The Beatles And Their Cultural Impact On Gender

~by Karen Hooper

Although the 1960’s was a time of tremendous social change, the social mores of previous decades remained largely entrenched.  Up until the 1970’s, gender- and race-based discrimination was largely accepted, while outdated, draconian laws still governed sexual behaviour, particularly among gay persons.   In ways still not fully understood, The Beatles heralded a sea change in our social and cultural attitudes, while their specific impact upon our understanding of gender–what it means to be a man or a woman– cannot be overstated.

…The Beatles helped feminize the culture. […] The implications of the Beatles’ relatively androgynous appearance had a far more profound effect on sexual and women’s liberation than anyone could have guessed at the time. [They] challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man. This ultimately allowed them to help change the way men feel and look.

Further emblematic of this more relaxed masculine mien was the Beatles’ music itself. Their original compositions were a pastiche of soul and rock, incorporating falsetto passages into love songs specifically directed toward female fans. She Loves You is one such example. According to Martin King in his book Men, Masculinity and The Beatles, the song has “an unusual third person lyric, which is essentially a dialogue between two men discussing a relationship, something which would have been seen as much more of a feminine activity. ‘Apologize to her’ goes the caring refrain. This is a long way from groin-centred rock.”

Their covers were similarly feminized:

Few male groups were as steeped in the girl-group genre, or as comfortable embracing its clichés. The Beatles covered nine girl-group songs in their live performances, and five of these appeared on their first two LP’s. Usually when the Beatles sang songs by girl-groups, they switched the relevant gender pronouns, but they didn’t do so in every case. When they performed the Shirelles’ song “Boys,” which was a staple of the Beatles live act from about 1961-1963 (it was their requisite “drummer number”) they sang the chorus just as it had been written, from a female’s perspective: “I talk about boys now! (Yeah, yeah, boys!) What a bundle of joy!” In a 2005 Rolling Stone interview, McCartney recalled that the song was a “fan favorite” (Pete Best had sung it before Ringo), though he added, “if you think about it, here’s us doing a song that was really a girls’ song. … Or it was [as the Beatles played it] a gay song. But we never listened. It’s just a great song. … I love the innocence of those days.”

For their fans, The Beatles were a refreshing break from conventional displays of masculinity. According to Australian fashion designer Jenny Kee, who at 17 years old bedded John Lennon during The Beatles’ Australian tour:

These four mod boys were everything that us young fashionistas wanted to look at. We wanted pretty boys; we did not want to look at big, beefy boys, and for me, that mod look was just it. The Beatles were the personification of mod.”

Joyce Brothers, commenting on the reaction of female fans, echoed this sentiment:

[The Beatles] display a few mannerisms which almost seem a shade on the feminine side, such as tossing of their long manes of hair. Very young ‘women’ are still a little frightened of the idea of sex. Therefore they feel safer worshipping idols who don’t seem too masculine, or too much the ‘he-man’.

In addition to their unusual music and personal style, the Beatles’ close friendship with one another also impacted conventional gender norms. While male fans may not have noticed, female fans honed in on this like heat-seeking missles to a target.  By virtue of their biology and social upbringing, perhaps, female beatle fans were primed to see the Beatles’ interpersonal relationships as an essential component of their appeal. The relationship between John and Paul, in particular, continues to fascinate Beatle readership and is the subject of romance-based fan fiction within a subset of its (mostly) female fan community.  While “McLennon” fanfiction is often derided by more conventional subsets of Beatle fandom,¹  it nevertheless builds upon the real life relationship between Lennon and McCartney and touches upon themes–sexual fluidity, bisexuality, romantic friendships–which resonate with its female readers.

Participation in fan culture is often gendered, and a given fan activity’s place in internal hierarchies is often correlated to the gender of the participants. For example, the vast majority of fanfiction writers are women. Generally, ‘transformative’ activities – such as creating fan fiction, fan art, fanvids, etc – are associated with female fans. Conversely, ‘curative’ or ‘affirmational’ activities, such as memorizing trivia or collecting merchandise, tend to be associated with male fans. […]Fan fiction often brings female experiences into source texts which are generally written by and about men, often challenging norms of gender and sexuality.  Fan fiction…often explore themes and aspects of the source material which are of interest to the female-dominated parts of the fan community, going beyond the stories the male-dominated media industry is interested or willing to tell.

