(Erin is recovering from the flu so I’m posting this on her behalf. KH)
It’s been noted by a number of bloggers, (including myself) just how male-dominated the field of Beatles historiography is. Every major work in the Beatles canon, including but not limited to those by authors such as Davies, Norman, MacDonald, and Lewisohn, were written by males. This male domination goes back to the band’s earliest days, when the interviews the band provided were almost unerringly granted to male journalists, because that one gender dominated both the field of journalism in general and the rock journalist profession almost entirely. This one-sided perspective becomes even more difficult to reconcile given the apparent gender equity of Beatles audiences and fans, both then and now; unlike the Rolling Stones, the Beatles were a band that, by most estimates, had a fan base that was at least fifty percent female.
This exclusively male-filtered perspective on the Beatles and their music – and its very real consequences on how the band’s story has been and continues to be told — is one that is only starting to receive serious, sustained discussion. Indeed, for me, the highlights of Womack’s “New Critical Perspectives” are the essays by author Kit O’Toole (“She Said/She Said,”) and Katie Kapurch, (“The Beatles Girl Culture and the Melodramatic Mode,”) which focus on this long overlooked demographic: examining the role of the female fan with insight and acknowledgement rather than condescension or dismissal.
Kapurch’s essay takes a look at how the Beatles’ use of predominantly feminine associated art forms and methods such as melodrama and “girl-group” discourse helped popularize them with their female fans, and allowed female fans to self-identify with the band.
O’Toole rightly notes how it was the female fans who helped catapult the Beatles to fame and legend, in no small part by their impassioned responses and “buying the records in droves,” and that, when the powers that be finally acknowledged the Beatles’ talent, they did so while insulting and sidelining the band’s previous fans and largest demographic. When the male-dominated press reported on the band, their descriptions of female fans ran the gamut from insulting – one news report, showing an impassioned Beatles female audience, intoned “does it disturb you to realize that these girls will soon become mothers?” – to condescending and dismissive. In his 2008 biography of John, author Philip Norman argues that, while the majority of female fans preferred Paul – presumably for his looks – the thoughtful, intellectual and predominantly male fans preferred John as their favorite Beatle.
In “She Said/She Said,” O’Toole quotes Sheryl Garratt’s essay ‘Teenage Dreams,’ about the widespread dismissal of female teenaged infatuations: “What the press or any of the self-appointed analysts of ‘popular culture’ fail to reflect is that the whole pop structure rests on the back of these ‘silly, screaming girls.” Female Beatles author Candy Leonard argues that the stereotype of the hysterical female fan was a crucial factor in denying females a place at the males only Beatles historiography table: “If you look at fan images from fifty years ago, they are 99% female, but today, 99% of the ‘experts’ are male. So there’s a disconnect. The hysterical girl fan became a caricature …the legacy of those images today is the perception that women can’t have anything intelligent to say about the Beatles, their music, or the phenomenon.” O’Toole notes the growing amount of female voices on the band, but her list only includes approximately 8 women. Whether female voices were purposefully or unintentionally sidelined, there is little denying O’Toole’s and Kapurch’s argument that the female perspective – on the band’s history, on their own fan experiences, on music criticism – has been, and for the moment continues to be, overlooked.
Addendum: When Erin and I discussed this post, I emailed her with these thoughts:
- The dismissal of female fans, obviously, goes hand in hand with the dismissal of females in general, and the preeminence of “logic and reason” (presumably male traits) over emotion and feeling (presumably female traits.) In some articles I’ve read, the reasons for the screaming was related to freedom from societal control, but I think it’s more than that. In other articles I’ve read, the reasons for the screaming was considered to be a “throwback”to female mating behaviour. This latter theory sounds more plausible to me.
- It would be interesting to explore why female fans react the way they do in the first place, vis a vis the above. In other words, what primitive elements drive the nature of their response? Why do males manifest their worshipping behaviour (for lack of a better phrase) so differently than females?
What say you, commentators?
