In 1972, John Lennon, with a new and growing interest in women’s liberation, thanks primarily to his relationship with Yoko Ono, wrote and recorded a song called “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” The phrase, it bears noting, was coined by Yoko Ono in 1969, and John later decided to write a strangely and infuriatingly catchy song around it.
It is, I think quite undeniably, John’s biggest attempt at an overt feminist statement in his music. It is also his most “controversial” song by far (which is saying something), and with damn good reason.
Yesterday, Renee wrote a post about this song and called it out for its use of the word, the way that its use plays the oppression olympics, and the fact that it erases black women entirely. You should read it. Further, all of these issues were addressed a few months ago in a thread on Racialicious with regards to a video that shows John on the Dick Cavett show, quite literally defending his use of the word by holding up a letter from an Official Black Person that declares it’s okay.
Seeing as how I keep finding this song floating around, and since I have been asked on several occasions what I (as Feminist Beatles Fan Extraordinaire) think of it, I thought it was time to officially address it.
I want to state first of all that I absolutely, unequivocally agree with Renee’s take. I also agree with a majority of the sentiments found in the Racialicious thread. The song, to put it simply, is incredibly fucked. And his defense of it is one of the most ignorant, epic fails ever. I find it embarrassing as a fan and as a person.
In the interest of full disclosure — it’s difficult for me to critique this song, largely because when I see others doing it, they tend to go after John personally, and that automatically gets my hackles up (please note, Renee does not do this — she sticks to a critique of the song and the privilege that Lennon displays in it). And while I, quite clearly, have no difficulty pointing out instances where John was an asshole and calling him an asshole, I consider him and his music to be a big enough a part of my life that I get defensive when I see others doing the same. Especially when they go far enough to make sweeping statements. Silly, perhaps, but true.
On an even more personal level, this song goes against my theory of profound love for John Lennon as a person as well as an artist, and in a very direct way. Ever since I was a teenager, what I loved about him was that I saw him as an example that people can quite radically change. John was a major asshole in his early life, and an incredible misogynist; that he learned to not only the basic decency to respect women, but in fact saw himself as a feminist and spoke openly about male oppression of women is something that I have long appreciated. Of course, since that time I’ve learned enough to know that John wasn’t necessarily the angel in the 70s that he’s often portrayed as (cheating on Yoko, for example). I think that if he had lived and been given the time, he would have continued his growth. But the fact is that he hadn’t yet completed his progressive transformation, despite massive improvements, and that forces one to draw a significantly more complex picture.
None of that, of course, changes the fact that the song is fucked.
With regards to the song itself, I was uncomfortable with it from the moment I first heard of it at about 15 or 16, because, well, it contained the N-word. And I knew very well that you should never, ever use it. Way past that point, once I had done some racism 101, I appropriately came to see that there are far more problems with it than just the usage of the word (which is obviously a huge problem in itself).
There is the appropriation of struggles. There’s the the profound ignorance to and disregard for the hurt that using the word can inflict. There’s the fact that the slur is already used to refer to black women, so you have to wonder exactly which women he’s talking about and therefore come up with unhappy answers. The fact that Yoko Ono coined the phrase doesn’t change this — she may be a woman of color, but she’s not a black woman. There’s the fact that, while it would of course been extremely common in the 50s, John himself used the word as a teenager in a wholly unironic fashion to casually refer to black people — and despite his later commitment to racial equality (working with the Black Panthers, for example), is therefore in the world’s worst position ever, even worse than just your general white person, to “reclaim” it.
And then, to add insult to injury, there’s the fact that the word, which should have never been used in the first place, is seemingly only used for pure shock value. Because it absolutely didn’t have to be used to make the point he was trying to make.
The thing is that if you could dig through the shit in the song, there would be things in there to like from a feminist standpoint. Under different circumstances, I would like his point that even among oppressed groups, women are yet again oppressed. I would like the fact that he holds men directly accountable for enacting oppression (We do X) rather than just rattling off vague instances of oppression with no one committing them. And I would definitely like the fact that he is a man directly speaking to other men, calling out misogyny and demanding that other men end it — because a huge part of what male allies are for, is it not?
But, he chose to make his point about overlapping oppressions by completely ignoring overlapping oppressions and appropriating the image of slavery. He didn’t have to do that. There were other ways he could have expressed the idea — John was, after all, incredibly clever with words — and he didn’t. He chose not to. That only compounds the title line.
And there the title line still is. You can’t erase it. Sadly, you can’t dig through the shit, because the shit is still going to be there. To pretend it’s not is complicity.
And though I genuinely do believe that John’s intentions were good — I do think that he was honestly trying to make a statement about women’s equality and was not actively trying to hurt other oppressed persons in the process — I think (hope) that all of us around here know that when it comes to fucking up that badly, intentions don’t mean shit.
He may have been trying to make a statement about women’s equality, but in the process he did reinforce other types of oppression. He may not have been trying to hurt anyone, but the fact is that he did appropriate language he never should have touched, it was wrong, and he did hurt people. He may have been trying to be progressive, but he did show his immense privilege. He may have been trying to show solidarity with women, but in the end he essentially did further the idea that only some women matter. And his “but I have black friends!” defense on Dick Cavett only went further to show how deeply and completely he did not get it.
In short, it may be sad to think that John’s biggest musical feminist statement is also his biggest, most offensive musical fuck up. But it is. Oh, how it is.
And in the end, while it is in fact, as Renee argues, reflective of feminism as practiced in many ways, I would argue that the song itself isn’t actually feminist. Because reinforcing isms isn’t actually feminist. Not as I understand it, anyway. Like with the song, some people merely seem to be under the incredibly false impression that it is.