Saturday, 24 August 2013

We make her paint her face and dance

John Lennon liked to compose hard-hitting songs with great music that did not pull punches. Songs that were sometimes tender, sometimes with the twist of bitterness to them. I'd say that despite his more-than-occasional offensiveness, he was socially aware to a high degree, and that his eyes were opened still further by his talented wife, Yoko Ono, who gave him an insight into the condition of women.

One song comes to mind above all others. It's off the Some Time In New York City album of  1972, not generally reckoned to be the couple's most commercially successful effort, although it was a favourite of my brother's, and I do believe I've still got his original vinyl LP up in the attic. This album was produced in all sincerity to raise a clenched fist at social issues that complacent and comfortably-off people ought to be thinking about. The background is explained in the Wikipedia article at

The song? It's Woman is the Nigger of the World. If you want to be jarred out of your comfortable complacency, do give it a listen. Here is the YouTube video of the live stage performance in New York: And this is the rather more forceful recording studio version: John Lennon's voice and the sound of the saxophone are very good, even if you dislike the lyrics. But I think the lyrics are worth close study. Here they are:

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes she is...think about it
Woman is the nigger of the world
Think about something about it

We make her paint her face and dance
If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us
If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man
While putting her down, we pretend that she's above us

Woman is the nigger of the world...yes she is
If you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave of the slaves
Ah, yeah...better scream about it

We make her bear and raise our children
And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen
We tell her home is the only place she should be
Then we complain that she's too unworldly to be our friend

Woman is the nigger of the world...yes she is
If you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave to the slaves
Yeah...alright...hit it!

We insult her every day on TV
And wonder why she has no guts or confidence
When she's young we kill her will to be free
While telling her not to be so smart we put her down for being so dumb

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes she is...if you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave to the slaves
Yes she is...if you believe me, you better scream about it

We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance

In the Wikipedia article on the song itself, it is said that 'The phrase "woman is the nigger of the world" was coined by Yoko Ono in an interview with Nova magazine in 1969 and was quoted on the magazine's cover. The song describes women's subservience to men and male chauvinism across all cultures.' Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wikipedia adds: 'The Lennons went to great lengths (including a press conference attended by staff from Jet and Ebony magazines) to explain that the word "nigger" was being used in an allegorical sense and not as an affront to black people.' And: 'Through radio and television interviews, Lennon explained his use of the term "nigger" as referring to any oppressed person.' I hope that's perfectly understood.

So the next question is this. That was in 1972. Does the song still have relevance in 2013? Forty one years later. Two generations further on. Surely times have changed, and we have all made progress.

Well, although there can't be many women in modern Western-type societies who will accept that home is the only place she should be, I don't observe many other departures from the 1972 scenario. There are a lot of men around in 2013 who still expect their women to look like sexy painted goddesses, who still expect their women to be subservient to all their wants and preferences, who still assume that women have fluff where their brains should be, who still think it right to force little girls into a standard female mould, who still feel no concern at advertisements that make women feel inadequate if they don't conform to a fashionable appearance, who still expect them to get pregnant so that they can be fathers to trophy children and prove they are real men, who still want their women to be accomplished and refined and dainty (and not free to relax and behave naturally), who still expect to have the casual right to fancy another, more attractive woman and betray their partners, who still think their own sexual needs are paramount, who still expect to be waited on hand and foot by a female partner. Who basically still think they are much more important than women, full stop.

And all men have discovered that if enough pressure is piled onto her, a woman's will is likely to crumble into tears of surrender - not because she is weak-minded or over-emotional, but because her conditioning from birth onwards has made her vulnerable to male coertion and control.

This is all a disgrace, but it's what obtains in 2013, just as it did in 1972, or any date you might care to name.

It doesn't help that women are still physically shorter and weaker than men. And still psychologically the second fiddle - though why that is I do not know, because there is no reason at all to feel intellectually inferior. Perhaps it stems from how societies are made up, the so-called 'natural division of responsibilities', that tends to place women in a slave role indoors: unpaid and put upon. The victims of many convenient assumptions that give men the best of it. Even in sunny Sussex.

I know one can point to Superwomen in all fields of endeavour, successful women, independent women, women who call the tune. But ordinary women in ordinary homes can fare badly. It is said that all a woman really wants is a home, children to raise, and a man - though that sounds to me like a man's assertion, not a woman's. It is certainly true that there are women about, a lot of them, who put up with all kinds of abuse from their partners without clearing out. They may be afraid, or psychologically dependent, or see nowhere else to run away to, but I do not agree that it's 'their fault'. We all have to live within society's framework, and any society in which women can be beaten up by men, or made to do unspeakable things for a man, is a sick society.  

So on to another question: is this song still the authentic voice of feminism?  Perhaps its terms are a bit old-fashioned now. We have all become more sophisticated and subtle. Gradually freedoms and legal rights have stacked up for women. Gradually it has become much less acceptable to grope women in pubs, slap them if they speak to another male, roger them at the office Christmas party, steal credit for their hard work, and deny them promotion. Gradually women have come more and more into important decision-making processes. But I can't help thinking that modern feminists have much to complain about. Legal equality may have been largely achieved, but what about social attitudes?

I have before me that epitome of civilised living, this month's Caravan Club magazine. It's full of happy pictures of Men Driving Cars That Tow Caravans, and Men Tinkering With Caravan Equipment, while the Ladies are making a nice cup of tea. Couples are shown with the Man holding a smaller Woman in his arms: she looks deliriously content in his firm and possessive embrace: he looks assured of a jolly good bonk in the very near future. That's why caravans have comfy beds and curtains, and corner steadies. Didn't you know? Or an older couple, standing with their arms around each other: a totally conventional picture, a myth perpetuated, a model to ape. Where are the lesbian couples? Where are the solo women caravanners like me?  

So finally: is the song now relevant to the particular position of trans women? I can only speak for myself, but I'd say most definitely yes, because whatever view may be taken of my strict biological status, in the real world I am taken to be an ordinary woman, and come in for whatever stick is being handed out. I always knew it would be like this. While transitioning, I always expected mockery from men. Now I expect condescension. While transitioning, I felt highly visible to men. Dangerously so. Now I have become almost completely invisible to them, simply because I am old and unpretty, and therefore of no interest. Other women always give me a glance, we all give each other a once-over, but my plainness is reassuring; and if conversation develops, I am just one of the Sisterhood, another powerless sufferer in a world still dominated by men.

Well, not powerless in my own self-view. That male conditioning I had gives me an arsenal of secret weapons. I am not accustomed to abuse, and will bite back. I do assert any rights I might have. I don't crumble. I do strong. Even if it usually suits my book to seem gentle and compliant, no man is going to get the better of me. But I still have to live within society's current framework, and that means paying attention to the entrenched stereotyping that goes on. And all those things I listed above, the things that still seem to be the 'natural' assumptions of millions of men, have to be contended with. In such a way that I don't look like a ridiculous, troublesome, argumentative old hag.

Kermit the Frog thought it was not easy being green. It's even harder being a woman.

1 comment:

  1. Historically, male physical strength won the day in most societies. Unsurprisingly, once they had the supremacy, men created religious and social norms to keep things that way.

    In Western society the balance is definitely shifting. Girls have long been outperforming boys in education, and the traditional male advantages of physical strength and aggression are no longer valued or needed in commerce and industry. Consequently, the process that began in the days of John Lennon and Yoko Ono seems set to continue, and our great grandchildren will doubtless live in a far less male-dominated society.

    A looming social problem now is men who feel disempowered and unneeded. Either way you look at it, equality doesn't come easily.


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