13 thoughts on “New Critical Perspectives, Part II: The Female in Beatles’ Fandom”
The lack of female voices in published Beatles historiography is disturbing yet reflective of the lack of female voices in music historiography as a whole. (It’s also an issue that’s been raised in jazz criticism, in rap historiography, etc. not just rock). I feel like it has a lot of roots not just in gender, but in clique-ishness. The Baby Boomer dominance of rock criticism in the late 60’s/early 70’s was a relatively small group of (largely male) writers who made writing about rock music a Serious Art, then proceeded to gatekeep for the next 20-30 years. As the Baby Boomers have died off/retired, we’ve seen a lot of re-evaluations that have shed a light just on how insular those pioneering critics could be: the same people lauded over and over, the same people used as scapegoats, rather than looking at their work as objective pieces of art. Not coincidentally, the artists lionized were often friends of the critics. How many times have the jokes been made about Jann Wenner’s close friendship with Mick Jagger that has guaranteed the Rolling Stones and Mick’s solo work have never gotten even lukewarm coverage in Rolling Stone?
I feel like that coziness was something new – in film criticism, for example (full disclosure that I know more about film than music) there is more commonly a wary, if not outright antagonistic, relationship between critics and filmmakers. There are some exceptions (Roger Ebert’s friendship with Martin Scorsese comes to mind) but those are rare and come with disclaimers (Ebert was always careful to not let friendship come into his critique of Scorsese’s films, sometimes to the latter’s chagrin).
We see that in the Beatles with the differing treatments of John and Paul’s solo work in the 70’s. There’s an argument that Paul being the more “feminine” one – and valuing feminine coded things like family, melodies, romance – is a reason he got harsher criticism than John. That certainly may be part of it, but also I think it was due to John being available to that first generation of critics when Paul was not.
I’m rambling, because it’s late here and I’m due for bed. I don’t want to sound like I’m disagreeing with the post, because I’m not, and there is definitely sexism at play. I’m just not sure how to separate it from the general issues of gender disparity in the study of history as a whole. I do think music historiography has it worse than many other historical fields in terms of a gender gap, but why?
Aside from the issue of how to see female fans, what I think makes the gender gap in Beatles historiography galling to me is that there’s a resultant lack of consideration to the women in the Beatles story. I’ve written over and over about the treatment of Mary and Julia, so I’ll spare you all a repeat. But you also have the male writers’ treatment of Mimi, Linda and of COURSE Yoko. Which recent biographer of Paul’s was it who just went on and on, for example, about Linda’s sex life pre-Paul? He estimated she had had as many as 20 sex partners before marrying Paul, and he was positively scandalized over that (while giving Paul imaginary high-fives for his 2,000 or so estimated partners).
“The lack of female voices in published Beatles historiography is disturbing yet reflective of the lack of female voices in music historiography as a whole.”
O’Toole mentions that as well, discussing an article written by female music reviewers — many of them from the 90’s onwards — who had to struggle and prove their credentials again and again in such a male-dominated field.
“There’s an argument that Paul being the more “feminine” one – and valuing feminine coded things like family, melodies, romance – is a reason he got harsher criticism than John. That certainly may be part of it, but also I think it was due to John being available to that first generation of critics when Paul was not.”
I think both of those issues — the common description of Paul as the ‘feminine’ Beatle — as Richard Corliss described: “He was cute, coquettish; almost the girl of the group” — and John’s courting of the press and rock critics during that first crucial breakup-era phase, are subjects that deserve serious, sustained research and attention.
On John’s relationship with critics: I remember being stunned when I actually sat down and did the research and realized that, during the breakup period, John and Yoko’s amount of interviews actually outnumbered Paul’s amount 5:1. The image of Paul the P.R. man (at least during that time period) was so ingrained, so ubiquitous, and so very, very wrong. It was John who spent the breakup period schmoozing with rock’s gatekeepers: Wenner, Christgau, The Village Voice, and other rock journalists, like McCabe and Flippo. Paul didn’t schmooze, certainly not to the extent that John did.
