While my research into the depiction of females in Beatles historiography progresses at a relatively glacial pace, some of the basic analysis has been done. In lieu of a new book review, here are some thoughts on one of the subject’s key figures:
There are six major elements to keep in mind when analyzing Yoko Ono’s depiction in Beatles historiography.
First, any analysis has to include the acknowledgement that she is, among sources, fans and authors, the single most polarizing figure in that historiography. While other figures, and particularly Allen Klein, are now more universally disliked, Ono’s depictions, and interpretations of her, more commonly swing between two extremes: one which tends to be overwhelmingly complimentary and unquestioning; another which tends to vilify and condemn. This polarization can be found in primary and secondary sources across the decades, although the amount and quality of more objective depictions have increased over time.
Second, Ono is the most prominent female in a history that is almost entirely about men. She is also the most prominent female in a historiography that has, throughout its half-century existence, been shaped, written, and controlled, at almost every single level and in almost every single major book, article, interview, documentary, review, podcast, or video, by men. The gender difference between subject and writer needs to be acknowledged.
Third, Ono’s depiction in and relationship with the press requires a balanced assessment. Certain authors, such as Ray Coleman, or Jann Wenner, provide only one aspect of her portrayal by emphasizing her vilification and caricaturization by the mainstream press. More, they correctly note how this vilification was/is often accompanied by thinly veiled – or not so thinly veiled – misogynistic and racist language. However, these authors fail to acknowledge Ono’s own press savvy, both before and following John’s death. By only mentioning her negative portrayals, these male authors turn Ono into an unremitting victim, (and, not coincidentally, turn themselves into her champions and defenders); failing to note her close relationships with various journalists and authors, her skill in extracting editing rights over interviews, and her decades-long promotion of her own version of events.
Fourth: Ono’s depiction must be analyzed in the context of the fan and press reaction to/depiction of the other females in Beatles historiography. Ono certainly serves as the most extreme example, but the negative fan response to her, and harsh condemnation of her in the press, is not a singularity. Rather, it is part of a larger pattern regarding the treatment and depiction of numerous females surrounding the band. Examples include the treatment/depiction of females from Maureen Starkey to Cynthia Lennon to Linda Eastman, (the only other person who comes close to contesting Ono’s dubious crown as the most disliked female in Beatles history). Indeed, the accusations made by the press and fans against Ono and Eastman, particularly in the breakup period, are striking in their similarity.
Fifth: some historians argue that the depiction of females in greater historiography demonstrates a pattern: females who are regarded as demonstrating more traditionally feminine characteristics – maternity, domesticity, compassion, empathy, charity, etc. – are portrayed more favorably. Women who are regarded as displaying more masculine associated traits: ambition, aggressiveness, ruthless self-interest, and interest in traditional masculine pursuits, such as business, etc. – are portrayed more negatively. For some authors, their criticisms of Ono center around ascribing to her more masculine-associated attributes, such as fierce ambition.
Sixth, and Final: While it cannot be quantified, Ono’s depiction has undoubtedly been impacted by whatever value or worth the press and society grants her based on what they regard as her level of attractiveness. (I want to stress I am not condoning this practice, but acknowledging its reality). We live in a culture that assigns a certain amount of value or worth to women based, to an extent, on their attractiveness. In addition, this element is particularly relevant, given that, while Ono is of Asian descent, sources indicate her appearance was/is judged and evaluated according to predominantly Western-based beauty standards.
All these elements need to be taken into account when looking at Yoko’s depiction over the decades. Each has had an impact on how and why Ono has been portrayed the way she has, and has influenced her position as Beatles historiography’s single most polarizing figure.
Again, this is a relatively rough sketch of issues I consider to be important in evaluating Yoko’s depiction; further research may very well reveal other elements. Comments and questions are welcome.