Tag Archives: Dixie Chicks

Shut up and Write

womanwriting

As is obvious to anyone looking at the picture at the top right of this page, I’m lodged solidly in the average white male, 18-49 demographic.  Homer Simpson would say, “everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my ideas are.”  More to the point, my average white maleness (let’s add heterosexuality to the mix as well, why not) endows me with a certain level of immunity to criticism.  I invite you to take a look at the post published by Emmie Mears in which she talks about the inevitable onslaught of Internet misogyny that is the bane of any woman who dares to express an opinion on anything with the slightest hint of controversy, and how it has stifled her voice in the past.  It’s been telling, too, that as Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s star has risen with the release of her Rob Ford book Crazy Town and the slew of media appearances that have followed, so has a tremendous backlash from men, not to mention threats against her life.  Doolittle herself points to a Huffington Post blogger (no relation) who all but accused her of being an opportunistic Barbie doll, and then whined in a follow-up that she was overreacting because but… I said you were pretty!!!  As women’s voices have spread far and wide, so too it seems has the proclivity of certain men to want to tell them to get back into the kitchen if they know what’s good for them.

As f@#$ing insane as that sounds.

It would be easy, perhaps, to dismiss a large portion of these latter types as cretinous, small-membered rubes who can barely spell the dirty words they’re lashing out with, but what is equally troubling is when ostensibly intelligent people wield more polished knives in service of the same end.  The tactics by which female writers are attacked resemble those used by attorneys to discredit witnesses, or by politicians to sabotage opponents – looking for the slightest perceived crack into which can be wedged a huge bootful of doubt.  “You once stole an apple from your neighbor’s tree and then lied about it, so if you were lying then, how are we to assume you’re not lying about seeing Mr. Smith murder his brother?”   Attacking not the message, but the messenger.  Gender is usually the wedge of choice, as if words and opinions generated by a brain attached to a vagina are automatically of lesser worth, to be questioned to the last crossed T and dotted I – no matter how factual, no matter how incontrovertible.

The fans of Rob Ford, angered by the inconvenient truths Robyn Doolittle has exposed about their hero, have gone to typical lengths to cast aspersions on her motivations for pursuing the story, and slammed her for posing for the photo in the Flare article linked above as well, because how dare she have the temerity to be good at her job and attractive at the same time.  (Do actresses get dinged with the same charge when they appear in hundreds of these spreads every year?  Or do they get an exemption because looking good is part of their career, and that the rest of us peons are expected to be homely?)  In the end, it matters not, because were Doolittle of more average appearance, you’d get the same men saying she was tearing down Ford to compensate for her dissatisfaction about her looks and her inability to land a man.

There is a deliberate intent here, one of distraction – for Ford Nation, making Doolittle the story shifts the question away from why it’s considered acceptable to them or to anyone for the Mayor of Toronto to be an unrepentant crack smoker.  Just as a decade ago, publicly shaming the Dixie Chicks for their comments about George W. Bush got everyone’s mind off the thousands of people dying in the war he started in a blaze of testosterone, swagger and unresolved daddy issues.  Apparently, a decade later, Robyn Doolittle’s legs are more horrifying to the public than the thought of a crackhead controlling a $9 billion city budget and rendering Toronto a laughing stock to the world – you know, things that can cause actual damage to real people’s lives, the same real people Ford claims to be workin’ hard for.  It is hard to see the same attitude taking root if Doolittle’s first name was Robert.  They’d still be after “him,” of course, but probably for being once photographed having a beer with a Communist or something equally trivial, but pointedly non-sexual.  (Unless “he” was gay, of course; then all bets would be off.)

I’ve had the mildest taste of harsh online criticism for things I have written that have rubbed certain people the wrong way (the most, oddly enough, for this post about air travel.)  Even in the lowest doses, it can be incredibly dispiriting.  At times I have refrained from submitting certain pieces to HuffPost because I wasn’t certain I wanted to put up with a predictably irate repsonse.  I went almost six months without submitting anything last year for the headache of it all.  But never have even the nastiest comments to me come within a parsec of the visceral, flesh-tearing, bile-spitting hatred endured by female writers.  I’ve never been insulted for my appearance, or had some sick bastard suggest that I should be sexually violated for my opinions.  Which begs the question, why don’t I and my male contemporaries see that kind of blowback when we speak out?  Why is it somehow open season on all aspects of a woman’s being, including her sexual identity, when she pens a robust challenge to the status quo, but men’s looks and personal lives are off limits?  Why is a male writer a bold thinker and a female writer a feminazi pain the ass?

In one of the most eye-opening sections of Emmie’s post, she talks about needing to have a strategy ready to deal with the anger she might encounter in response to her works, and rightfully resenting that.  It certainly is not something I or any other white male 18-49 heterosexual writer has to contemplate.  We are free, it seems, to publish whatever we want, largely without fear of being attacked on such a level.  No one is going to “mansplain” us, declare that we just need a really good f@#k, call us ugly and unworthy of love, tell us we’re being silly and hysterical and fascist feminists and that we’d be better off producing babies than attempting to string words together.  No one’s going to suggest that we must be using our bodies to sleep our way to fame and success.  No one’s going to tell us to “shut up and write” columns on hair products and nail polish, you know, the stuff we’re the real experts on, and leave the serious business to the grown-ups.

No one is going to threaten to track us down at home and rape us.

