4 - The Beatles and the Gender Revolution

Return to all essays >>

4 - The Beatles and the Gender Revolution



Steven Stark writes in his book Meet The Beatles: A cultural analyses of The Beatles, that The Beatles were “gender-benders.” They changed the way most people viewed the traditional models of gender.




“People forget that when they first came to America, much attention was paid to the way they looked with their long hair, which today doesn’t look that long. At that time, long hair was considered absolutely outrageous. Very quickly The Beatles changed the way men looked, and the way men thought about the way they looked. Before they arrived, the model for “maleness” in the culture, for lack of a better term, consisted of people like John Wayne and Gary Cooper.


After The Beatles came to America, those things were washed out forever.”




The Beatles galvanized women. It’s no coincidence that they arrived at the time in which the women’s movement was just taking off. Beatlemania was the first widespread outburst during the sixties to feature women – particularly teenagers – in a radical context.




Stark says that if you interview women today who were young girls at the time – screaming for The Beatles – many of them will say their first taste of feminism came listening to The Beatles while surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of other girls screaming for them. They had a galvanizing effect on gender not only in the American culture, but around the world.




Stark believes they were able to bend and break the conventions of rock and roll that promoted machismo and rebelliousness, and as a result, they played a significant role in the stirrings of a gender revolution. Unlike Elvis, The Beatles did not flaunt their male sexuality when they performed. This deviation enabled them to appear attractively vulnerable.




The Beatles presented a less masculine image through music




While there is no doubt Brian Epstein tried to make them more appealing to female audiences, his influence on the greater scheme of events was almost nil. It was in their songs that their message was being heard. Says Stark:




“The Beatles’ early songs constantly talked about a utopian and pleasant existence with the opposite sex. They sang about love with ideas where a boy could love a girl and she could love him back – speaking from both male and female points of view. They challenged the definition that existed during their time of what it meant to be a man. This ultimately allowed them to help change the way men feel, the way men look and think about the way they look.”




Although it may have been unintentional, they served to feminize the culture. There was no gender revolution until The Beatles came along. Stark says with the prominence they accorded women in their songs and lives and the way they spoke to millions of young teenage girls about new possibilities, they tapped into something much larger than themselves. It eventually led to the empowerment of young women.




He contends that this was all done with nothing more than the length of their hair – and by displaying a few mannerisms which almost seem a shade on the feminine side, such as tossing of their long manes of hair. At that time very young “women” are still a little frightened of the idea of sex. Therefore they felt safer worshipping idols that don’t seem too masculine, or too much the “he-man”.






The influence on the “Girl Groups”




Mathew Bannister, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, writes that “Girl Groups” empowered all listeners by positing a female view of love. The Beatles attempted to empower all listeners by suggesting implicitly that gender didn’t matter. Instead, “Love is all you need.”




Historian Elaine Tyler May of the University of Minnesota has researched the intersection of gender, sexuality, domestic culture and politics. She says that the implications of The Beatles’ relatively androgynous appearance had a far more profound effect on sexual and women’s liberation than anyone could have guessed at the time. They set the tone for feminism.




“They recognized in their own way that men have to change too in order to permit that revolution to happen.”




Professor Sheila Whitely has investigated the subject of woman and popular music. She writes:




“Beatles songs were characterized by their ebullient and catchy qualities. Their songs, like their mop top image at the time, maintained a certain naivety that renders them unthreatening. They construct an imaginary ideal whereby the teenager is invited to mentally negotiate the experience of being young and in love.”




In her study BeatleMania: Girls Just Want To Have Fun, American feminist-activist Barbara Ehrenreich claimed that Beatlemania was an early experience of female collectivity for a generation of girls who grew up to be second wave feminists.




“Beatlemania helped girls to explore their sexuality in an era when the subject position of ‘teenage’ was still under construction. Love of The Beatles was a risk-free step toward adult love. Also, as they projected a collective image, this contributed to their mass appeal amongst teenage girls as research shows that while men tend to work within hierarchical structures, women are more likely to create collaborate groups.”




In her book Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media, Susan Douglas proposed that Beatle magnetism was due at least in part to the fact that they sang in voices high enough for girls to match, so that Beatlemaniacs could participate in music-making while they listened. What The Beatles had that was different and new was the way they seemed to sometimes speak from girls’ points of view. By singing songs originally sung by women, they occupied a number of ambivalent subject positions, especially in terms of gender.




For instance, songs like She Loves You featured a female voice in the narrative’s foreground: “she told me what to say” – connecting to “girl talk” tradition. The song not only speaks of a real-life dynamic between lovers, but also – and most importantly – places responsibility on the man, not his female partner. The song adheres to the “advice formula” of the “Girl Groups”. In the third verse they sing, “You know it’s up to you/ I think it’s only fair/Pride can hurt you too/Apologize to her”. This was probably the first time in a pop or rock and roll song that the man was blamed for a failing relationship.




Kimberly Cura writes in She Loves You: The Beatles and Female Fanaticism, that by covering the songs of the “Girl Groups”, The Beatles were not only able to attract a large female audience, but they also managed to transform female dependence into male vulnerability.


This was done by changing the gender pronouns in lyrics and, later, writing songs with pronounced themes of sensitivity, collectiveness and romance.




Cura says The Beatles’ original songs underpinned the ideal of the second generation of feminism: the freedom of women from traditional gender-related constrictions. She points out that women in The Beatles’ songs were not depicted as the idealized figures described in typical rock lyrics, but instead, represented fully-formed characters. They also tended not to objectify women as sex objects and where women are described they tend to be active rather than static, as in Drive My Car and Norwegian Wood.






Using The Beatles to measure changes in perceptions of masculinity




When Professor Martin King of the Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK wanted to explore the changing representations of men and masculinities in the 1960s, he concluded that The Beatles were the place to start due to their position as a group of men who became a global phenomenon.




His 2009 study, Running like big daft girls: A multi-method study of representations of and reflections on men and masculinities through The Beatles, used the backdrop of The Beatles’ live action films as a sample of Beatle “texts” which allowed them to be viewed at different points throughout the decade and for possible changes over that time period.




What emerged were a number of interesting findings: resistance, non-conformity, feminized appearance, pre-metro-sexuality, the male star as object of desire, and The Beatles as a global male phenomenon. They were open to the radical diversity of the world in a period of rapid social change.




Broader ideas about the role of the arts also emerged with the conclusion that the sixties was a period where representations of gender (as well as class and race) became more accessible due to the rise in popularity of TV in the UK and a resurgence in British cinema.




King believes further research is required on the competing crisis/revolt discourse at work in the field of critical men’s studies to ascertain female perspectives on representations of masculinities and their impact.


Return to all essays >>