Context and Motivation
It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World is one of James Brown’s best known songs. And maybe one of the most sexist songs ever written.
I was talking about this song with my boyfriend, and he said that the second verse especially reminded him of the way the church talks about women, the second verse in particular:
Man thinks about a little baby girls and a baby boys
Man makes then happy, ’cause man make them toys
And after man make everything, everything he can
You know that man makes money, to buy from other man
The lyrics emphasize the role of the man as the provider; his job is to make money and buy things for his family. The song is benevolent; life, after all, “wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, not one little thing, without a woman or a girl.” But it refuses to acknowledge the contributions that women have made to the world, and relegates them to the role of more or less an object. Women are not described as having any thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of their own. Instead they are put on a pedestal.
It may be surprising, then, to note that the song was written by a woman, Betty Jean Newsome. Betty Jean Newsome was an ex-girlfriend of James Brown. The lyrics to the song were based on her experience with relationships between men and women, including her relationship with Brown.
Once I learned that, it made me wonder. Does the fact that this song, in all it’s chauvinistic glory, was written by a woman change the meaning?
I think it does. Coming from a woman, these lyrics could be a lament that this is how life is. It could be satire. It could be an homage to the way things are; she could be perfectly content being the object of meaning in a man’s life. She may be repeating the beliefs of the cultural context she is in.
This relates so strongly to Mormon feminism. How often do those of us who identify with feminism have to defend our positions to other women, like those involved in Mormon Women Stand? How often do we hear talks from female church leaders that endorse traditional gender roles, like “The Moral Force of Women”? Or talks that glorify motherhood, like “Mothers Who Know,” in spite of the fact that many women cannot or choose not to have children? Should the fact that women are saying these things make a difference in how we interpret them?
It is so frustrating to me when the very people Feminism is meant to help reject it, often violently. Talking and thinking about the song got me thinking about the intersection of context and motivation. In thinking about talks we hear from women in conference one thought kept coming back to me over and over. A girl gives a talk in sacrament meeting about motherhood; she is reinforced with praise for her faithfulness. Later, she is called to be the relief society president in her singles branch and encourages those in her stewardship to prepare to be wives and mothers; again, those behaviors are reinforced with praise and greater responsibility. In a few decades she ends up in a position of real influence in the church, a rare opportunity for a woman. But nothing or no one has challenged her previous thinking about gender roles, at least not enough to shake them; in fact most people in her life have told her that they are correct. Why risk her position by challenging the accepted wisdom?
I don’t think this is necessarily a conscious process, and I am in no way trying to denigrate my Sisters who think differently than I do. On the contrary, I am trying to understand. When I put myself in their shoes, their talks and ideals and beliefs make sense. I may still disagree, but I no longer have the impulse to disregard. In order to understand the words of others, especially our fellow women, that seem antifeminist, we need to take context in to account. Hopefully that understanding will help us communicate in a more effective way.