“I’m just not sure how to separate it from the general issues of gender disparity in the study of history as a whole. I do think music historiography has it worse than many other historical fields in terms of a gender gap, but why?”
I understand: the initial post was trying to suss out a topic that is clearly very complex and interwoven with many different issues. There is the broader issue of male-dominated music historiography; there’s the narrower issue of Beatles male-dominated historiography; there’s the dismissive and patronizing language used to describe female fans in both the rock press overall and by certain specific Beatles writers. There’s the use of language, which diminishes the value of certain songs by assigning them feminine associated traits — dismissing beautiful ballads as ‘sentimental’ or ‘schmaltzy.’ (I’m in the midst of reading Schafner’s 1978 work “The Beatles Forever,” and he is egregiously and repeatedly guilty of this; so much so that I have been reluctant to finish the book). Ultimately, the underlying message of much of rock journalism and some parts of Beatles historiography is that ‘masculine’ associated personality and musical traits: honesty, aggressiveness, hardness, are superior traits, while more feminine associated traits: prettiness, sentimentality, melodrama, sentiment — are ‘inferior.’ Also, that female Beatles fans were/are less intelligent than male fans; all you need to do is point at those images of shrieking concert-going girls . Now, these issues — the devaluing language used to describe females and female associated traits — obviously aren’t exclusive to Beatles historiography and fandom.
“what I think makes the gender gap in Beatles historiography galling to me is that there’s a resultant lack of consideration to the women in the Beatles story.”
Absolutely. You win the internet for the day. 🙂
We’ve discussed Mary and Julia, as you’ve said, but that’s only really scratched the surface. There’s little effort by so many male writers to portray or consider things from the woman’s perspective. Here’s the pattern I have observed, overall, with the depiction of females in Beatles writing. 1. Either pitting them against one another (Cynthia vs. Yoko, Julia vs. Mimi, Jane vs. Linda, Linda vs. Yoko) and picking their favorite while bashing the other — Coleman, Norman, etc). 2. Demonstrating their own anti-chauvinist credentials by blindly accepting everything Yoko says and/or blaming all of her negative press and all of the tensions caused by Yoko’s presence on George, Paul and Ringo’s chauvinism — Wenner, Coleman, Norman (at least before the Paul bio) and Kane or 3. Demonstrating what we would regard today as writing that applies sexual double standards, patronizing language, unbalanced moral judgements, and spurious evidence in order to demonize or criticize the females involved (Goldman, McCabe, at times, Flippo, Sounes). But there’s very real little effort to understand how these events looked from the female perspective; to approach their views with empathy or even simply common sense.
Even some of the memoirs play into this. Danny Fields’s memoirs of Linda includes the section where he complains about how she went off to England and then didn’t contact/communicate with him enough for approximately a year or two. Danny blames this on Paul, and on the Eastman’s, and on the fact that many of Linda’s friends were part of the rock scene, and perhaps the Eastman’s and Paul had urged Linda not to discuss Beatles issues — because of all the legal stuff — outside of the family. Well and good; its reasonable speculation. What appears to have entirely slipped Danny’s mind is that Linda had a newborn baby in that time period. Which meant she was averaging (if she was lucky) six hours of sleep a night; feeding, diapering, monitoring, while also dealing with Heather (who was six/seven) and a Paul was who was slowly dissolving into a nervous breakdown. No wonder she didn’t call him more often! When my babies were newborns, I went weeks without talking to anyone on the phone! I was tired, exhausted, and didn’t see the point in starting a conversation because the instant I got into one, the baby would start fussing. I had 10,000 other things to do that had to be done. Being Linda McCartney, she probably had 20,000. No wonder she didn’t contact Danny!
“Which recent biographer of Paul’s was it who just went on and on, for example, about Linda’s sex life pre-Paul? He estimated she had had as many as 20 sex partners before marrying Paul, and he was positively scandalized over that (while giving Paul imaginary high-fives for his 2,000 or so estimated partners).”
