~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 Up until the 1970’s, gender- and race-based discrimination was largely accepted, while outdated, draconian laws still governed sexual behaviour, particularly among gay persons.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.
- The Beatles Started A Cultural Revolution, John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute, 2005.
- What Made The Beatles So Big: Diagnosing Beatlemania, John McMillian, Daily Beast, 2017.
- An Interview with Jenny Kee, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney Australia, 2013. Video.
- Fandom and Participatory Culture, Subcultures and Sociology, Grinell College.
- Men, Masculinity and The Beatles, Martin King, 2013.