To date, few biographers have attempted to plumb the depths of the Lennon/McCartney relationship, perhaps due to disinterest or because they fear legal headaches later on.²  In any event, it’s remarkable that there has not been one authoritative work (aside from Joshua Shenk’s The Powers of Two) solely devoted to the Lennon/McCartney relationship in the 50+ years since they first formed their creative union.³

As more women become prominent in Beatle fandom as experts and theorists rather than as observers and fanfiction writers, their unique perspective can only improve Beatle historiography.  While some argue that there’s nothing new to mine, one only has to remember that Shout! and Lennon Remembers are still touted as definitive works, and their factual/ interpretive errors have–in the mainstream media, at least–gone unchallenged. Philosopher and essayist George Santanyana remarked, “history is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”  Such is the importance of Beatle historiography, and the necessary inclusion of female voices.

As always, we look forward to your comments.


¹ Criticism leveled toward the “McLennon” community range from ethical considerations about privacy and exploitation to homophobic reactions to the same-sex romantic premise.

² In Lennon:  The Life, Philip Norman was unable to quote Ono directly regarding her comments about John and Paul since Ono, displeased with Norman’s first draft (“you can’t say that John masturbated!”), withdrew persmission for Norman to quote her.  Although their contract did not give Ono the right to withdraw her quotes or demand the tape-recorded interviews, Norman nevertheless decided to paraphrase her comments anyway, presumably to avoid contentious and futile litigation (and, perhaps, to keep the door open for future interviews). Writing about living persons, in general,  may be a legal minefield--which is likely why salacious works like Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon and Elvis were conveniently written posthumously.

³ If there are works I don’t know about, feel free to point them out.

 

Sources:

  1.  The Beatles Started A Cultural Revolution, John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute, 2005.
  2. What Made The Beatles So Big:  Diagnosing Beatlemania, John McMillian, Daily Beast, 2017.
  3. An Interview with Jenny Kee, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney Australia, 2013. Video.
  4.  Fandom and Participatory Culture, Subcultures and Sociology, Grinell College.
  5.  Men, Masculinity and The Beatles, Martin King, 2013.

14 thoughts on “The Beatles And Their Cultural Impact On Gender

  1. Erin says:

    One of my fundamental critiques of Beatles historiography involves not only its lack of authorial diversity overall — female voices obviously being one of the major sidelined groups — but also the lack of authoritative female voices on sub-topics which directly relate to females in Beatles historiography.

    The most glaring example of this, for me, was Mojo’s 10 Years that Shook the World, with their compilation of numerous, high-end writers (MacDonald, Lewisohn, etc) participating in essays regarding the band’s story, legacy, etc. It’s a great source overall, but it was very striking to me that, (and I’m going from memory, here, because my notes are at my office at work) out of the 40 plus some contributors/essayists/Beatles historians (and the number could have been much, much higher: I’m lowballing, here) four were female, (or so I presumed, based on the non-scientific method of judging by names) and one of those contributors was Astrid, who is a witness, rather than an authority the same way Peter Doggett is an authority. (Doggett was another contributor). So not only was the legacy of the band presented in this book almost exclusively by male authors, and through a male lens, essays on subjects such as the early Beatles female fan experience — basically, why the Beatles were so beloved by female fans –were also written by men. This from a compilation that was published in 2004.

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    • Karen Hooper says:

      I’m curious Erin; do you know how many female writers there are in Rock? Truthfully I’m only aware of Lillian Roxton (because she was good friends with Linda McCartney), and Ellen Willis (because she wrote for the Village Voice). Both are gone now.

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    • Lee Downes says:

      The question I need to ask is why haven’t women written about the Beatles in the same, or a similar manner to men? Why haven’t women been involved in Beatle scholarship?

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      • Karen Hooper says:

        They have, Lee, but not to the same degree as men. Here’s one of the reasons why:

        The most famous rock-music critics—Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent—are all male. Bangs, who died in 1982, at the age of thirty-three, remains the most iconic of them all. Why? Because his hard-living, drug-taking, sunglasses-after-dark-wearing gonzo schtick made him as much of a masculine anti-hero as his rock-star subjects were. The pose doesn’t work as well for female critics, from whom displays of bad attitude are seldom tolerated, let alone celebrated. Rock’s rebel women, including its writers, are rarely assumed to be geniuses; often, they are assumed to be whores. In a 2002 biography of Lillian Roxon, “Mother of Rock,” by Robert Milliken, Roxon’s young protégé, Kathy Miller, recalls being challenged by a male editor who assigned her to write about The Who and then asked for a blow job in return, saying, “What’s the big deal? You’re a groupie.” She replied, “I’m a woman who writes about rock and roll.” His answer: “Same difference.”

