Yoko Ono: A Feminist Analysis (Introduction: Oh Yoko!)

by Cara on December 15, 2008

in feminism, Gratuitous Beatles Blogging, misogyny, pop culture, race and racism, sexism

For J. I think you would have loved these five posts perhaps more than anyone. I wish you could have read them.

I’ve mentioned in passing before that I had intentions to write a feminist analysis of the culture treatment of and perception towards Yoko Ono.  Desiring to make sure that I’m not retreading on well-covered ground, I did a quick search.  And to both my dismay (because it ought to be covered) and relief (because it means I still get to do it), I found only one real substantive conversation on Yoko Ono as a feminist issue.  Now, I know, that’s a big call to make.  Yoko Ono is a well-known feminist — but a feminist issue?  I’d say yes, even if a peripheral, somewhat outdated one.  In addition to interesting me on a personal level, I think that the treatment of Yoko Ono is still relevant to our understanding of art, relationships and a woman’s place in society.

Yoko Ono’s name is tossed around as an insult, sometimes “jokingly,” sometimes really and truly hatefully.  Any woman who dates a male band member and expects to be treated like a person, or any woman who is seen to in some way cause a change in a male artist of any kind, is particularly at risk of being called “Yoko.”  To a lesser extent, so is any woman who expects to be given equal consideration as her partner and her partner’s friends friends. Why is it an insult, exactly?  Well, because “everyone” hates Yoko Ono.  She’s a mentally unbalanced, scheming, money-grubbing, castrating bitch. Oh, and she broke up the Beatles.  Or so they say.

I’m deeply embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I, too, used to greatly resent Yoko Ono.  Virtually every Beatles fan I know has at some point hated or at least disliked Yoko, though unfortunately too many still do.  It’s almost a rite of passage.  The moment you realize the true genius of the Beatles — of course, I’m speaking as someone who was not alive at the time of their popularity as a contemporary band — you start to mourn the fact that they ever broke up.  Why would they do such a thing?  The moment you ask such a question, Yoko’s name will invariably come up thanks to some uniformed soul.  And how could you not hate the person responsible for putting an end to the greatest band of all time, and for supposedly ruining one of the greatest musical geniuses to ever live?

What changed my mind on the issue was simple education.  If you actually take the time to read Beatles history, you’ll see pretty clearly that the cracks in the band were showing for some time before John Lennon even met Yoko.  John was growing away from the Beatles musically, struggling with drug addiction and with the insecurity he seemed to feel in varying degrees throughout most of his life, and was therefore lashing out and pulling away from the group.  Paul McCartney was making a power grab for control of the band, one that he was winning and John felt powerless to stop — and while John had a tendency to be nasty to the people closest to him, Paul had a tendency to be extremely condescending and controlling.  George Harrison was resentful of John and (especially) Paul’s refusal to take his songwriting and musicianship seriously — even though despite being neither the greatest songwriter or vocalist in the group, he was absolutely fucking brilliant.  Ringo Starr never had a serious problem with any of the other Beatles, but was feeling incredibly marginalized within the band and distraught over the disharmony.

The other thing that changed my mind was John himself, and his persistent, repeated earnestness in professing that he wanted out of the Beatles long before Yoko and she only gave him the strength to do it; not to mention his proclamations of happiness and rightful insistence that anyone who hated Yoko and didn’t respect their relationship certainly didn’t love him or have his best interests at heart.

And realizing that Yoko wasn’t to blame for the Beatles breakup makes you ask a question. Why does the myth persist?

I had come to believe that most Beatles historians and true, educated fans had wised up enough to see the Yoko charade for what it is.  So imagine my disappointment when proven wrong.  Earlier this year, I finished Bob Spitz’s biography The Beatles, which is arguably the most comprehensive Beatles biography in existence.  The book starts out amazingly, but about halfway through inexplicably begins to decline rapidly in the number of details provided once the Beatles become famous.  That was annoying.  But far more so was the unabashed, unapologetic and shameful smearing of Yoko Ono — made even worse by its presentation as fact when so clearly Spitz’s personal opinion.  And this opinion is indicative, I think, of the opinion of most Yoko haters.  (I’m far too lazy to cite page references for everything, but throughout this series anecdotes can be traced to Spitz’s book, you can rest assured that I double-checked that of which I was unsure, and I will otherwise note when information came from elsewhere.)

