What is it about men that makes them think they know better what we're saying than we do? What, in fact, do they think gives them the right to tell us what we think? David Brooks has done this in spades in his latest editorial in the New York Times. I don't often read David Brooks, because our views are so far apart on the liberal-conservative axis that all they do is frost my cupcake, generally, but the headline for this one caught my eye: "The New Lone Rangers." I thought he might be talking about our president, but no, he was talking about women.
What was interesting was that he focused on three songs I'd also been noticing in the pop radio rotation: Pink's "U & Ur Hand," Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," and my least favorite of the bunch, Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend." Having had enough friends with cheating boyfriends or husbands (and been on the receiving end of too many married men's attention), I laughed and cheered the first time I heard "Before He Cheats." It's a Thelma and Louise anthem about what we'd all like to do to the dumbasses who step out on us: trash their most precious possession (well, second-most precious possession): their cars. Pink's song is a "been there, done that, so over it" complaint about the lame come-ons guys use on any woman with the temerity to go out to a bar or club by herself. The third, and I think it's telling that Brooks lumps it in with the others, is an aggressive attempt to lure a guy away from his girlfriend by trash-talking her to him.
Brooks' take on the songs is this:
If you put the songs together, you see they’re about the same sort of character: a character who would have been socially unacceptable in a megahit pop song 10, let alone 30 years ago. . . . This character is hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fedup, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving. She’s like one of those battle-hardened combat vets, who’s had the sentimentality beaten out of her and who no longer has time for romance or etiquette. She’s disgusted by male idiots and contemptuous of the feminine flirts who cater to them. She’s also, at least in some of the songs, about 16.
Where he gets the latter idea, I'm not sure, except maybe from the cheerleader cadences of "Girlfriend." But the upshot is that Brooks is appalled—appalled, I say!—at this "product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups." He equates them with the Lone Ranger fantasy figures of the Naked City and the Wild West. And while it's perfectly acceptable for those male figures to step confidently through their lives to their own drummer, apparently it's not, for women. Not only that, but they and the women in these songs are just fantasy figures (and Brooks sounds a little desperate for reassurance here, with a silent "right?" tacked onto that statement). They don't reflect the opinions of True Womanhood (or, ten yeas ago, mainstream culture). Or as Brooks says,
Young people still need intimacy and belonging more than anything else. But the pose is the product of something real — a response to this new stage of formless premarital life, and the anxieties it produces.
"Formless premarital life?" Listen, I'm 47 and continuously unattached, and I ain't never had no formless premarital life. Does he mean formless like college and a career? That formless? Wait, does he mean you have to be married to have a life with form? That's like being bored. Only stupid people are bored. Only idiots wait around for someone else to give their lives meaning. And yet, this is still the prevailing notion about single women's lives. A couple of weeks ago, Time Out New York had an egregiously stupid cover showing a giant blond woman in a short skirt and heels tromping through downtown New York like Godzilla, with the caption "Attack of the Single Women!" in Second-Coming type. Inside was an equally stupid survey of 50 single women of various ages (which proved nothing, since it only asked questions about single women's social lives and dating couched in the context of "how can you possibly get along without a boyfriend?"); the most telling thing about it was that all but two of the women were happy about being single, and the others were ambivalent at worst.
The anxiety, it seems to me, is mostly on the part of males, especially male conservatives though it's not limited to them, at the hardly new assertion that women do not need men as much as men seem to need women; that, yeah, you're nice to have around when you behave, but if you can't treat us well, then who needs you? And I'm thinking here of the song that Brooks ignored: Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," a great song about another smart, capable, self-respecting woman dumping the cheating asshole in her life.
None of these songs have anything to do with not having time for "romance or etiquette," as Brooks thinks. They're about, with the exception of "Girlfriend" (and more about that, later) not putting up with male bad behavior that passes for romance. I agree that young people need intimacy; everybody needs intimacy. But nobody needs it at the cost of being treated like crap, from men who don't get, and don't bother to try to understand, that women deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.
