I don’t know if John Lennon ever loved his first wife Cynthia or not, but I do know that by all accounts except for Cynthia’s own, he didn’t want to marry her. He got her pregnant. John married Cynthia because it was you did in those days. He wasn’t ready to become a father and was quite frankly a rather crap dad to Julian until they started to reconcile in the last few years of John’s life. He was an even worse husband, as discussed in the other posts. His unhappiness does nothing to excuse the way he treated Cynthia — there quite simply isn’t an excuse. But the fact of the matter is that while John always made sure to put on a smile when out in public with her, their marriage was never exactly a happy one. Yoko Ono — who was also married when she began seeing John — didn’t break up their marriage. And she didn’t publicly humiliate Cynthia, either; both of those would fall to John.
But it was an excellent dichotomy, wasn’t it? The nice blond, British, chaste housewife, versus the outspoken, non-conformist, openly sexual Japanese avant garde artist. Oh, the tabloid media loves a catfight, particularly when it’s two women fighting over a man — even when they’re not. After all, the idea that women can’t get along with each other undercuts the collective action necessary to effective feminism — and the idea that women fight over men reinforces the myth discussed in the last post that women do, or should, have no lives outside of their relationships.
Still to this day, that hasn’t changed. (Angelina vs. Jennifer, anyone?) But Yoko vs. Cynthia, that was a dream come true, and it’s pretty clear to anyone who understands a damn thing about gender and race that it was predetermined from the start which woman was going to win in the court of public opinion.
In the end, after a halfhearted and obligatory tsking at the man, he is ultimately absolved of the blame for his own actions of deceit and betrayal when he cheats on his wife, and instead the blame almost always falls to one of the women (and sometimes both). And while it’s sometimes the “fault” of the wife for “not pleasing her man,” it’s usually played as the fault of the “other woman.” One’s the virgin, one’s the whore. One is the poor scorned woman, and one is the conniving home-wrecker. One’s Cynthia, one’s Yoko.
The imagined “problem” with Yoko wasn’t that John was fucking her while married — surely, people weren’t that stupid — it was that he was having a genuine relationship with her and didn’t keep it quiet. And it wasn’t that she was a woman, it’s that she wasn’t the right kind of woman.
Yoko was an artist; she had a career of her own. Even worse, it wasn’t one she planned to give up for marriage. (And though so often accused of ruining John’s career, no one ever wonders whether their relationship had a negative effect on hers.) Though soft-spoken, Yoko always has been simultaneously outspoken. In her music, she’s known for her wailing and howling. She sat beside John Lennon during interviews, and had the gall to expect to be able to say something. And say something, she did. And anything she said was always going to be too much.
The way that Yoko’s work is so regularly reviled is one such example. From avant garde lover Paul McCartney refusing to see her art shows to Bob Spitz calling her work juvenile and adolescent among many other patronizing insults in The Beatles, there’s no shortage of men who fail to see the ground that Yoko broke, and that she was a significant part of a vital art scene in the 60s. In fact, a main difference between the kind of work she was doing and the kind that other artists of the time were doing is her gender. When she dealt with feminine and feminist themes, when she used the framework of the personal being political, it wasn’t real art. When she spoke up about “legitimate” political issues of war and peace, she was a little girl speaking naively about things she didn’t understand. And when she was being humorous or positive in her work, the criticism was that was speaking nonsense or had no real message.
The lack of desire to hear Yoko’s ideas — ideas coming from a woman — extended well beyond her (often brilliant) artistic endeavors. Though Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in his excellent book Here, There and Everywhere comes down ultimately on the side of Yoko not affecting the breakup of the band, he does falsely claim that Yoko had no musical background and relates one particularly interesting story of a time where Yoko dared open her mouth — a place that was surely not hers. He writes:
I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but I was wrong. A few days later, the four Beatles, plus George Martin and, of course, Yoko, were in the control room listening to a playback of a backing track when John offhandedly asked her what she thought of it. To everyone’s amazement, she actually offered a criticism.
“Well, it’s pretty good,” she said in a tiny little voice, “But I think it should be played a bit faster.”
You could have heard a pin drop. There was a look of shock and horror on everyone’s face — even John’s. Everyone looked at John, but he said nothing. Infatuated as he might have been with Yoko, he must have realized that to leap to her defense would only add fuel to the fire. After a slight pause, they returned to their conversation, ignoring Yoko and what she had said. But the damage had been done, and things would never be the same again.
Can you believe that woman? How dare she butt in her opinion like that, and so rudely? And I mean, saying that! To the Beatles, of all people!
Wait . . . what did she say? She didn’t say “Dear God, Paul, what are you doing to that bass?” or “Who decided to let George play on this track again?” or “Ringo, aren’t you supposed to be keeping time, or is this some sort of new experiment?” She didn’t say any of those things?
Nope, she didn’t. She said that she thought the song might have sounded better if it was played at a slightly faster tempo. She said so, in my opinion, in a way that seems rather polite. And I think most importantly of all, she gave her opinion after John asked her for it. Even worse, they completely ignored her as though she hadn’t spoken — and yet Yoko is the one who is portrayed as being out of line.
