Feminist Music By Gina Messina-Dysert
Last week Caroline Kline shared the article “Feminist Films” and discussed the Bechdel Test as a way to identify whether or not a film is feminist. It left me wondering – can we identify music as feminist in the same way? Music generally does not offer dialogue between two women. But there are instances where we find two women singing together about feminist issues like the 80’s classic “Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves.” There are also women singing about or to women, like Juliana Hatfield’s “My Sister.” And there is music that acknowledges women’s struggles as women like Ani Difranco’s “I’m No Heroine,” No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl,” and Pink’s “Stupid Girls”. But is this the only way to identify feminist music?
What about Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know?” In the early 90’s when this song was released it left women everywhere claiming it as their anthem. They recognized Morissette’s experience as their own and utilized the song to help release the anger and suffering they experienced as a result of their relationships with men. Although some claim it does not support a feminist agenda because it focuses on a woman expressing her rage over her lover’s betrayal, I think it affirms Carol Christ’s notion that women need to hear the stories of other women.*
And what about Pink’s “So What?” Although the song certainly mentions a man, it allows women having relationship struggles to recognize their strength and ability to exist beyond what society has dictated as the norm for women. It supports the idea that women no longer have to crumble when their relationships with men end; rather women can be and are their own persons.
I think there are so many ways we can identify music as feminist and so many examples of feminist songs by strong women. But can only women produce feminist music? This question led me back to Rosemary Radford Ruether’s article “What is Feminism?” According to Ruether, “Feminism is about both women and men. It affirms women’s full humanity, but it is not a putdown of men’s humanity. Rather it is a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men,” (Par. 5).
This quote allows music to be understood as feminist beyond the limits of the Bechdel Test. As a feminist theologian, I find great value in the music of the above mentioned women, as well as many other female artist who utilize their talents to explore issues that challenge women and create lyrics that allow women to recognize they are not alone in their experiences. However, there is also music by men that I find great value in; music that indeed critiques patriarchy and affirms the full humanity of women.
The Dave Matthews Band is known for the social justice message infused its music. But I would argue you can also categorize its music as feminist because it acknowledges women’s experience and affirms the full humanity of women and men. For instance, the song Grey Street laments a woman’s suffering in an abusive relationship and acknowledges her theodicy questions and feelings of being abandoned by God. The song “Sister” celebrates our relationships with women and the song “Cry Freedom” calls for solidarity and demands justice for all women and men. Although these songs are written and performed by an all male band, they certainly are feminist.
Thinking of Christ’s recognition that women need to hear the stories of other women and Ruether’s definition of feminism as the full humanity of every person, I think we can expand our understanding of music as feminist beyond the Bechdel Test. When we listen to music, we bring our history and life experience which attracts us to specific artists and songs. Because of this, women are often attracted to female artists and songs by women. However, music by men can also share women’s experience and affirm the full humanity of women and thus, must be recognized as feminist.
*See Diving Deep and Surfacing by Carol P. Christ.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist, and received her Ph.D. in religion at Claremont Graduate University focused in the areas of women’s studies in religion and theology, ethics, and culture. She is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder and co-director of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles, the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter@FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.