Both Sides, Now! – How Women are Denied Universal Appeal as Songwriters
We can look at examples from everyday life to unpack what being female means in our society. Think of the phrase ‘one of the lads’, which is frequently used as a compliment toward women. What does it mean? It means a woman who has a beer with the boys without being too girly or feminine. She may even burp and talk about sex. Bottom line: she is not affected in any way. She is not fake. She is … more like a man. Would a man ever take ‘one of the girls’ as compliment? In the vast majority of cases nothing could be more of an insult. It would imply femininity and gossipy superficiality. How many times have we heard the term ‘she’s good-looking but she knows it’? The implication here is that women should be beautiful yet exist in some kind of childlike state of innocence in regards to their beauty and how it affects others. Once she has awareness she is conceited, manipulative, attention-seeking, superficial, pathetic.
Men demand that women be natural and unaffected, and nowhere more so than in the world of music. But in this context what does natural and unaffected mean? It means women should be more like men (normal), or conform to male ideals of what they imagine natural and unaffected looks like. Do men see a cocky, good-looking male singer as being unnatural? Absolutely not, as long as they don’t indulge in too many traits of femininity. They are simply being real, strutting their stuff, indulging in some masculine bravado. The average man has no need to question this masculinity as they themselves see it as natural and good.
Being a man simply is: women on the other hand complain about being objectified then they go and wear a nice dress and wear their hair in an alluring fashion to attract men’s attention – what’s that about? If a guy wears a nice suit, or gets a tattoo, or a fashionable haircut, or wears clothes that aren’t sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, well that’s completely natural and not some desperate attempt at attention seeking. Women on the other hand, well they’re always trying to be noticed! What’s going on here is that the male view of things becomes, de facto, the universal view, to the point where women are sometimes conflicted about what they wear and what the purpose of it is. Do men go through this torture? Not even for a second because maleness is natural and doesn’t need to be questioned. I realise that this subject has been tackled a million times over by more learned writers than me, but I still hear and read comments regarding women that comply with the ones I mention above on an almost daily basis. So something isn’t getting through.
If being a woman is viewed with such scrutiny in the patriarchal world, it stands to reason that women songwriters and performers will forever be denied universal appeal as they are merely dealing with ‘female’ concerns. When a writer says that Joni Mitchell is, “The most important and influential female recording artist” the sentence is weighed down with preconceived ideas of what being a female means, and what being a female artist means. The author instead could have taken a chance and said, “The most important and influential recording artist” and gone on to make a case that Mitchell showed both stylistic and lyrical superiority to Dylan in her folk years, that her subsequent embrace of more jazz-influenced sounds represented a more radical leap than anything attempted by Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, and that songs such as ‘The Jungle Line’ and ‘Shadows and Light’ to this day remain challenging and unorthodox. The author could have put their heart and soul on the line and actually risked enraging and engaging their audience, but instead they took the easy way out and limited Joni Mitchell to ‘most important female’. Now before anyone complains that there’s nothing wrong with being an important female (there isn’t) it needs to be pointed out that in the context of a patriarchal society terms like ‘important female artist’ are very damaging, for all the reasons listed above. When maleness stops being the norm against which all behaviours are measured is the moment when statements like ‘important female artist’ will stop being limiting.