Judging women: ‘You Overdid it Doll’

(Yes, this blog is back from the dead, hopefully permanently, but that all depends on how much sleep I get, how exhausting work and teaching experience is, and, apparently, by how often something enrages me.)

I just heard You Overdid It Doll by The Courteeners on the radio, and it inspired me to resurrect this blog, something I’ve been trying to for a long time. How did it do it? By enraging me. I seem to have a very few topics that I return to again and again, and this song epitomises one of them – the way women are judged and have their behaviour dictated to by men.

You Overdid It Doll is basically about a man saying how much of a mess the ‘doll’ of the title is, she seems to be his ex-girlfriend, but now ‘Your teeth are starting to go, 5 nights a week its starting to show’, but it’s ok, because though she takes ‘it’ to an extreme he doesn’t, ‘it’ be drinking and social drugs or it could be harder drugs, suggested by the phrase ‘I shoot it like a Tommy gun’, not far from the “shooting up” of heroin.

The content of this song is essentially the same as Thrash Unreal, by Against Me!,which I have written about before. Both are from a male’s perspective, about a woman who is beginning to suffer from the effects of a party lifestyle, for lack of a better term. But there is one very big difference – the narrator of You Overdid It Doll is judging his ex, it’s obvious in the title of the song, and it is obvious the whole way through. He criticises her appearance, ‘Your teeth are starting to go’, ‘Dark shadows around your eyes’, and her personality, ‘the taming of the shrew’. Ah yes, throw in a Shakespearian comparison, which incidentally sets him up as just the man to “save” her, because shattering her spirit, just like in the play, is such a wonderful thing to do. He judges her and finds her failing, and then proceeds to dictate to her what her behaviour should be, all the while showing hypocrisy because whatever it is she is doing, drink or drugs, it is fine for him to do, in moderation or not.

This is rather different from the acknowledgment in Thrash Unreal that the woman is her own person, ‘If she wants to dance and drink all night then there‚Äôs no one that can stop her’, her situation is presented rather than judged, in fact the narrator appears to sympathise with her, ‘We do what we do to get by’, ‘they keep getting younger don’t they baby?’ Here the pet name is one of solidarity, but, of course, the use of ‘doll’ in the title of The Courteeners song grates with me, it’s patronising and a reminder that the woman is the narrator’s ex, as in not his girlfriend any more, and so nothing to do with him, and yet he still looks at her and judges her.

It really annoys me that while I was doing research for this piece all I found was people raving about how good the lyrics are. Hah, they’re sexist, prescriptivist, high and mighty and just a little bit creepy. I think I’ll stick with Against Me!, who show that men can write about women as people, to be understood and sympathised with, whether their actions are agreed with or not.

“If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”

This week in my Vision and Sexuality in Victorian Poetry course we were discussing Tennyson’s early poems about women, especially Mariana, Mariana in the South and The Lady of Shalott, and Alfred Austin’s view that Tennyson was a feminine poet, with a “feminine muse”, something Austin was not very flattering about. Actually, my notes to the essay got the point where I was just underlining and writing ‘more misogyny’, as not much else needed to be said.

This was of course because, yes, many of Tennyson’s poems deal with female subjects, or have female narrators, my teacher suggested that these women are stand-ins for Tennyson, because he is writing in the voice of a woman or about a woman they give him freedom to express emotions he would be less able to express as a man. For example, in Mariana, the eponymous character does to some extent seem to luxuriate in her misery, abandoned by her lover she waits for him in her house, which is decaying around her, and it is an incredibly beautiful poem and her misery is awful, but though the refrain “‘She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,/ I would that I were dead!'” ends each stanza she does not take action, and this cannot be from impropriety, the spurned lover killing him or herself is a staple of literature, beginning with the myths surrounding Sappho.

This interest in the tragic woman, and identification with her, struck me totally by accident, as I was listening to Against Me! I wonder if they could be described as having a “feminine muse”, certainly on the album New Wave two of the songs that most stand out to me, Thrash Unreal and The Ocean are about women. Thrash Unreal takes the figure of the junkie party girl, sexual impropriety and addiction, and highlights the desperateness of her situation, “She keeps on working for that minimum,/ as if a high school education gave you any other options”, she is trapped in a cycle of sex and drugs, seemingly because she does not fit in with the accepted female role, it is easy to imagine it as her voice saying “Some people just aren’t the type for marriage and family”. As well as highlighting the lack of freedom given by a poor education, this song draws awareness to the self-knowledge of the woman, in some ways she can be seen to belong to the trope of the unrepentant woman, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

The idea of a male author presenting themselves as female, or writing in the voice of a woman, is one that can be seen to be important in The Ocean, which celebrates the beauty and peace of the ocean, but also, in the second half of the song, explores the transmutation of the male narrator’s experience into that of a female’s. The line “if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman”, suggests a male’s idealistic view of women’s lives, or perhaps his pessimistic view of his own life, combined with his admiration of his mother, “I would grow up to be strong and beautiful like her”. This positive view of the mother and son relationship fits with the idealistic view of the narrator. His fantasy female self fulfills traditional female roles, “I’d find an honest man to make my husband,/ We would have to children”, again the life described is idealistic but it also seems to tie in with the idea of the male author using a female persona to express emotions or wishes that can not be expressed in another way, in this case the narrator admits openly this is a fantasy,something he wishes for but does not have. By attributing the wish for a simple, domestic life to the female self Tom Gable continues the tradition of presenting women as the more emotional, irrational sex, but interestingly seems to imply that men are unable to hope for domestic bliss, though they in fact do so, and so must resort to the female voice, just as in Tennyson’s poetry he resorts to the female voice to express deep emotion in a melancholy way rather than an angry one.

This of course perpetuates gender stereotypes, though an exploration of the idea of the female self or voice can be seen to question the very idea of gender stereotypes as oppresive to men as well as to women, not a new idea in feminist theory when Tom Gable was writing for Against Me!, but certainly a more unusual one when Tennyson was writing, though Mary Wollstonecraft raised to some extent similar ideas in A Vindication of the Right’s of Woman. As such all the texts examined have a feminist element to them, though it might be more accurate to say that they have an interest in masculinity and the male, and so are masculinist, despite the unfortunate connotations of the word.

Links:

Against Me! The Ocean: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_10_the_ocean/

Against Me! Thrash Unreal: http://www.againstme.net/am.php/disco/track_detail/track_03_thrash_unreal/

Tennyson, Alfred, Mariana: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/mariana

Tennyson, Alfred, The Lady of Shalott: http://www.englishverse.com/poems/the_lady_of_shalott