Posted by Jay Livingston
David Brooks, in his Tuesday op-ed column in the Times, wrote about today’s young women:
These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don’t care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don’t need anybody else.A lot of people on the left wish the Times would dump Brooks. He holds down the neoconservative seat on the Times op-ed page, and he usually writes about politics. He was a staunch supporter of the Iraq invasion and many other policies of the Cheney-Bush administration. But sometimes he looks at social and cultural matters, so he’s providing something for us sociologists, even though, as with his politics, he usually gets it wrong.
For the text of his sermon on Tuesday, he took three hit songs: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” “U + Ur Hand,” by Pink, and “Before he Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. (He could have added Nelly Furtado’s huge hit “Maneater.”)
These songs, according to Brooks, herald the appearance of a new kind of young woman – “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fed up, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving.” She’s the female counterpart of the hard-bitten hero of Western movies or the hard-boiled detective of crime fiction. Clint Eastwood and Bogie in drag.
But Brooks’s radio must be tuned in to unusual versions of these songs. These women are not emotionally self-sufficient, they’re angry, and they want revenge. The tough guys in US culture are essentially devoid of feeling. They don’t get mad, they get even. Suppressing their emotions, including anger, allows them to mete out justice, even against those they might once have been romantically involved with. In the well-known ending of I the Jury (see the film “Marty” next time it comes around on TCM), private eye Mike Hammer shoots his former love Charlotte after figuring out that she’d killed his partner.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.The justice is not purely abstract or ideological; the hero has been personally touched by the crime. But he also acts on the basis of personalized principle, not a simple emotional reaction. Sam Spade puts it nicely at the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” in circumstances similar to those of I the Jury. He discovers that Brigid O’Shaughnessy has killed his partner. She appeals to their past relationship: “You know in your heart that in spite of anything I've done, I love you.”
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
But Spade is adamant: “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” He explains, “When a man's partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something. It makes no difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it.”
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
The women in these songs are not acting on any general principle. They are responding, violently and personally to personal insults. They don’t want justice; they want revenge.
That I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,(In America, if you really want to take revenge on a guy, go after his car.)
carved my name into his leather seats,
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
slashed a hole in all 4 tires...
Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats.
As Brad deLong points out, the rage of a woman scorned goes back a few years – Medea, Clytemnestra, Frankie and Johnny. But in our culture, it’s usually been the men who are allowed to express their anger by seeking revenge. So in a way Brooks is right; the tone in these songs may not be completely unprecedented, but it is atypical. The women in these songs also don’t bother with the typically feminine strategies of seduction, pleading, or guilt-tripping to get what they want. They make direct demands, and if the guy can’t meet those demands, to hell with him.
Brooks attributes the ethos of these songs to the Zeitgeist. They are “a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade.”
Not exactly. The emotions and actions in these songs have been around for centuries. It’s just that for most of that history, they had been restricted to men. If the popularity of these songs illustrates anything, it’s the democratization of emotions and actions, much like the “foulmouthed” language that upsets Brooks. Those words, reactions, and actions which have long been a male preserve are now becoming legitimate for women as well. At least for rock stars.
These songs are all hits. I just wish we had some data on who’s downloading them – men or women.