There were a couple of recent articles about catcalling, written from a male viewpoint, that completely missed this, too. Some women don't mind it; some women don't mind some kinds of catcalls (like the kind where you're requested to smile and told you're beautiful when you do); some women hate all of it. I find it mostly obnoxious, including the "smile" kind, because really, who wants to singled out in public, while you're minding your business, to perform anything just because some guy asks you? Why should you? And your reward is supposed to be his approval? Please. Like I need that. What astonished me about the articles was the complete lack of comprehension on the part of guys both doing the cat-calling and writing about it. They actually not only think this talk is flattering, but don't understand that women often find it demeaning and/or threatening. I've tried explaining this to cat-callers and gave up. They not only don't get it, they're not interested in getting it.
Because it's not really about picking up women. It's about keeping them under control, through fear or intimidation.
This is what Avril Lavigne is doing in "Girlfriend," too, in a neat turnabout on the usual male tactic. I don't particularly admire it, unless it's meant as parody, but I admire the naked aggression, and the self-confidence. Rhetorically, there's not a whole lot of difference between Lavigne's lyrics and some of the crap I've heard from guys on the street:
You're so fine
I want you to be mine
You're so delicious
I think about you all the time
You're so addictive
Don't you know what I could do to make you feel alright?
Don't pretend I think you know I'm damn precious
And hell yeah
I'm the motherfucking princess
I can tell you like me too and you know I'm right.
That's practically stalker language coming from a guy you don't know or barely know, as I assume the woman in Lavigne's song doesn't really know the guy. But the line that twists everything (though Brooks misses this) is "What the hell were you thinking?" which assumes boyfriend is too stupid to pick the "right" girlfriend—so akin to the "why are you with him when you could have me?" I've often heard from men. The difference is that guys do think this is flattering language. They like to be admired openly; they cat-call each other, for Pete's sake. One of my newly single female friends and I went out for brunch one morning and sat in the window where we could watch the streetlife. She spotted an incredibly gorgeous guy walking by and pointed him out to me. When he noticed us observing, he stopped in front of us, whipped out his comb and preened especially for us—not just once, but on his way back, too. (And I have to admit we applauded both times and he loved it; that's why turning the tables seldom works with men.) Few woman would do that except in a peep show or a catwalk.
It's telling that Brooks equates the self-sufficient women in Pink's and Underwood's songs with Lavigne's aggressive, predatory babe. Why? Because they're all threatening to the status quo. If women don't need men, and won't tolerate their bad behavior to keep them, and aren't shy about going for what they want rather than waiting passively to be chosen, well then it really will be just them and their hand. Yikes!
What's really bothering Brooks is not the sad lack of intimacy, the anxiety fostered by a lack of courtship rituals or commitment, but the overtly stated female emancipation from men in these songs, and the mirroring by women of men's behavior (Lavigne), the trespassing on their territory. Brooks says, "Now young people face a social frontier of their own. They hit puberty around 13 and many don’t get married until they’re past 30." What he really means is not young people, per se, but young women. That's whose songs he's writing about here. Male declarations of independence aren't being analyzed.
And where is he getting his statistics about puberty? Thirteen is only an average and it applies mostly to boys. Girls "hit puberty" at anywhere from 9 to 15, thanks to better nutrition and increased hormones in our food. So what, really, is Brooks advocating here, anyway? Child marriage? Teenage pregnancy? Because that's what you get when you assume marriage should shortly or immediately follow puberty. I suspect what he's really advocating is the marrying off of young women to older men. You know, like it used to be. Nowadays we call that pedophilia, but that's another tactic for controlling women: convince them they need men (not boys), and convince them while they're young.
Because Brooks seems to have forgotten the 1970s/80s feminist slogan, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." I have news for Mr. Brooks and the rest of you boneheaded, cheating catcallers: This so-called "fantasy figure" in Pink's and Beyonce's and Underwood's songs is real. She's the lone (but not lonely) woman on the barstool next to you, or dancing alone, or walking down the street in a sexy dress by herself. She is not looking for you. She is not interested in you. She does not need you. She does not want your attention. Deal with it. It's just u and ur hand, baby. Cuddle up.