What are the charges that he lays out against Yoko Ono?  A short list: she was pushy, controlling, got John addicted to heroin, was rude to the Beatles, stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong, constantly showed up uninvited, was a horrible artist who cared more about self-publicity than quality, she connived to get together with John for his money, encouraged him to leave the Beatles because she saw them as competition, and all around used him.  And from the way he tells it, yup, she sure helped to break up the Beatles.

Spitz also felt the need to rudely, pointlessly and judgmentally bring up the fact that Yoko, by her own admission, had undergone numerous illegal abortions.  She referred to her as “Oriental”  (in fact, not being a rug, she’s Japanese) and “exotic.” John himself (in Lennon Remembers, All We Are Saying and elsewhere) often argued that the Yoko hatred had a racial element in addition to the misogynistic one, and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that he was right.  Spitz called her “adolescent,” “self-indulgent” and immature.  He heavily implies that Yoko is a monstrous, evil, ball-busting bitch for even asking John how he would feel if made to change his name upon marriage, and lightly mocked as cheap publicly John’s genuinely touching, not to mention bravely political, decision to change his middle name to “Ono,” so that they could officially be the Ono Lennons.  Though Paul’s once-girlfriend Dot’s miscarriage — of a pregnancy that Paul was miserable about — was referred to as a “tragedy,” one of Yoko’s miscarriages — of a pregnancy that she and John both desperately wanted — is mentioned in passing, literally as a single clause to a single sentence, only in the sense of upstaging other Beatles news.  When she has another miscarriage that nearly kills her, she still gets no sympathy.

Spitz has more astonishing double-standards.  Earlier in the book, Spitz — very rightfully, I might add — chastised the Beatles, particularly John and Paul, for their horrendous, disrespectful and misogynistic treatment of women.  John and Paul treated their respective girlfriends from before the Beatles broke, Cynthia (later his wife) and Dot, like crap.  They literally weren’t “allowed” to partake in conversations when out together, let alone publicly disagree with their boyfriends.  Paul refused to see Dot for weeks after she got a haircut he didn’t like.  They were never even remotely faithful (though the same applied to both George and Ringo as well), sleeping with groupies, prostitutes, and even contracting STDs while in these relationships.

Later, Spitz notes an apparent competition among Beatles’ wives (at this point Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starr) over who could be the most submissive, doting doormat of a spouse — from Cynthia being not allowed to make a single peep until John woke up in mid-afternoon, to Maureen staying up until all hours of the morning to serve Ringo a hot meal whenever he decided to stroll in.  They were never consulted on business decisions; the idea of seeking their opinions at all was generally unthinkable.  And there are even numerous stories where a Beatle wandered off at a party without saying a word, leaving his wife/girlfriend to find her own way home, or on supposedly better nights leaving her to wait in the backseat of a limo for hours on end.  Seemingly, apologies were never issued.

This servitude, along with tolerating the drug use, and the ways in which they were often completely ignored and constantly cheated on, were referred to by Spitz as “the rules.”  But rather than calling out the Beatles for being chauvinist pigs, he presents the women repeatedly as wonderfully forgiving, selfless and demurely accepting of the “rules,” rather than abused and mistreated.  And in then introducing Yoko by saying that “after ten years, the rules were about to change,” it’s heavily implied that breaking the rules was indeed an offense worthy of scorn.  You see, it was wrong for the Beatles to treat their wives and girlfriends like subhuman shit — that is, until one of them had the audacity to demand respect, and even worse, actually got it.

So who is the main purveyor of the Yoko myths?  Can we pin it on historians like Bob Spitz?  Certainly, they hold part of the blame and need to be called out on it.  But no, I blame someone else entirely for the bulk of the treatment and misogynistic cultural perceptions of Yoko Ono, as did John.  In the first/next part of this series, they are the people who I’m going to discuss.  And their names are Paul, George and Ringo.

