Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Troublesome Feminist Classics: The Second Sex and Courtney Love

Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949), the seminal work of modern feminism, is fat enough that reading it used up all of my library renewals; consequently, I have no copy to refer to in reviewing it. I can say that I tore through The Second Sex, fascinated even as I violently agreed or disagreed with every sentence (or tried to decide which): it has the scope and generalization of a work of philosophy with the detail and psychological insight of an epic novel. It's easily one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've ever read, fiction or non-. In fact I don't think I've been so thought-provoked since I read its obvious progeny, Paglia's Sexual Personae, as a teenager.

Ironically, it's as feminism that The Second Sex may be found wanting today. In de Beauvoir's use of existentialism, as wearisomely repeated throughout the work (which is nothing if not doctrinaire in its philosophical framework), the subject must realize him/herself by transcending him/herself through action in the world. Otherwise we “sink” into “mere immanence,” which to de Beauvoir is pure “emptiness.” This is how de Beauvoir explains the position of women at present: men have stifled their potential for action in the world; consequently, women are useless creatures of immanence.

Here are just a few problems with this conception of feminism:
  1. For de Beauvoir, the traditional male subject position is the human subject position. Because every subject sets him or herself up as sovereign and essential through positioning others as the “inessential Other” and trying to dominate the latter (more of de Beauvoir's existentialism), and because women were originally at a slight disadvantage vis-a-vis men because of the burdens of pregnancy, childbirth, and child care, men stopped women from achieving this full human status. Consequently, for de Beauvoir equality will be achieved when women are allowed to act exactly like men.

    For contemporary feminists or anyone who's opposed to gender essentialism or all that's meant by the catch-all “patriarchy,” this analysis doesn't go nearly far enough. De Beauvoir could not have foreseen that the democratic impulse would one day, not very far in the future (about half a century), lead to the deconstruction of what we mean when we say “masculinity.” The Second Sex opens with de Beauvoir mocking the essentialists of her time and their question, “Where are all the women?”; now they ask, “Where are the men?”
  1. De Beauvoir's insistence that action in the public sphere is the only vehicle for human fulfillment leads to some strange and uncomfortable conclusions. She glorifies playground violence in the process of lamenting the way that girls are prevented from natural self-expression through physical action, from climbing trees to smacking your companion. Women, she asserts, have no opportunity to test themselves against others, whether through the exertion of their strength or, later, at work, and so they have no true sense of their own abilities and come to falsely value their selves instead (i.e., they become narcissists). But there is no analysis here of the way that boys are coerced from their playground days into violence that may frighten and repel the majority of them.

    While overvaluing violence, de Beauvoir severely undervalues maternity – and must do so through the logic of her argument. While she seems to be offering a corrective to the view that marriage and maternity are the fulfillment of the female “destiny,” in fact motherhood for de Beauvoir must always take second place to the true fulfillment of the human destiny, work, even as it interferes with that destiny. The de Beauvoirian feminist could only ever be childless by choice, which unfortunately makes de Beauvoirian feminism completely non-viable, not only because the world has to be populated but because the vast majority of women want to experience motherhood. For de Beauvoir such women are victims of social programming (or “advertising,” as she wittily calls it at one point) who have “accepted their feminine destiny” as the easy road to achieving regard instead of the “authentic” way. But even if you are childless by choice, as I am, it's a grim version of feminism that defines motherhood as a species necessity that prevents women who indulge it from ever completely realizing the fully human destiny.
  1. Abstractly, the idea that the human destiny is to realize oneself by transcending oneself through action in the public sphere in the form of work sounds good, but de Beauvoir herself realizes that work in its present form is far from living up to the glorious role she gives it. Consequently she also must periodically admit that the vast majority of men are no more fulfilling their human destiny than women are. At one point she even admits that the only place where we see the difference is in the case of a tiny minority of male creative geniuses. It's unclear whether her brand of existentialism implies socioeconomic reform for all so that both men and women can achieve fulfillment or whether she is elitist and wants the path cleared for exceptional women to join the pantheon of exceptional men.
Here, on the other hand, are a couple of key feminist arguments that I'd formerly agreed with unthinkingly, but which I was persuaded of by de Beauvoir:
  1. There can be no equality for women without access to birth control and abortion. If women are at the mercy of their biology they will not be able to participate in the social world created by men and will remain, to a substantial degree, chattel. For the same reasons I was finally fully convinced, as well, that maternity leave, parental leave, and access to affordable or free daycare services are essential components of an egalitarian, civilized society.
  1. There can be no equality for women without economic independence. No one can be a free person who is in a state of economic dependency on another person. This, again, makes motherhood problematic – and I should note here that everything in The Second Sex implies that problematic status: according to the argument presented (and it is a compelling perspective), the equality of women does not become a social problem until we have reached a very advanced stage of individualism, and individualism makes the natural in the human, as vividly symbolized by maternity, extremely problematic. In cases where the division of labour in a child-raising partnership is such that one person earns while the other raises the children, child-raising must be legally recognized as work in case of divorce and consequent loss of one's means of support. What de Beauvoir could not have foreseen is that men might decide to be the ones to stay home – if the inclinations of the couple are aligned that way, or if the woman happens to have the better job.
Courtney Love and the Failure of Feminism