That was Sounes. He trotted out the old ‘groupie’ epithet for Linda, wrote adoringly about Jane (another Jane vs. Linda author) and, yes, semi-criticized Linda for her sexual history whilst semi-congratulating Paul on his far, far larger number of sexual partners. (Where did you get the 2,000 figure? I’ve seen 5-600 bartered around for Paul before, but 2000!!!?) Yeesh.
“There’s an argument that Paul being the more “feminine” one – and valuing feminine coded things like family, melodies, romance – is a reason he got harsher criticism than John.”
An addendum to my previous reply to this, Rose: I recently finished Schafner’s “The Beatles Forever,” from 1978, and he mentions how the themes of “Ram,” family, home, romance,” etc. — are also the same things that, in the early 1970s, caused the rock press to label Paul as bourgeoisie and, therefore, the enemy. Those same qualities that identified Paul as bourgeoisie also identify him as ‘feminine.’ Whereas countercultural, of course, equals masculine.
I’ll review Schafner’s book later on; its a fascinating read that, for its time, is impressive, but is now littered with errors of interpretation and fact, and undoubtedly propped up a few key points of the “Lennon Remembers” narrative.
Some more thoughts, Karen and everyone…
During my flu-recovery time, by a happy coincidence, I finally managed to get my library’s copy of the “Eight Days a Week” documentary, and I watched and took notes on it. A few months ago, I got a hold of the 1981/1982 “The Compleat Beatles” documentary, and, of course, I’ve seen “Anthology.” A more complete analysis of all those docs might come later in the future, but here’s one observation: the “Eight Days a Week” video documentary is the only one of those three to offer any female “talking heads.”
There are no women in “The Compleat Beatles,” (And I mean that not only in the “talking heads sense: they don’t mention Cynthia Lennon once in that entire documentary) and, famously, there are none in Anthology. Yet what struck me is that the women they did have in the “Eight Days a Week” documentary were not presented as authorities but rather for their personal reflections. Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg, and an African/American female historian (whose name I can’t recall off the top of my head) were the three women who discussed the Beatles touring years. But they did so solely from the personal/emotional POV: what it felt like to go to a Beatles concert. How Beatles music made them feel. How the Beatles transformed their life. Well and good; valuable and interesting, and after watching their perspectives I did not understand at all the Whoopi bashing that I saw on other forums. Yet, you had men — Malcolm Gladwell, Howard Goodall, and others — discussed the sociological aspects of the touring. Its impact on the band’s unity and music. They were instructing viewers on the accepted interpretation of the band; where the female talking heads were talking about how the Beatles made them feel. The male talking heads were depicted as intellectual authorities: the female talking heads were depicted as fans. And I don’t think that was deliberate; I don’t consider it a vast male conspiracy; I simply think its worth noting.
More thoughts; than I have to get to actual work:
As for Karen’s question: “In other words, what primitive elements drive the nature of their response? Why do males manifest their worshipping behaviour (for lack of a better phrase) so differently than females?”
Perhaps I’m comparing apples and oranges, but whenever I see the general dismissal of female Beatlemania because of its emotion/irrational behavior/hysteria, all I can think of is the male fan’s reaction to sports. The reaction of female Beatles fans — the obsession, the posters, the screaming, the paraphernalia, the hundreds of hours of spent obsessing — the totally irrational beliefs inherent in fandom — all those emotional, irrational, aspects are wholly part of being a sports fanatic. I say this as a dyed in the wool, die-hard NFL Kansas City Chiefs fan who has not missed watching/listening to a game in 23 years. (Seriously. This Sunday I will be either euphoric or devastated, depending on whether they win or lose in the Divisional Playoff Round). Male sports fans obsess; they react emotionally; they are ridiculously superstitious, they scream, they yell, they stomp, they dance. But that fan behavior is celebrated in sports, rather than diminished; it’s a demonstration of a fan’s loyalty. So in a masculine dominated arena (sports) whose authorities and gatekeepers are dominated by males, and reported by a male-dominated press, its okay to act that way. Can you imagine a newsreel from the 1960s showing a football stadium of yelling, stomping adolescent boys at a football game with a voiceover declaring ominously: “Does it disturb you to know that in a few short years, these boys will be fathers?” But when its females displaying similar behavior over pop music — when its girls pursuing boys, and when its a male press portraying and reporting on those girls — that behavior is irrational. It’s a demonstration of unintelligence, or herd mentality.
