Sunday, March 2, 2008

Erasing Women

The recent article, Teen Spirit, from Slate Magazine is a great example of the re-writing of Beatles history for masculine consumption. Fred Kaplan re-imagines the Beatles' American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show as a homosocial male event.

Kaplan reflects on the tremendous cultural transition we experienced the night the Beatles played on TV, but notes that "Americans under, say, 40 have had to take the historic importance of [The Beatles debut] on faith." As someone under 40 myself, I have a hard time taking Fred Kaplan's depiction on faith, (or for that matter any cultural history unexamined by feminists), because there is an interest, conscious or unconscious, to tell history from one's own point of view. In rock history in particular, this point of view is overwhelmingly male.

It seems almost ludicrous to imagine the Beatles' debut as an un-gendered cultural event, when the footage is considered, but Kaplan manages to do just that.

With only a single gestured reference to Ed Sullivan's witnessing of the British "screaming girls", he-- with his clear and reasoned masculine intelligence through which this emotive feminine display is interpreted-- delivers the Beatles to America.

Given another imagining of this event, one can just as accurately say, "the girls' demand for The Beatles forced Ed Sullivan, along with most other media outlets, to bring the Beatles to America." In this telling, the women are the ones who "discovered" The Beatles, an account that certainly rings true to my ears.

Kaplan goes on to say that, "the day after that Sullivan show, every boy [my emphasis] came to school with his hair combed down as far as he could manage (which, in most cases, wasn't very far). Some went out and bought Beatle wigs. Or saved up to buy a guitar and then got together with friends to form a band."

Again, the girls are completely erased from this narrative, presumably because their wild, shrieking passion for The Beatles is less relevant than the boys far more productive and enterprising guitar-buying, band-forming reaction.

"The Beatles' rebelliousness was playful, not menacing...they were a palatable transition to the truly menacing figures to come—the Rolling Stones...later punk rock, and beyond."

I'm especially suspicious of the characterization of The Beatles as non-threatening. It seems to me that the aggressive suppression of women's history in connection to rock music reflects just how threatening Beatlemania really was. The Beatles were the eye of a feminine hurricane, large groups of women were traveling long distances to see them, women were exercising tremendous consumer power to purchase their music and merchandise, women all over the world GOT LOUD, organizing a host of sexual anxieties around Beatles symbolism. Women, the first large group of Beatles fans, determined the shape of a world-wide pop culture. In an era before second wave feminism, this wasn't just threatening-- it was terrifying.

It seems to me that The Rolling Stones, punk rock "and beyond" are much more conservative cultural ambassadors because they reify masculinity, becoming a "boys club" in contrast to the Beatles' egalitarian brand of rock and roll. Patriarchy being the most pervasive construction of power in virtually every society, The Beatles' gender-circus (as Beatlemania can be characterized) is a hell of a lot more interesting than it is ever given credit for.

Finally, I look to the lead of Kaplan's article: "It may be impossible for anyone who wasn't living at the time to grasp how much the country changed 40 years ago this Sunday. On Feb. 9, 1964, at 8 p.m. ET, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show."

The legend of the Beatles (at least in America) is often framed this way. The moment "we all" discovered the Beatles was on The Ed Sullivan show. This kind of narrative exemplifies the reason for my feminist intervention. Do these male rock journalists not see the contradiction here? How do they reconcile the fact that the girls who famously greeted the Beatles at JFK, seemed to have already been, uh, somewhat "in the know"? The girls in the audience at The Ed Sullivan Show seem to be rather familiar already with the fab four.

Behold the lonely, desolate arrival of the yet-to-be-discovered Beatles.

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show was a discovery for whom exactly? Maybe for the industrious boys who saved up to buy guitars, formed glorious bands, and became writers for Slate Magazine, The Ed Sullivan Show was a revelation. But for the girls? They were way ahead-- a pesky little "fact" that doesn't seem to intervene with rock and roll journalists' circle-jerk in the least.

Judge for yourself. Can you spot the girls in this clip?! Look hard for it.

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