The moment when I first became really cognizant of Courtney Love was a feminist epiphany, though of a peculiar sort. It was when I saw the video for “Violet” for the first time, when I must have been 19, in 1994. What struck me about the video was the way that Love mingled traditional feminine imagery with a depiction of herself as massively messed-up. At 19 I had read Camille Paglia; I thought I knew how I felt about feminism; I thought that (as de Beauvoir prefaces The Second Sex, published in 1949) most of the significant battles had been won, or close enough; I did not feel hampered by my gender in my writing career or my ambition to be an academic; I thought that Western women were free of the old stereotypes and could choose to adopt “femininity” or discard it at will, always viewing it ironically. From my late teens through my mid-20s, the period of my life when I was most interested in style, sometimes I cut my hair short and dressed to resemble Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc or David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth; sometimes I grew it longer and dressed to resemble Grace Kelly, complete with a string of pearls.

The message that the “Violet” video sent me was simple: feminism had failed. Young women were not okay. We were not “over” the stereotypes and expectations. If anything, feminism had contributed to our confusion and frustration, because we found that we couldn't live up to either traditional or feminist expectations. We did not feel powerful. The woman in the “Violet” video wasn't just angry; she was raw, vulnerable, masochistic. She was no feminist ideal except in the sense that she was everything the culture did not want to see: the culture didn't want to know about women's rage and pain and conflict. You were supposed to be pretty on the inside, too; and if you couldn't be, then you at least had to hide it and keep it pretty on the outside.

I had previously been aware of Love from an interview in the NME that I started reading because Love, on the cover, was juxtaposing feminine imagery and punk style in a way that I'd started doing at 17; reading it, I was impressed that she had read Paglia's Sexual Personae. I didn't know anyone else at all who'd read the book that had changed my life, and it certainly wasn't the kind of thing you expected a celebrity to talk about. Oddly, all of the things we had in common didn't make me check out her music. A rabid Smiths fan, I was following the early developments of Britpop in the form of Suede and Elastica; I liked glam, not grunge.

Soon after that, I got married and thought that I had to give up my teenage obsession with pop music, which, I felt, would have consumed my life and made it impossible to live in the real world. As it happened my husband was a Hole fan and recommended Live Through This to me when I mentioned my reaction to the “Violet” video. But the cover of the album, with its distorted image of a demented beauty queen, in combination with the band name, frankly scared me. Love was getting at deeply uncomfortable things about women's relationship to their femininity, and I wasn't ready for it. It had to wait until my mid-20s, when I was a divorced frustrated playwright, for me to be angry enough to appreciate Live Through This, which I played constantly in my tiny dorm room, alternating it with The Marshall Mathers LP.

Googling Courtney

That was the year 2000, the same year I became an internet user in a serious way, after getting access to it as a research assistant. During my lunch break or after I'd finished my work for the day I'd sit in my office doing things like googling Courtney Love. Googling Courtney is in many ways an ill-advised thing for a fan to do: between her many moments of seeming madness, all the drugs, and the (sometimes paranoid) online vitriol directed at her, a bout of Courtney googling lasts me for years. I must have had one or two more little ones in between 2000 and the last few days, the latest prompted by seeing her live for the first time, on her I'm Still Alive tour, at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. A good thing about only googling a celeb at long intervals is that when you go back there's a wealth of new material.

Courtney Love's relationship to feminism is as controversial as everything else about her. I'm sure there are better feminist role models in rock: women who were only ever interested in music, not fame; who have quietly released one good album after another; who are famous only for what they have done, not for whom they married; whose wealth is entirely their own. Kat Bjelland has been at pains to clarify that when Courtney came to her in the late 80s with the idea of creating an all-girl band, Courtney could not play an instrument or, therefore, write songs. This, however, put her in no different a position than Morrissey's when he met Johnny Marr. Like Morrissey, she had only a talent for writing lyrics, a willingness to sing, delusional-seeming ego and ambition, and a misfit's desire to get revenge on the world by becoming famous. While Morrissey has never changed his strange ways, Love, as a woman, had more to prove, and consequently eventually became a proficient guitarist and learned how to craft classic pop songs. In early interviews (such as one with Cobain in Sassy) she complains that women in music are known as lyricists rather than songwriters and declares her ambition to join the ranks of the latter. 