Absolutely. That glaring dismissal of the female persective as anything other than a sharing of feelings borders on the obscene.
I think there is a difference, though. Sports fandom solicit a different reaction. In fact, female fans at sports events respond pretty much the same way as men to. Sports doesn’t solicit adoration– it solicits competition. The herd mentality, as you so aptly put it.
Celebrities, particularly performers, solicit adoration. Females respond differently to that solicitation than do males. Even in the day of the sex pot–Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, etc–the men at their performances hoot and holler and make cat calls, but that’s it. The closest they come to in terms of obsession and adoration is putting a sexy pin-up on their wall.
I think there is a genetic predisposition at work re the reaction of female fans, aside from how society interprets and or dismisses those reactions, of course.
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“Absolutely. That glaring dismissal of the female persective as anything other than a sharing of feelings borders on the obscene.”
And yet, its a self-perpetuating cycle, because what female Beatles authorities could you turn to to offer a perspective that doesn’t simply share their feelings, when there really aren’t any? If you’re a documentary film maker, and you want a Beatles female talking head to take a discuss some academic/intellectual aspect of the band, who springs to mind? Candy Leonard, perhaps. Despite her protests, Jude Kessler’s “Lennon” books and authority are always going to be impacted by the reality that her work is viewed as historical fiction. In O’Toole’s essay, as I said, she lists the emergence of female Beatles authors, but there are only eight, (including Leonoard and Kessler) and many of those writers were writing memoirs, not studies. If, as a documentary film maker you wanted to go to a female music critic or musicologist for their interpretation of Beatles music, who would/could you go to?
Thanks for the clarification on the Sports/Celebrity comparison.
‘”Females respond differently to that solicitation than do males.”
What would you say the primary difference is? What’s striking to me is how much of the male adoration seems to focus on self-identifying/projecting/envying the celebrity. We see this with male rock writers, such as Christgau or Wenner, who convinced themselves that they would have been best friends with John, or who loathed Paul’s choice of Linda because, given Paul’s looks/wealth/fame, Linda was not the sexual choice that they, the fan, would have made in those circumstances. We certainly see that self-projection in the intro to Norman’s new Paul bio.
I think that’s the difference: males identify with the celebrity while the female subjugates herself to the celebrity.
In the day of Beatlemania, it was said that boys wanted to be a Beatle; girls wanted to marry one. John Lennon once said that he became a musician because, as a young boy, he watched all the girls go ape over Elvis, and thought to himself “that’s a good job.”
So males emulate the rock and roll role model because a) the role models are usually male anyway, and b) the role model has the social status and the related rewards (girls, money, etc) society covets for its male members. On the other hand, girls see the male role model and see, well, a male–not someone she can become, but a fantasy partner, someone from whom she can borrow social status and claim it as her own. Groupies are a great example of this type of thing. Most girls simply did not think that they could claim social rewards through direct means–it had to come through their relationship to a male.
“I think that’s the difference: males identify with the celebrity while the female subjugates herself to the celebrity.”
Thank you. That distinction explains so much about fandom, and the psychological attachment of males vs. females to bands/music/etc.
For me, the question posed by that inherent distinction then — identification for males, subjugation for females — is how has this difference impacted Beatles history and Beatles historiography? With a male-dominated historiography, that means that that self-identification factor has been pretty much the only view we’ve been given on the band and its members. Certainly, as I mentioned above, we have enough evidence to argue that it has impacted how the band’s story has been told, esp. in the breakup era. That self-identification, coupled with the Lennon vs. McCartney split, coupled with the breakup-era politics — the “straights” (Paul) vs. the anti-establishment (John) — of the time period and of the rock press is a potent recipe for hyper and enduring partisanship.