Part One: The Ballad of John and Yoko
Part Two: Don’t Let Me Down
Part Three: Woman
Addendum: Just Like Starting Over

Bookmark and Share

{ 40 comments }

1 Lindsay December 15, 2008 at 11:51 am

This is great… as a Beatles fan I went through the whole hating Yoko phase, making her an easy target to blame the whole breakup on. You’ve done a great job of showing how this idea could be perpetuated through the telling of history itself.

Looking forward to reading the next ones!

2 Cara December 15, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Thanks Lindsay . . . the next part is coming out on Saturday :) Trust me, I’m so excited to finally have these done (I have been working on the series on and off since July!), and so pleased with the end result, that I had to resist the urge to just publish them all at once.

3 Anna December 15, 2008 at 12:58 pm

As an historian, I feel the need to point out that Bob Spitz is not one. He’s a celebrity biographer. And, apparently, a bit of a hack. (Check out his response to criticism, it’s near the bottom of the review.)

Those stories about how the Beatles’ wives were supposed to be are very disturbing. :(

4 Cara December 15, 2008 at 1:06 pm

Oh oh, I really tear Spitz a new asshole in the next post (for lack of objectivity, not factual errors — and wouldn’t the photo caption errors be the fault of copy editors, anyway?) . . . maybe he’ll come along and throw a temper tantrum. That would be awesome! *fingers crossed*

5 kate lee December 15, 2008 at 1:10 pm

this is such a great post. i am super excited to read the next ones.

i spent most of my childhood ignoring yoko ono, and in fact ignoring all the ways the women in the beatles universe got the shitty end of the stick. over the last few years i have started to love yoko ono so dearly and i now fight to the death on her behalf in all conversations if anyone slanders her.

thanks for writing this.

6 Cara December 15, 2008 at 1:12 pm

*hops up in down in excitement at people enjoying this post*

7 ilyka December 15, 2008 at 3:15 pm

I managed to skip the hate-Yoko phase but not because I’m a wonderful enlightened person–more like I had a lucky introduction to Beatles history. I had a friend in high school who worshiped Paul McCartney and to a lesser extent the Beatles. Tug of War had just come out (oh yeah, I’m old); to humor her I bought it, found myself liking it, and got curious about “all that Beatles stuff” as a result. So I bought Shout, which I ended up reading so many times it literally fell apart. Norman managed to avoid what it sounds like Spitz fell right into, which you nailed here:

You see, it was wrong for the Beatles to treat their wives and girlfriends like subhuman shit — that is, until one of them had the audacity to demand respect, and even worse, actually got it.

The problem for douchey guys like this is that women aren’t supposed to achieve respect on their own. They’re supposed to wait to be rescued by better men. Of course, ask one of these “better” men to intervene while the abuse and mistreatment is actually happening, and it’s time to throw up the hands and go, “I hate it as much as you do, lady, but what am I realistically supposed to doooooo?” What’s so convenient about the way Dot, Patti, Maureen etc. were treated is that it’s in the past. Now would-be heroes can just PRETEND that had they been around at the time, they would so totally have saved the day.

That Yoko didn’t settle for that treatment is right fucking on. I don’t care how many celebrity biographers’ Knights of the Round Table fantasies are ruined by it.

Can’t wait to read the next one!

8 Jo December 15, 2008 at 3:17 pm

This is great, Cara. I’ve never been as big of a Beatles fan as some, although I definitely appreciate their music. Yoko has always intrigued me though, and I’m excited to read the rest of this series.

9 Ashley December 15, 2008 at 3:46 pm

Personally, I love Dar Williams’ theory that Yoko saved John, and helped him become who he wanted to be… That sounds a lot more like my experience, and the real relationships I’ve seen amazingly talented women like Yoko have, than that clearly bullshit story about her ruining everything.

10 Cara December 15, 2008 at 3:58 pm

Definitely, Ashley. Paul McCartney may have been the best thing to ever happen to John Lennon’s career, but I think that equally indisputable is the notion that Yoko Ono was the best thing to ever happen to John Lennon.

And Ilyka, I get into a lot more of ALL of that in the next two posts :)

11 L. E. Hairstylist December 15, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Oh holy crap I am SO excited you’ve finally started this series. And I’m glad to see you’re finally feeling well enough to post it. Can’t WAIT for the next part.