But clearly, any sort of criticism whatsoever was not what was expected. Clearly, she was expected to act with deference the men in the room with regards to her own opinion. Clearly, asking what Yoko thought was not to be taken as a request for insight, but for blind, demure, feminine praise. Perhaps she was expected to offer a congratulatory sexual favor, I’m not sure, but the fact is that Geoff Emerick, and the rest of those present according to this account, certainly didn’t expect her to speak her mind. That’s not what a Beatle wife does, after all. That’s a place reserved for the white dudes.
Yoko failed to live up to standards of appropriate femininity in other ways, too, most notably with regards to her physical appearance and sexuality. First, and most damning, she was a woman of color. She didn’t generally wear skirts, and in fact often wore clothing that was very loose-fitting or even masculine. Her hair was regularly unruly and in her face, a trait noted negatively by many. After all, they couldn’t see her face well, and wasn’t she aware that a woman’s body is for easy gazing upon by others?
Even when allowing the male gaze, she was always doing it wrong. Prior to meeting John, she had an promiscuous sex life (her words) complete with an open marriage. She had numerous (illegal) abortions and refused to be ashamed by them. She included the sounds of herself (most likely mimicking) climbing to and experiencing an orgasm on one of her songs (Kiss Kiss Kiss). In other words, she owned her own sexuality rather than treating it as the possession of fathers and husbands.
And then there was the naked album cover. That was most wrong of all. Just look at it (obviously NSFW); there she is in all of her bare glory. Just like John standing beside her, she isn’t attempting to arouse the viewer. She’s not using her nakedness to express sexuality at all. And she looks equally as confident as he does. John once said that they purposely picked the least flattering photograph, and especially by today’s standards, Yoko would be considered downright unphotogenic by the mainstream. She has full pubic hair, some hints of cellulite on her thighs, a waist that is not particularly defined, and most shocking of all, large breasts that do not defy gravity, and an unremarkable yet undeniable bit of hang with nipples pointing downwards.
In other words, she looks like an average woman. Her body resembles the one that most of look at in the mirror more than the ones we see in magazines. It exists not for the pleasures of others, but for her.
And Yoko is considered ugly.
This tells us something. Yoko’s “ugliness” is a truism, something that most do not even consider before nodding in assent. The absurdity is apparent, as when you look at the woman it’s plain for all to see that she was clearly quite stunning. It tells us something about beauty standards. Indeed, it tells us something about racist beauty standards. It certainly tells us something about how women are valued as human beings based on their adherence to those beauty standards. And I think it also tells us something about the treatment of women who don’t meet them.
What John and Yoko did in posing for this photo, though entirely unintentional, was open the door for all of the misogynistic and racist bigots of the world to ask very loudly, he could have any woman he wants, what is he doing with her? The voices of those looking at John’s skinny, pale body with slightly hanging chest and asking what Yoko was doing with him were of course relatively few.
Of course, when a woman is of color, she is either supposed to be extra hot — “exotic” — or extra ugly by virtue of being not white. And race, as I’ve argued in other posts, also played a huge role here. Yoko’s treatment wasn’t just about failing to live up to femininity; she was also reviled for inevitably failing to live up to whiteness. One only has to look at her treatment versus that of the woman who most strongly warrants a comparison: Linda Eastman/McCartney. Paul McCartney’s beloved, and white, first wife.
Like Yoko when she met John, Linda was a divorced women with a daughter when she met Paul mere months later. There are stories similar to those about Yoko of her “scheming” to meet and marry Paul. In the same way that Yoko is said to have joked prior to meeting him that she was “going to marry John Lennon,” Linda joked like any woman with a celebrity crush about how she was “going to marry Paul McCartney.” (Bob Spitz notes both in his book The Beatles. Guess which one he thought was conniving, and which one he thought was adorable.)
Linda had a career, too. She was an artist in her own right, albeit a far more conventional one (a rock music photographer), who broke ground as a woman in her field. She didn’t wear makeup. She often wore loose-fitting and masculine clothing. She had unruly hair. Though I think she was quite pretty, by popular media standards she was a rather average looking woman. She didn’t keep her mouth shut (and can be seen reacting sarcastically to journalists interviewing her on her and Paul’s wedding day). Her husband expressed love and admiration for her equal to that which John expressed towards Yoko. And yes, she very, very regularly — to the erasure of most Beatles historians — attended recording sessions. Hell, Paul too put her in his post-Beatles band despite outcry from fans!
Certainly, Linda took her own share of shit, as did Paul’s later and now ex-wife Heather Mills. She was, after all, in the spotlight and taking a very eligible bachelor off of the market. People felt that she, too, was “ruining” Paul’s music. Yes, Linda was ridiculed, harassed and insulted.
But she’s not the archetype of an evil, conniving woman who sets out to destroy a good man. No, that title still falls to Yoko.
And so, I put before you the question of why. Why are Linda’s equal “sins” so quickly forgotten, and Yoko’s exaggerated? Why did Linda’s ambition, breaking into a male dominated field, spending outrageous amounts of time with her husband — it’s often noted that she and Paul never spent a night apart until his 1980 arrest for marijuana possession — and refusal to doll up in a skirt and lipstick for the media go excused by history? Was it the lucky fact that Linda got the scene a few months later than Yoko, or was it her whiteness?
The answer — and lack of awareness over it — is one that still affects the public’s consciousness to this day.