So what can female authors add to the historiographical mix? I believe that second-generation authors and fans can add a layer of objectivity, in part because they lack that personal attachment to specific memories/events, but if you translate Beatles historiography through a lens of subjugation, rather than self-identification, how does that alter interpretations? At the very least, it could hopefully add another layer of objectivity and personal distance.
Interesting question. Maybe the antecedent here is whether the identification/ subjugation dichotomy is inevitable; there are certainly elements of bias in each.
Like alot of other young girls in the 60’s, I was an adoring female fan but never saw myself as a fantasy partner (well not exclusively, at any rate.) I was also like those hoards of male followers who watched the Beatles and, in the words of John Lennon, thought “that’s a good job” (although I utterly lack musical talent and so ended my career as rock idol before it even began. 🙂 )
I wonder if and how age plays a role. Norman et. al. were young men during the time of Beatlemania and their entrance into fandom; would they have become more objective biographers had they been older?
“I wonder if and how age plays a role. Norman et. al. were young men during the time of Beatlemania and their entrance into fandom; would they have become more objective biographers had they been older?”
I would theorize they would have demonstrated greater objectivity, had they been older, both for personal and political reasons. Part of Norman’s self-identification with Paul goes to their similar ages, perhaps if there had been more of an age-gap between them, Norman wouldn’t have self-identified so much, and felt so betrayed when the breakup occurred. And much of the rock and roll reaction during the breakup had to do with the clash of generations: there was a very ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality, in which the older generations were regarded as the ‘establishment’ and ‘straights,’ so that anything they liked was regarded as tainted and inauthentic. The younger generation – the young, 20-something rock and roll reporters — embraced that narrative, in part because it was one which served their own interests. While I assume older journalists would not have promoted it as much.
Also (speaking with the vast life experience of a 35 year old) age can, hopefully, develop in an individual an amount of empathy and objectivity that simply isn’t present in the adolescent/20’s. You do Coleman, at least, softening his bias in his bios of John as Coleman aged, although I don’t know how much of that was due to any increased amount of objectivity, or due to his realization that the Shout! narrative was crumbling. (Or due to Paul’s willingness to be interviewed).
Interestingly, you also have female fans who demonstrate the same ‘black and white’ views of things: 1969 era, Linda is EVIL and then admittedly develop a more objective understanding with time and experience. There’s a great obit for Linda from a female fan/reporter where the writer notes this very issue and apologizes for how she and other females treated Linda; the obit kicks off with a great, unforgettable line: “Did you hate her too, when she married Paul?”
I realize this is an old entry (I’m going through the archives and all comments!) but it’s hit the sweet spot where my interests intersect: first, a longstanding interest in female fandom and its treatment by society at large, and currently, Beatles historiography. I really wish there were more writing on this. We’re only now starting to see examinations of neglected social histories, and as you point out, this success is based on the “hysteria” these girls felt moved to display.
Hi Anne; thanks for posting and sharing your thoughts. I think the correlation between misogyny and the dismissal of female fandom as anything other than “hysteria” is not coincidental–even in more liberal circles (to wit, Ron Howard’s “Eight Days A Week documentary and the selection of male “authorities” and the absence of an authorial female perspective.) Hopefully that will change eventually.
Of all the Beatles documentaries I’ve seen, I have yet to see one where a female is presented as a learned authority on the band, rather than someone who knew them personally. The Compleat Beatles one female that I recall who is offered as a talking head is Marianne Faithful. Composing the Lennon/McCartney catalog is the female journalist from the “bigger than Jesus” interview, Maureen Cleave. The Ron Howard interview offers female perspectives from the fan, but not the authority p.o.v. I’m honestly flummoxed to think of one. Now maybe its in a documentary I haven’t yet seen, and if so, more power to it.