Feminism is a theme for Love from the beginning, and she's never stopped talking about it. And the young Love, I discovered this time (through the excellent VH1 Behind the Music documentary), has some serious feminist bona fides: she “demanded” that Faith No More make her their lead singer, crashing the all-male rock party directly, until, naturally, they booted her out, preferring to go in the direction of “a male energy”; whereupon she resolved “to have an all-female band that took over the entire world.” At that point she hooked up with Bjelland, but Love's drug use got in the way; she went to L.A., started an abortive movie career, eventually formed Hole with Eric Erlandson and pursued first Billy Corgan and then Kurt Cobain.
Internet defenders of Love have it that Hole was outselling Nirvana two to one when Love and Cobain first met; I see no reason to doubt this, and in that case Love's "groupie tendencies" indicated only that her desire to be a rock star had a fascination with rock stars as the other side of a single coin.

It's not original to note that the unequal “feminist” supercouple of Cobain and Love was rock's answer to the Clintons in the same decade. Two decades later we seem no closer to a female president of the United States (and Canada is doing no better in that regard), but we are getting better at entertainment supercouples, such as Jay-Z and Beyonce – a marriage between multimillionaires of equal fame. But while there's always been room for both men and women in mainstream pop, there has not been room for women in rock. There is no competition between Jay-Z and Beyonce because there is no idea that Beyonce might want to be Jay-Z. Why would she? In rock, however, there can only be one great star per generation, and Courtney Love wanted to be it. Instead, her husband was it, and hated it so much that he committed suicide, which only made him more it. In a further irony, the explosion of Nirvana and Cobain's suicide were practically the last moment that rock mattered. American alt-rock got a commercial boost from Nirvana's success that lasted through the 90s, while England celebrated guitar pop in the same decade, but by the turn of the millennium the commercial scene was dominated by hip-hop and dance-pop and the alternative scene by various kinds of post-rock (from twee through electronic), aside from the blip of The Strokes/Libertines/White Stripes. The mantle Love was after, that was going to redeem her existence – to be a rock star like the male rock stars, not a girl rock star in a girl rock ghetto, a rock star like Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger or Eddie Vedder, but also unlike them because a woman doing the same things can't mean the same thing – has dematerialized.

The Cultural Significance of “Bad Feminism”

Courtney's “bad feminism” is one of the things that makes her more culturally significant than the good feminists of rock. In her we see a woman of limitless ambition, great talent, and an insatiable need to rebel in constant conflict with cultural expectations. Love has always wanted to conform as powerfully as she wanted to rebel. An outsider by virtue of her appearance and attitude, she wanted to become an “insider” in the world of celebrity, of the wealthy and powerful and famous; her literally compulsive name-dropping is Proustian snobbery transposed to the “democratic” era of celebrity. At the same time, she has never been able to conform for long; the tragic part is that her form of rebellion is so self-destructive.

Love's relationship with physical beauty is as conflicted as her relationship with the beautiful people, as though each were a metaphor for the other. 80s photos reveal that before the plastic surgery started, Love was definitely no one's idea of pretty, although she was cute and stylish in a street urchin way; sometimes she looks like a young Pete Doherty. After she dyed her hair blonde and the facial adjustments began, that briefly turned into a cross between Marie Antoinette (suitably pictured, with her head chopped off, on the cover of Nobody's Daughter), Bernadette Peters, and early Madonna. From her earliest interviews Love maintained that sexual attractiveness was a more interesting choice than being sexless or plain, and the way Love played with the blonde baby doll/beauty queen archetype from Pretty on the Inside through Live Through This was as much a part of her significance as her music and her rage. She was certainly fascinated by the sexual charisma of male rock musicians, but that could not be reproduced by a woman because the mass male audience does not find aggression sexy or sexiness aggressive. She knew that she would have to be a new, unknown archetype – but she wasn't going to ignore sex.

One reason Courtney wanted to become an insider, or at least be accepted by the insiders, is summarized by her statement in an early 90s interview: “I want to affect culture in a very large way.” She had no interest in being eternally viewed, despised, and dismissed as a punk; she wanted to be taken seriously and to reach a mass audience. This has, of course, always been indie's dilemma: how to be anti-mainstream outsiders without limiting one's ambition; and on the other hand, how to reach the mass audience without selling out/conforming. Courtney has acted out that dilemma, just as she's acted out the conflicted relationship of women to beauty and sexual “power” (from a woman whose background includes a stint in foster homes where molestation was a constant threat, from which she escaped partly by stripping for cash). No good feminist is supposed to admit that she wants to be beautiful, maybe more than anything in the world, as no good punk is supposed to admit that she wants to be famous. Conflicts like these are part of what makes Courtney Love reflect, and in doing so affect, culture.