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        • annejumps says:

          Gosh I wish I could find it—I can’t even remember if it was online or a print book!—but there’s a great essay from the ’80s by a frustrated female rock writer on how both bands and culture at large thought of all female fans as groupies, period. I’ll see if I can find it.

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          • Erin says:

            I think I recall something similar to that, or that essay, being posted a few years ago at Hey Dullblog, anne. If its the one I’m thinking about, it also included discussion of how the rock star wife was, in many ways, the lowest rung on the ladder, even below some of the groupies.

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        • Erin says:

          If I were at my office, I’d be able to reference another article which deals with the issue from a more contemporary time period: I recall reading an article by a female rock journalist written from within the last ten/fifteen years or so, where she discusses the roadblocks, both institutional and deliberate, female rock journalists have faced and continue to face in a very masculine dominated profession. One of her claims regarded the ratio of female rock reporters to male ones, and having polled some of the major rock UK magazines (I can’t recall if any US ones were included) put the ratio at 70 percent male, 30 percent female. And I believe her declaration was that that was as incorporated as females had ever been in the rock press. It goes without saying that the magazine owners and editors were all male.

          Which is not, in and of itself, an issue that explicitly prevents those females or other females from writing on the Beatles. But it is very telling that the vast majority of authorities on the Beatles started or made names for themselves as rock/music magazine writers. With even fewer female rock journalists during the actual Beatles period, their opportunity to cover the band as their story was unfolding was limited. Diversity is a strength for any historiography, not only gender diversity, but also national/generational/professional, etc. But Beatles historiography has virtually no diversity: it is 99% dominated by white, Anglo-American, male, baby-boomer or the generations directly preceding/succeeding, journalists.

          It’s not just the issue of journalists: because the coverage of female fans has been primarily, if not exclusively, written about by grown men, some of those authors have offered patronizing, if not outright sexist, interpretations of the female Beatles fan. The Beatles were, in their earliest days, one whose primary audience was female, and who courted female listeners and record buyers. But male authors (Nicholas Schaffner would be just one example; Norman another) have implied that those female fans were little more than shallow, shrieking teenyboppers, and that it was the male fans who appreciated the intellect the Beatles offered. Basically, girls liked the Beatles for shallow reasons, like their looks, while boys liked them for intelligent reasons.

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          • Karen Hooper says:

            Diversity is a strength for any historiography, not only gender diversity, but also national/generational/professional, etc. But Beatles historiography has virtually no diversity: it is 99% dominated by white, Anglo-American, male, baby-boomer or the generations directly preceding/succeeding, journalists.

            This.

            The lack of representation in Beatle historiography reflects the systematic marginalization of non-white, non-male voices in every facet of society. Just a few years ago, the President of the United States met with an all-male cabinet to discuss maternity coverage, of all things. Nancy Pelosi remarked that the GOP health care bill would make the female gender a pre-existing condition. 🙂

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        • Lee Downes says:

          That makes sense – and reminded me (somehow) of a SATB podcast episode where Robert Rodriguez chatted for an hour with a guy from the Simpsons. As a lifelong Beatles ‘fan’, it was like listening to one of the many Beatles discussions that took place between my father and I. (Which was the feedback I gave about that episode).

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          • Erin says:

            I remember that episode, Lee. It was one of my favorites, both because of my love for the Simpsons (I was nine when the show originated, and have, in many ways, grown up with it) and the Beatles. For the record, one of my favorite Beatles Easter Eggs is a blink and you’ll miss it from the episode where Homer becomes friends with a reluctant Ned: when Homer follows Ned to a soup kitchen where Ned is volunteering, the name of the place is “Helter Shelter: Founder, Father James Helter.” It still makes me laugh.

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  2. Martín P. C. says:

    My humble bibliographic contribution to the topic: on how the Beatles phenomenon and impact helped to develop an active female sexual role

    Ehrenreich, Barbara, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs (1997) “Beatlemania. A sexually defiant consumer subculture?” in Ken Gelder and Sara Thornton, The Subcultures Reader, London: Routledge, p.523-536

    Liked by 1 person

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