It behooves male scribes to acknowledge the reality of writing life on the other side of the gender aisle, that women have a tougher job of making themselves heard and believed, and feeling free to even try.  We need to remember the women who choose not to speak up about issues where their opinions are sorely needed, because they’re afraid of violent reprisals from addle-minded douchebags.  Thousands of voices are missing from the conversation or are being silenced through the ugliest of reactions from anonymous cowards.  We should be commending courageous women like Robyn Doolittle and Emmie Mears and all their contemporaries who won’t let themselves be intimidated.  We should remember that it is entirely permissible to disagree with them and that we don’t ever have to make it personal – just as we wouldn’t with some other guy whose opinions made us seethe.  Finally, we should be using our privileged positions as “untouchable” males to call out and shame the behavior of those who are contributing to the fear.

There’s a saying I heard on The West Wing, though it may have been borrowed from somewhere else, that “if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right.”  That is probably where a lot of the hate comes from – the conscious or unconscious belief that female writers are indeed hitting too close to home with their observations about a patriarchal world.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the ultimate objective of writing – the pursuit of truth – is better served by more women, not fewer, getting it right and refusing to shut up about it.

Regardless of how many fragile male egos get bruised in the process.

UPDATE:  Emmie responds and includes some links to terrific posts on the same subject, including Chuck Wendig’s.

We need to go darker

Katy Perry in the video for “Wide Awake,” conjuring some musical magic.

Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” has been on my playlist all week long, an incongruity even sandwiched inside an eclectic playlist that includes Hendrix, Dylan, the Byrds, Tom Petty, Richard Ashcroft, Thomas Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, Mychael Danna and Hans Zimmer.  I cannot stop listening to it.  It accomplishes the remarkable feat of being both catchy and soulful, bruised yet full of hope.  Apart from innocently fancying Ms. Perry herself (which my Alexander Skarsgard-adoring better half assures me she’s totally okay with) I’ve been indifferent toward her music until now.  Her breakout hit “I Kissed a Girl” is the giggle of a nine-year-old too chicken to truly explore questions of confused sexuality lest her parents think badly of her.  “Firework” is a well-meaning song undermined by Perry’s inability to hit and sustain high notes.  The lack of proper rhymes in “California Gurls” and the Brady Bunch-esque misdeeds of “Last Friday Night” are a saran wrap-deep package unwilling to chafe against the very successful mould in which she’s been forged.

Then her marriage to Russell Brand broke apart, and she wrote, recorded and released “Wide Awake” as a meditation on what she’d been through and where she is now.  And it’s a great song.  This isn’t a pig-tailed goofy girl jumping up and down on a beach – it’s the honest testament of an emotionally bruised woman picking herself up off the concrete.  Katy Perry has established such a niche for herself that she didn’t have to record this song – she could have released yet another ode to partying in the sunshine and achieved plenty of accolades and album sales.  But she chose to try to say something profound about who she is and how she’s feeling about the world.

I’m not going to go faux-Lester Bangs and suggest that “Wide Awake” is a watershed moment in music.  But it illuminates a larger question that I think most artists grapple with.  Is introspection by its nature a journey of sadness?  Does something have to be dark to be good?  Is the stuff of genius found only in the minor chords?  There’s an old axiom that says all real comedy is born from pain.  So too does it seem that the best music is that which reflects lessons learned at great cost.  This is not to say that everyone gets it right – it seems that every Kelly Clarkson song is about breaking up with someone and being better off because of it, but unlike Katy Perry in “Wide Awake,” you get the sense that Kelly’s just reading the lines someone else wrote for her instead of feeling them through the notes, and that’s why, at least to my ears, “Wide Awake” will have greater staying power than the grating and empty “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.

Bob Dylan told John Lennon when they first met that he needed to get personal in his lyrics.  You begin to witness the transformation through the Beatles middle period as songs like “I’m a Loser” on Beatles for Sale and “Help!” lead to angry kiss-offs like “Norwegian Wood,” the existential exploration of “Nowhere Man” and the psychedelic dream state of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the Sgt. Pepper era becomes the truly dark, soul-baring Primal Scream anguish that closed out the Fab Four and realized itself fully in John’s solo career.  Had Lennon and the others chose to rest on their laurels and sing nothing but upbeat generic pop for their entire careers, they might have done very well.  They might still be touring casinos and retirement homes today.  But they wouldn’t be legends.  It was their choice to share their vulnerability, their humanity, that made them so – the gods who dared to admit they were the very same as the mortals who worshipped them.  In the documentary Imagine, there’s a scene where Lennon confronts an obsessed fan who is trespassing on his property, who wants to know how Lennon could have known so much about this fan’s life as to write songs that seemed to be about him.  Lennon responds, frankly, that “I’m singing about meself.”

The stories that have the deepest impact on us are tales of catharsis; of people like us who are tested to the limits of their endurance, who go all the way to the point of breaking and come back changed, improved, and renewed.  To find the brightest light, one must brave the darkness, because it is only in the dark that light can shine.  Every artist who starts out warbling giddily about rainbows and lollipops will face a crossroads at some point, where they will be forced to decide whether to continue skipping along the yellow brick road or stumble off into the gloomy forest – with no guarantee that something better waits on the other side, only faith that it does.  It’s a journey that is always worth taking.  The Dixie Chicks’ music improved immeasurably after their fracas with the American right over their Bush-inspired version of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus moment”, when they got away from karaoke-ready dreck like “Goodbye Earl” and opened up with powerful anthems like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”  Brian Wilson struggled his entire career against the goofy surfin’ tunes that characterized the Beach Boys and that his record label insisted he continue to produce, and as a result we were blessed with lasting gems like “God Only Knows.”  I have no doubt whatsoever that someday Justin Bieber will grow a goatee and release an acoustic album, and you know what – done with the right intentions, and not just as a sales gimmick, it’ll be terrific.

Until then, play “Wide Awake” again and think to yourself, damn, Katy Perry makes for one fine-looking goth.