Ground in the Very Mill of the Conventional

At the moment Courtney is being a good girl again. She wants to promote her new album, whose release has been pushed back to coincide with the Xmas season appearance of her memoir. There's a good chance that the memoir will sell, so maybe it'll help the album – who knows? To increase its chances she's doing the rounds of genteel publicity in order to endear herself, as she put it in one interview, to the people in Texas who think she's still on crack. She showed up on The View, well-groomed, and let Barbara Walters grill her; she appeared looking like Grace Kelly via the ghost of Madeleine Elster in Vanity Fair, which, as kind to her as usual, skewered her for her truly distressing paranoid obsession with the Nirvana finances (although given that the intermittently incapacitated Love seems like anything except a businesswoman, it's entirely possible that her complaints have some foundation in truth).

She has also accepted an offer to be a reality TV show judge. “I never wanted to be comic relief,” goes the one line that she altered for herself on the one song she didn't co-write on Nobody's Daughter, Linda Perry's “Letter to God.” But in today's celebrity circus, it's hard to know what other role Love could fill. Kurt Cobain's recent transformation into a Muppet (no, not like when it happened to Angel) confirms that he and Love have become 90s nostalgia kitsch detritus. Assuming she can stay off non-prescription drugs, will it be Courtney Love's fate to replace Sharon Osbourne as the reigning rock wife bitch of reality TV? Well, it's true that her first bid for celebrity was when she auditioned for The Mickey Mouse Club... by reading a Sylvia Plath poem. 

But here's the thing: Courtney Love still puts on a great show. I'm as surprised as anyone, between all the drug abuse, the self-indulgence, and the fact that she seems a little bit nuts in recent interviews. To be sure she's always seemed a little bit nuts, but a little bit nuts is charming in a brilliant, ambitious young person or a rock goddess at the height of her fame and glory; less so in a stupendously wealthy middle-aged 90s star with a plastic surgery addiction who's developed an obsession with the idea that people are stealing money from her.

Love, however, is sane and together where it counts for fans, which is on the stage. When I got my ticket I didn't even know what the tour was for, I just wanted to see Courtney. With the low price tag of $51.50 for the mosh pit, I was not only expecting but looking forward to an evening of brand-new material, instead of which we got about half each of Live Through This and Celebrity Skin, plus a couple of covers and a couple of songs from Nobody's Daughter. In interviews I read afterwards Love states that this small-venue tour is for “super-fans” who, she believes, know all the words to her songs. I didn't know there was such a thing as a Courtney Love super-fan because I didn't know there was such a thing as a casual Courtney Love fan, but in any case I was caught out when she directed her microphone at the crowd, handing over every other line of songs like “Miss World” and “Doll Parts” to us. Love is a great lyricist of her generation, but not in a Morrissey way: her lyrics are more like poetry than like prose; they evoke moods and images rather than telling coherent stories, and I've never felt the need to know or understand everything she's saying.

However, to my surprise a good portion of the crowd did seem to know all the words – especially to the Live Through This songs, especially the young women who looked to be in their early 20s. Rather adorably, these same girls imitated Courtney's hand movements during some of the songs like you might expect at a Taylor Swift concert, and exactly one tall young flannel-wearing dude raised his lighter during "Northern Star." (I guess no one carries lighters anymore.) Other young men and women engaged in enthusiastic headbanging, which was also adorable. The almost all-white audience was about 50/50 in terms of gender, with, I think, some trans representation as well; as for ages, to me it looked like about 50/50 20s and 30s. 

Courtney seemed buoyantly happy, e-cigarette dangling from her mouth, throwing roses to the crowd throughout – I caught one when its head became detached from its stem and bounced over audience heads right into my hands. She's in top voice and full of energy, and although she made us scream for an encore (as well she should), when she returned she played four more songs and then lingered on the stage as, handing out the remaining roses to fans in the front row and then examining the “lingerie” (bras and panties), as she called it, that someone had draped over the mic stands while she was offstage,and grinning at us like she was having such a good time she didn't want to leave.

I went with David Fiore, who agreed that it was like when our parents went to see The Rolling Stones in our youth. Of course the difference was that we were 90s indie kids and our rock heroes were never famous on that scale, with the exception of the weird blip of Nirvana, a freak of the zeitgeist; hence the strangeness, though suitable for punk, of seeing a legend in almost a club setting. And regardless of the fact that her career has been overshadowed by her husband's fame and her own drug problems, CL is a legend: as a persona, a performer, and a songwriter. She may not have convinced the world that she's the rock star of her generation, but for a small group of us, seeing Courtney Love in 2013 means exactly what it would have to see The Stones in the early 90s. 

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