A Little Care | Pushing the Wave

A Little Care

Opinion, 22 September 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Graffiti in Wicker Park Chicago
Graffiti in Wicker Park, Chicago
The past couple of weeks have brought us the awful, yet horribly familiar, news of someone in the spotlight, yet another male performer and celebrity, being accused of rape and sexual abuse.

He has been exposed thanks to the determination of incredibly brave women and the worked of dogged journalists, neither of whom will let these stories remain in the dark.

The revelations once again raise two very important, related, issues, both which we had cosily assumed had been laid to rest in our modern, enlightened era.

The first is that some men use positions of power to dominate, manipulate and abuse those placed in their trust, clearly in the belief that that is their right.

The second is that the microcosm of society surrounding those people of power turns a blind eye to their actions, which have clearly taken place over several years, and in doing so facilitates the damage and harm those men visit upon young, vulnerable people.

Cases like these, which have been disturbingly frequent in recent years, spark off all sorts of concerns and fears, many of which have already been discussed at length in the press. However, it struck me while reading about a similar case a few years ago, and again now, just how much our popular portrayals of sexual dynamics have shifted over recent decades.

When I studied social anthropology, I was taught you can learn about how a society functions from all sorts of seemingly unconnected and disparate sources. In this context I have always been fascinated by the lyrics of pop songs.

They are a public statement by the writer on a given topic; a statement they are not only content to share but also to promote a widely as possible.

Moreover, by playing on the record and producing it, the musicians and engineers involved tacitly accept the statement as valid; as does, by definition, the record label, otherwise they wouldn’t fund its release and promotion.

And finally the popularity of the song indicates, on some level, an acceptance of the artist’s beliefs by the public.

Now, pop songs are of course made up of music as well as lyrics, and some songs are so insanely catchy that it is possible to utterly ignore the words, at least on first or second hearing.

I have nevertheless noticed there was a large shift in the way in which the sexual dynamics between men and women are portrayed from the 1980s to today.

Back in the heyday of free-market economics, the Sony Walkman and teen flicks like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, men liked to portray themselves as hapless victims of predator women, who wanted to drag them away from the life they wanted — hanging out drinking beer with their buddies and talking about women and cars — to one they didn’t want but were obliged to follow: that of the family man who is tied to one woman and the responsibilities of parenthood.

Let’s pick two songs almost at random. The first is Invisible Touch, which was a huge hit for Genesis in 1986.

In it, Phil Collins states: “Well I don't really know her / I only know her name / Ooh, but she crawls under your skin / You're never quite the same”.

He later adds: “She's got something you just can't trust / And it's something mysterious / And now it seems I'm falling, falling for her”.

And Collins of course says in the famous chorus: “She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah / It takes control and slowly tears you apart”.

I won’t dissect the lyrics in great detail but what I will say is Collins is trying to suggest he is utterly passive and helpless in the face of a woman who has some sort of unseen and unknowable power. It sounds more like a fairytale for children than the words of a grown-up talking about their relationship with another adult.

Let’s turn to different smash hit from the decade of excess: Maneater, by Hall and Oates, which was released in 1982. I really needn’t bother quoting from the lyrics, as the title says it all (despite protests from John Oates, which don’t seem that persuasive when you watch the video to the song), but here goes:

“She’s deadly, man / She could really rip your world apart / Mind over matter / Ooh, the beauty is there but a beast is in the heart”

Charming.

And this 1980s notion of the man who just wanted to get on with his little life, hanging out with other men and doing men’s things, but can’t because he is entranced by a devil woman can be found in hundreds of songs from the era, as well as in films, TV series, books, you name it.

One can almost imagine a group of men happily drinking beer together in the garden of their local pub, while she-beasts prowl in the dark corners, waiting to pounce on any unlucky male who strays too close.

What strikes me is this concept has, over recent decades, been slowly flipped on its head, especially now that, quite rightly, the focus of representation in the arts and media has shifted away from being aimed entirely at men, with women ‘othered’, to women being addressed more directly, and men more commonly being given a secondary role.

This version portrays women as being part of a female community and wanting to get on with their life and fulfil their ambitions, and men cast as the predators, seeking to make women their prey and divert them from their path.

This notion took on a life of its own with the Weinstein affair and the #metoo movement, when women were portrayed as helpless victims in the face of ruthless male domination, who ground them down and destroyed them before they had a chance to flourish.

The key difference between those two versions of sexual dynamics is that the 1980s concept of the hapless male in the face of the female predator was, at best, ironic and, at worst, a sick joke. Women at the time had agency only if they conformed to the patriarchy, and one could say that, while we pay lip service to the idea of gender equality, the cases we see today of female exploitation in plain sight suggest not much has changed.
So what has all that got to do with the image at the top of this page?

It perhaps seems as if the child in the graffiti is meek, certainly delicate, and the bird too. What I see, however, is potential. All they need to flourish is a little shelter, a little space, a little light and a little care.

What disgusts me about abuses of power, particular with the inevitable sexual dimension and horrific sense of exploitation, is that there is no care and no protection, and if there is any recognition of the person within, it is simply to crush their spirit and blot out their light before it can become a flame.

I chose the image, which I took in Wicker Park, Chicago, in 2018, because it reminds us that we all, at some point in our lives, require a little nourishment and warmth, and that we must help those who are vulnerable and in need.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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© L.A. Davenport 2017-2023.

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A Little Care | Pushing the Wave