12 Julian December 15, 2008 at 5:31 pm

I *love* your post on Yoko Ono, ya, ya, ya!

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS! Like others here have said, I can’t wait for the next installment!!!!

P.S. I Love You [too!]

13 Paul December 16, 2008 at 3:22 am

Wonderful post

Another part of the 1960s reaction to Yoko I always thought was that World War II was only twenty years in the past at that point and many wounds from it in Britain were still fairly raw

14 Anna December 16, 2008 at 7:38 am

Ashley, those are my experiences as well. I don’t want to overshare too much, but the people who have characterised me a “bad” for my husband and attacked our relationship have typically been the folks that have tried the most to keep him in his “place” in the past.

I think I shall keep that shared experience in mind when I learn more about Yoko Ono – I have to admit that previous to Cara’s crash course in Beatles, I only knew her from the Barenaked Ladies song “You can be my Yoko Ono”.

15 frau sally benz December 16, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Like Ilyka, I skipped the Yoko-hating stage mostly because the other fans around me when I started to really become a hardcore fan loved Yoko already. So I almost didn’t realize the negative image she had until a couple of years later when I was introduced to this other world of Beatles fans who hate her.

Interestingly, I’ve heard a lot of people use the Yoko insult in ways completely unrelated to music. I hear it a lot when talking about any woman who takes her guy’s attention away from his friends (as in “you’re like Yoko, you took our friend away from us”). A lot of these people aren’t even really Beatles fans, they just seem to have this vague notion that the Beatles were awesome until Yoko frakked it all up.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series! I make it a point to educate people on the accurate Beatles history, so this is sure to give me new info. =)

16 Lemur December 16, 2008 at 3:36 pm

This is awesome. Can’t wait for the next installment!

17 Ashley December 16, 2008 at 4:13 pm

the people who have characterised me a “bad” for my husband and attacked our relationship have typically been the folks that have tried the most to keep him in his “place” in the past.

Totally. There is so much cultural bullshit aimed at pressuring men to act appropriately masculine and devalue any women in their lives who challenge that sort of crap (hence that evil, evil term “p****whipped”).

For a lot of years, I felt sort of secretly guilty about helping the men in my life not be so governed by the masculinity police, because our culture treats women like terrible, horrible people if we do that (“How could you make him talk about his feelings and watch a movie with a female lead?!? Now he’s going to turn into a GIRL!”) And sometimes the men themselves don’t want to let go of the power that comes with playing the part, so it can end up being a struggle where you become the bad guy to them… And that view is totally reinforced by the general culture.

Then I realized I was doing those guys a huge favor, and that anyone who doesn’t recognize it can kiss my ass ;)

Twas very liberating.

18 Paul December 16, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Ashley:

I got crap because I’m one of the few guys who’ll admit to having watched the 1993 Secret Garden film and the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.

You’re doing a good job – keep it up

19 eloriane December 17, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Oh, I’m so excited about this! I’ve always wanted to know more about Yoko, and why people seem to hate her. I never knew anyone who blamed her much so it’s always been mystifying to me. Especially since, as I discovered recently, she was a great artist in her own right!

I actually recently saw something of hers called Cut Pieces at the Vancouver Art Gallery– a performance art piece in which she asks the audience to, one at a time, cut away bits of her clothing. It was hugely moving and actually a little haunting, really laid bare the vulnerability of women, I think. My co-blogger and I talked more about it (and other things) here.

20 JenniferRuth December 18, 2008 at 10:10 am

Thanks Cara.

As a Liverpudlian born and bred I heard a lot of crap about Yoko. Even when I was a little girl though, I felt that it all seemed unfair.

I wish I could get all of Liverpool to read this!

21 Cara December 18, 2008 at 10:43 am

I wish I could get all of Liverpool to read this!

Please feel free to do your best!!!! ;)

22 LLoyd Webber December 18, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I’m Black, and Let’s just say I’ve never been a fan of either John or Yoko ever since the whole “Women are the nigger of the world” thing. Seriously WTF was that all about? Then again, I’m not a feminist, just a black guy.

23 Cara December 18, 2008 at 7:05 pm

Lloyd, I can’t say that I approve of that song, either. I think that they had good intentions, but that the result was really quite fucked up, and I definitely wouldn’t be one to make excuses for it.

