know that the women chose not to use their precious opportunity to speak in order to plead for mercy but rather to continue to try and forge understanding of their intentions and discontent. After being held for four months without a single hearing, they used it as a platform for continued protest, raising questions about their unjust persecution and the systems that were allowing it.
The strength of these women is inspiring. Even though they expected the guilty sentence, they claim victory despite it.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Russian media is calling the women’s speech both childish and naïve—and one need only look at the comment fields in the blogosphere to see that the urge to put these women back in their obedient ballerina boxes is a very real and pervasive force, and one that exists regardless of national and political circumstance.
For a slice of the local anger, just check out the level of discussion after Amnesty International’s DC rally in support of Pussy Riot; reactions range from ogling the women protesters to calling the international outcry for a fair trial “ridiculous.” And the comments on David Remnick’s New Yorker article aren’t much better. One of his readers responded “Must we care?”
I’m reposting some of these links because I think we have as much to learn from our culture’s response to provocative protest as we do from the action itself. The flurry of online posts alternately makes Pussy Riot into saints and prostitutes. (Even Sarah Nicole Prickett’s article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, which challenges Western nations’ apathy to protest directly and eloquently, called the women’s courtroom statements “art-house torture porn.”)
Of course, it must be said that their plight has been amplified through several celebrity fist-pumps, including the much-publicized Madonna body stencil. Less famous artists are also staging their own performances in support: British playwright EV Crowe staged readings of the court testimonies at the Royal Court the day the verdict was announced.
Crowe is quoted in the Guardian as saying: “What Pussy Riot does is take a stand, through art, and then maximize its impact through social media. They are women who make me want to understand the world I’m living in, to write about it, and to be brave whatever the cost.”
Nadia, Masha and Katya were sentenced to 2 years in prison and the potential loss of custody of their children. For 51 seconds of protest. On a charge of “hooliganism” and blasphemy.
Yet they continue to demonstrate the power of language as a vital force for feminism and change. “Let us enter into dialogue and contact with the country, which is ours too, not just Putin’s and the Patriarch’s,” said Nadia in her closing statement. “Like Solzhenitsyn, I believe that in the end, words will crush concrete.”
Note from Blog Editor, Sheila M
Balance out the cruel voices demeaning women’s rights, international human rights, and political art by adding YOUR strong, feminist voice to the blogosphere. Copy and paste, edit, revise, add more to the sentences below and take part in the conversation about Pussy Riot on any website you see an unequal tilt against supportive voices. We don’t have to be mean or rude in our comments, but we have to be smart.
I am a feminist and believe in the right to participate in peaceful forms of free speech. I support the actions of Pussy Riot. The verdict against them is unfair and ignores human rights. Not only is this judgement and backlash against Pussy Riot violence against human rights, it is violence against women. And no matter where these women live, women everywhere, all over the world, feel the negative repercussions. The women in Pussy Riot are strong examples of intelligent, innovative, and brave people who have risked and given so much to demand fair and equal treatment.