Ambiguities in red corvettes
Image irrelevant to post, but too cute to ignore. Hat tip.
I steamrolled through the latest issue of Bitch. Lots of good stuff in there, and highly recommended. As usual, I’m only driven to blog when I’ve got a complaint, but I want it to be clear that this is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor issue in a sea of Teh Shitness. And I was really eager when I saw an article by Jason Webber about a subject near and dear to my heart—the feminist anomaly of Prince, the man who managed on sheer talent to become a megastar while playing with gender boundaries, exalting female sexuality, and causing many straight men with masculinity issues anxiety because they couldn’t deny the awesome power of Prince’s music. Webber’s thesis is that despite all this, Prince is a mess of contradictions, being the most feminist man in the music industry on one hand and then on the other indulging in some gross sexism. It’s a great thesis, because a) it’s true and b) it has the potential to be a touchstone for how feminist men in general resolve the tensions between wanting to be good people and the temptations to bolster their egos, sense of masculinity, and for some, sense of naughtiness by indulging sexism. How well does Prince succeed? Should we applaud him for dealing with these tensions in himself in such a public manner? Is that tempered by the fact that he’s so idiosyncratic that his own struggles don’t really translate into something other men can relate to?
The problem—and as a writer who has faced this problem a lot, I can see how you back yourself into this—is that Webber spikes the evidence to make the quandary more compelling than maybe it is. The problem with his thesis is that the pro-feminist side of Prince just sings a lot louder than the sexist pig side. I’ve always had the impression from Prince that his reactionary tendencies are something he battles, but doesn’t accept or celebrate. He shows them off, because he’s just that person, who overshares in his art and is reticent in person. And there has to be a lot of indulgent misogynist songs in his canon to even come close to raising doubts about the man who wrote the expectations-defying anthem of female power “Pussy Control” that is actually about how real power is a lot more about the wallet than the panties, basically making the title ironic.
To make it seem more 50/50 between feminism and sexism in the Prince canon, then, Webber cites the movie “Purple Rain” as if it’s an ode to misogyny because misogyny is the engine that drives so much of the plot.
This film, Prince’s only box-office success, casts him as a struggling musician with an abusive father who has passed along his habit of hitting women to his son. Throughout the film, Morris Day and Jerome Benton (who fronted the Prince-formed R&B outfit The Time)* refer to women as “bitches,” and one notorious scene shows Benton picking up Day’s scorned girlfriend and throwing her in a dumpster. Prince’s character, The Kid, is equally prone to violence against women, in one scene punching his girlfriend (Apollonia) after she tells him she’s joining Day’s band.
The Kid was definitely a disturbing departure and left many of us worried that the pro-lady sex machine of “Uptown,” “Head,” and others was a ruse—especially since the film was billed as semiautobiographical.
Yeah, that sort of argument is why you can’t judge without some context. I see this tendency far too often in feminist criticisms of pop culture, this assumption that showing is approving. It’s particularly off the mark in “Purple Rain”, because that movie is, while having some of the best concert scenes ever, pretty bad because it’s dropping anvils left and right. The movie is a dark night of the soul job, a story of a man (The Kid) on the wrong path in life, who is destined to die alone and as a professional failure if he can’t become a better person. He hates his father because his father beats his mother, but he doesn’t realize that he’s about to become his father, an embittered professional failure who projects his self-hatred onto women. And the first step on his path to redemption? Getting over his misogyny. After his father attempts suicide, the first thing The Kid does to set himself on the right path is to make amends to the talented female backbone of his band, Wendy and Lisa, whose talents he’s been dismissive of. He makes the song they’ve written and he’s refused to even listen to the centerpiece of the set that becomes the comeback show for his band. I don’t think the symbolism of that could be more obvious.
It was semi-autobiographical. As Webber notes in the article, Prince and Wendy and Lisa had eternal problems getting along, not just because he condescended to them and denied them the right amount of credit for how much they had to do with the sound that was The Revolution, but also because he treated them shabbily for being lesbians. And as Webber notes, Prince has had some legendarily bad relationships with women because he’s got control issues. But what I find interesting about him and especially about the movie “Purple Rain” is that he put all this out there for people to see, and there’s no doubt that he himself has assessed his sexist tendencies and decided that he’s fucked up. I don’t think there’s any other way to read the end of “Purple Rain” than to say that Wendy and Lisa were right all along, and until The Kid got enough humility to really listen to women, he would continue to be a failure.
It’s a brave thing to do. It’s actually a shame that “Purple Rain” is such a poorly constructed movie, because I’d like to see more and better movies, TV shows, and other forms of storytelling really deal with men’s struggles to be better, less sexist men. Perhaps more men would be willing to take on feminism if the difficulty of the struggle were validated. I’m not saying that we should coddle sexism or anything, but that we should also acknowledge that for men, it’s not actually that easy to be egalitarian. There’s not a lot of models out there for men to follow on how to be better men. For straight men who want to be feminist, sex especially can feel like a landmine, since entire cultural vocabulary about heterosex implies that it’s demeaning to women and a conquest of them. Feminists ask male allies to be better men, and for a lot of men, they get stuck on the hows.
On the question of sex, though, Webber really does a bang-up job of talking about how Prince has managed to be an interesting and creative voice in answering that question of how. Webber takes a couple of unnecessary jabs at Prince’s promiscuity, but on the whole, he really gets at what makes Prince’s lyrics in the 80s and 90s so shocking and revolutionary. In the sexual landscape of Prince lyrics, women are celebrated for the very things that will get you demonized pretty much anywhere else. They masturbate proudly, they sleep around unapologetically, they jam out with their clams out. Sure, the heroine in “Little Red Corvette” is told she drives too fast, but am I the only one who thinks the narrator is supposed to sound more needy than authoritative? Privately, Prince was a monster to Wendy and Lisa, but in public they sing sexily to each other on “Computer Blue”. In the rest of the world, the stereotype is that women want love and commitment, but men want casual sex. In Prince songs, those roles are often reversed, with Prince putting himself in the position of a male narrator infatuated with a woman who is too busy getting busy to settle down. We’re often told by anti-feminists that equality between the sexes would somehow diminish the erotic potential of eros itself, but when you listen to Prince, you begin to wonder how anyone had fun in bed without women being liberated. It’s hard to measure how much influence on the public psyche these songs had, but I imagine quite a bit. It helped normalize the idea of sexually aggressive women.
*I don’t think he started The Time. I think he just discovered and promoted them.
Speaking of music, seeing X and the Detroit Cobras.
X on David Letterman:
And the Knitters, their country western band.
The Detroit Cobras:
*Side note: I think that he actually discovered The Time, but didn’t put them together.