This is where I'd ordinarily do my book reporting, but I actually didn't read any full novels in June this year. I know; pre~tty weird! Today was my mother's birthday and in celebration we went out as a family to watch All's Well That Ends Well
at Bard on the Beach, which really is a lot more palatable if you read Helena de Narbon as a mad scientist throughout.
A couple of weeks ago I got Tori Amos' first album, Little Earthquakes
, which is amazing and harrowing both in ways suggested but unmatched by her later records I'd heard. (I've been a Tori Amos fan since I was, like, ten; how did I go so long without hearing this? But there is so much important music I haven't sought out even yet.) It's been making me think, among other things, about the ethics and politics of cross-gender musical covers. Tori is known for these
, although there aren't any on this album in particular. As a class, I really like them, the curious* tension in hearing somebody sing about a gendered experience which is at odds with the way I'm inclined to interpret their voice, and I've often thought of doing some myself, if I ever become a musician in some more proper sense; Noe Venable's "Prettiness", say, or Ani DiFranco's "Two Little Girls", which I really like to sing. The trouble is that the relationship between genders isn't symmetrical. Men in art historically have done a lot more of being allowed to speak for themselves, and women have done a lot more of being spoken for or otherwise relegated to the third or second person. So while both ways it can do some really interesting work of redefinition, when women sing men there is a natural weight towards that redefinition's being subversive, whereas when men sing women the natural weight is towards its being an appropriative act of erasure. And there are similar issues of sexism it would also be hazardous to ignore. Track two of Little Earthquakes
has a refrain that goes, "She's been everybody else's girl; maybe one day she'll be her own." I really can't think of a way for a man's voice to sing this without adding an element of dismissive paternalistic judgement.
(* Or, to use a synonym that also has an appropriate technical meaning, 'queer'.)
I had a related experience a while ago with the Bikini Kill song "Rebel Girl"
. When I discovered it I really liked it, and fantasized a bunch about performing it and dedicating it to people, because I thought it captured something of how I felt about a lot of my female friends, and how I'd approached befriending them at least in my head. Later, I saw a documentary about the Riot Grrrl movement and how the scene was in part a conscious attempt to create a feminist safe space in response to the misogynistic character of a lot of punk shows the principals had frequented, and looking at the song in this light I realized that it was quite obviously an anthem specifically of female solidarity, which I had managed to completely overlook before because my immediate response to it was to overwrite it with the blithe interpolation of my masculine self.
Some time after that I was talking to a friend about this and I said something pretty similar to that last sentence, and she asked me why I didn't try using my feminine self instead, which was interesting because it bespoke a whole paradigm of gender that I'd kind of forgot existed, the whole new-agey thing (not a pejorative) where certain energies and characteristics are coded 'male' or 'female', and everyone has both and although they are generally encouraged to consider the ones aligned with their sex assigned at birth to be predominant, you're sort of incomplete if you haven't accepted and incorporated both. I can see how this is appealing, and why my friend thought that it might help soothe or even solve my difficulty (and I should clarify that I totally think the differences between men and women cultural or otherwise are not enough to prevent us from being allies, in feminism or any other arena! Well, except maybe misogyny. Hopefully that's all obvious). I find it personally dissatisfying for a few reasons, including A) that it's weirdly essentialist, taking genders to be absolute and universal categories that persist in roughly the same way over time to such a degree that even being a characteristic possessed by a woman is not enough to make it a female characteristic, and really I think of gender stuff as being way more constructed and mutable than that and would prefer ways of talking and thinking about it that reflect this; and B) it allows guys who are being called on their privilege to obfuscate by going like, no, you see, I'm in touch with my feminine side, so really to claim that I have male privilege is limiting and denies this whole aspect of myself!
No, actually, even if we accept this paradigm then people who are treated (and primarily conceive themselves) as men still have an ethical obligation to grapple with our privilege, because regardless of what qualities we have on the inside we're still members of the male political
category, which is, yeah, kind of raised up relative to people who don't fall into it (though the intersection of other oppressions can complicate things). It's like, recently I've been realizing that my sexuality is, like everyone's, very weird and specific, and that the fact that it can be subsumed into the notion of 'heterosexuality' in its broad shape has actually been pretty limiting to me, because it caused me to assume that it was
heterosexuality, this uniform thing that I shared with all the other straight people, which meant that I spent a lot of energy rationalizing some of the things specific to me in ways that didn't actually help me understand them at all. But the fact that I'm starting to identify as straight only in a pretty qualified way, and to recognise how heterosexism has actually harmed me personally, doesn't mean that I don't have straight privilege. Since I'm a cisgendered man whose attractions are mainly to women, I have a whole bunch of it whatever I call myself, and it continues to behoove me to recognise that.
So, yeah, I'm not sure what I'll do if I'm ever actually performing music on a regular basis. In the meantime I have an eye infection and it really itches, so I'm going to post this and then put some drops in it in lieu of just shoving my finger in there, which my willpower assures me I am not supposed to do.