24 Genevieve December 20, 2008 at 1:23 am

I also skipped the Yoko-hating phase–possibly because I became a huge Beatles lover in high school when I was in a relationship with a dude whose friends hated me because I actually wanted to spend some time with him…I empathized with Yoko, and with Courtney Love, another much-demonized rock girlfriend/musician.

25 nancy December 22, 2008 at 3:53 pm

I’m old enough that I was aware of the Beatles while they were together. I liked them. At the time I wasn’t mature enough musically to get their genius; I won’t claim to be a child prodigy. I grew with the Beatles’ music as my soundtrack but they weren’t my peers; George was born exactly 10 years before me, a fact that I’ve always thought extremely cool.
I didn’t dislike or hate Yoko Ono or agree that the breakup was a tragedy. It was kinda sad but other bands broke up, and several favorite musicians had died not long before. That was closer to tragedy. And the loss of free-form FM radio was pretty devastating in that same time period.
Even with my limited awareness of the music scene and what was being written about music, I could tell that John and Yoko were happy and that was fine with me. I’m not trying to claim any exalted status here, just want to say that not everyone Yoko. And being this old is OK too.

26 nancy December 22, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Proofreading? Who needs proofreading! “not everyone hated Yoko” is what I meant.

27 Bianca Reagan January 4, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Loving this so far. I thought I was the only one who thought it was weird to blame a band’s breakup on one woman who wasn’t even in it.

28 Madelyn Writer January 5, 2009 at 12:00 am

I have to say I’m about as keen on the negative Yoko theories as I am about this article. While I can concde that a percentage of inappropriate behaviour emanated from the three Beatles who weren’t shot, a sizable amount also emanated from the Ono Lennons. Have your spouse show up at work and start offering suggestions at staff meetings and you’ll get the idea that maybe that’s not the best thing for your career – unless you secretly want out of your job and don’t have the balls to just quit, like John did.

Further, after an impartial review of how much Apple money went to Ono’s projects, a certain resentment on behalf of 3/4 of the owners is at least understandable.

Finally, it is well known that Mr. Lennon often slept around during his marriage, which is a horrendous betrayal that actually dwarfs such behavior as Mr. Harrison yelling at Ms. Ono for stealing some of his chips during the ‘Abbey Road’ sessions.

So who’s the good guy? Probably all of them. Who’s the bad guy? Probably all of them. Just like real life in 2008.

This is not to knock Ms. Ono as an artist or the boys in the band as artists, but rather the hungry revisionists that come along 40 years after the fact, wagging a finger at wounds that have long since closed.

29 Daniella Perez January 5, 2009 at 7:47 am

Great introduction. I agree with many of your points, especially Yoko’s treatment by part of the press and public and the way the Beatles treated their girlfriends and wives. But there is a part I disagree with:

“Paul McCartney was making a power grab for control of the band, one that he was winning and John felt powerless to stop ”

Yes, Paul kind of became the “leader” of the Beatles after the death of Brian. But I doubt it was done out of malice or that he took the “power” from John’s hands. As you said, John was having problems with drugs and he was hardly a leader around that time. The band needed guidance and John wasn’t fit for that after Brian’s death.

I don’t think Paul was a good leader per se. He has too much of a controlling personality for that. But from everything I read, he was the prime mover to keep the band going, and thanks to this, we have albums like “White Album” and “Abbey Road”.

30 Cara January 5, 2009 at 9:42 am

So who’s the good guy? Probably all of them. Who’s the bad guy? Probably all of them. Just like real life in 2008.

Which seems to me to be precisely what I argued. While I argued that John made some serious changes in his life post-Yoko, and I believe that, and those changes were very positive ones, if you think that my opening a post by noting that John used to treat women like shit including beating them and then concluding that he’s better than everyone else, you’ve got another thing coming.

This is not to knock Ms. Ono as an artist or the boys in the band as artists, but rather the hungry revisionists that come along 40 years after the fact, wagging a finger at wounds that have long since closed.

Hungry revisionists? Is that supposed to be me? Nice. Those wounds have healed up real well, seeing as how the same anti-Yoko accusations are made in just about every near Beatles book that come out, and referenced in nearly ever article about Yoko and her totally unrelated artistic work, to this day.

On a general note, am I the only one who finds it terribly interesting that I keep being accused of making an extended argument that Paul broke up the band, based on a parenthetical note in which I stated my personal bias, even though I spent a couple paragraphs arguing genuinely against my own personal belief as to why John ought to get blamed? Because I find it terribly interesting, and rather telling regarding what certain commenters here want to focus in on, and what their biases are, even though they’d seemingly much rather not state them.

31 Madelyn Writer January 5, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Me: “So who’s the good guy? Probably all of them. Who’s the bad guy? Probably all of them. Just like real life in 2008.”

You: “Which seems to me to be precisely what I argued.”

You in your article: “I blame someone else entirley [sic]… [a]nd their names are Paul, George and Ringo.”

Terrifying grammar and spelling notwithstanding, it seems like casting blame is horrible for fans and the boys in the band themselves to do — but quite alright for you to do! As a staunch feminist since my earliest days, I find such a proposition to be quite ugly.

32 Cara January 5, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Thanks for pointing out the typo Madelyn; wish someone had done it sooner. But clearly you haven’t read the other post and prefer to go off of a teaser. Have fun with it.

33 Nia January 9, 2009 at 11:12 am

I have an anecdote that I think you’ll be glad to hear. I’m a high school teacher, and today I was explaining to some students why The Beatles were so important. Then, a girl asked why they broke up. And when I said, as part of the explanation, “many people blame John’s wife” she said sarcastically, “it’s handy to have a woman to blame!”. So, we can have hopes in the next generation :)

34 Carol January 11, 2009 at 4:00 am

Now, what I find mysterious about all these theories about Yoko breaking up the Beatles is that it makes her exert a Goddess-like power over John. I prefer to think of John as an independently thinking human being, not some automaton dependent on other’s directions. What broke up the Beatles is they were all heartily sick of each other.

FWIW I’ve always loved Yoko, too.

35 Thomai January 12, 2009 at 6:51 pm

I’m glad you’ve taken this subject on. Now I’ll have links to share the next time I defend Yoko Ono.

I appreciated John Lennon more than the Beatles and I was a performance artist so,
Yoko seemed like a great catch for John to me. I think he was lucky to have her and the child they had together.
She helped him grow, expand and eventually transcend not only the Beatles, but the music industry as well.

36 aimee January 15, 2009 at 12:06 am

Hi I loved your posts I’m glad to find someone who likes Yoko also. I never entered the Yoko hating faze. It breaks my heart hering all the hatred being thrown at her. I would love to meet her and have some tea and talk about her art. It was terible how the treated their wives/girlfriends. I’m glad Yoko helped John to mature and grow. I do forgive him for treating Cynthia so badly.

37 James Moar January 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm

“[A]sking John how he would feel if made to change his name upon marriage”

Something that’s occasionally done in Japan, which might have partly inspired her comment.

38 tasha January 30, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Anytime anything goes wrong or is PERCIEVED as a problem with a band member/ girl friend combination ( scheduled etc) the lady is always shunned as “yoko” I personally have gotten this treatment and I hate it. I really like that there is place that is trying to explain that with KNOWLEDGE there is more than the BS that peope like Bob Spitz is spewing!

Thanks!

39 Liz Henry February 17, 2009 at 10:35 pm

This is an amazing post! Thank you!!

Forging on to the others… yay… like finding treasure!

40 Suki October 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Yes! Thank you for writing this. I’m currently reading Spitz’ book and am appalled at what a terrible image he paints of Yoko. He makes repeated references to John having made a “weird” choice. Why would John’s affection for Yoko be “weird”? Because she wasn’t a cowering flower, and because she’s Asian? Plus, “the public” was never incensed when they learned that the Beatles had all regularly cheated on their wives and girlfriends. Double standards…
Incidentally, while googling to try to find more reactions to this book, I found a Beatles fansite that said that when one of their crew had written to Spitz to point out the inaccuracies in his book, he wrote back and told her to “take an enema” and “get a life.” Nice.

{ 28 trackbacks }

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: