Thursday, September 1, 2011

were the beatles feminists?

Let's get something out of the way right away: I don't mean to imply that the members of the Beatles acted as feminists in their romantic relationships - at least at first. It's well-known that all four guys cheated on their first wives, and that John cheated on Yoko. I'll discuss what I see as the connection between their music and the women they chose as their second wives' at the end of the post, but the bulk of the post will be devoted to a very interesting trend in the way they depicted women in their songs.

It's well known that in the 1960s, before the feminist movement really took off, women were generally supposed to occupy a submissive position in their relationships--both romantic and otherwise--with men. Having grown up in the environment they did, it's not surprising that the Beatles would want their wives to remain at home. It's also not surprising that they would be unfaithful. What is surprising, however, is the way they depicted women in their songs.

I've broken up the love songs on the studio albums into three categories: ones that describe a basically equal relationship, ones that describe the man driving the action, and ones that describe the woman driving the action. The surprising results are below:
Equal Relationship
I Saw Her Standing There
Ask Me Why
PS I Love You
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
There's a Place
All I've Got to Do
All My Loving
A Hard Day's Night
I'm Happy Just to Dance With You
And I Love Her
When I Get Home
Every Little Thing
It's Only Love
I've Just Seen a Face
I'm Looking Through You
Here, There, and Everywhere
Good Day Sunshine
For You Blue  

Man Drives the Action

Not a Second Time (though the man has been hurt by the woman and is now lashing out)
You Can't Do That
I'll Follow the Sun
Another Girl
You Like Me Too Much
Tell Me What You See
If I Needed Someone
Run For Your Life  

Woman Drives the Action

Please Please Me
Love Me Do
It Won't Be Long
Don't Bother Me
Hold Me Tight
I Wanna Be Your Man
I Should've Known Better
If I Fell
Tell Me Why
Can't Buy Me Love
Any Time At All
I'll Cry Instead
Things We Said Today
I'll Be Back
No Reply
I'm a Loser
I Don't Want to Spoil the Party
Baby's in Black Eight Days a Week
What You're Doing
The Night Before
You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
I Need You
Ticket to Ride
Drive My Car
Norwegian Wood
You Won't See Me
What Goes On
For No One
When I'm 64
Lovely Rita Meter Maid
Honey Pie
I Will
Oh! Darling
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
One After 909

Ok, so it's pretty obvious from those lists that songs in which the woman drives the action dominate.

In fact, here's the percentage breakdown:
Equal Relationship: 21 songs (30.9%)
Man Drives the Action: 8 songs (11.7%)
Woman Drives the Action: 39 songs (57.4%)

Thematically, most of the songs in which the woman drives the action are about a man being totally smitten by a woman and wondering whether she feels the same way. She's got him wrapped around her finger. Others are about a woman leaving a man, and him chasing her (I Don't Want to Spoil the Party, Don't Bother Me). Some of them even admit crying (I'll Cry Instead). Girl--the song that apparently describes their ideal woman--depicts a highly independent woman ("when you say she's looking good, she acts as if it's understood, she's cool").

The few songs in which the man drives the action aren't even particularly aggressive. Not a Second Time and You Can't Do That are about a man reacting to a woman hurting him through infidelity. If I Needed Someone is arrogant, but mostly about a guy who just doesn't seem too interested, for whatever reason. The only truly aggressive song is Run For Your Life, which John has repeatedly said he hates and wishes he had never recorded.

This paints a pretty different situation than we expect to see in the world of rockers. It's certainly different than the Rolling Stones's depiction of women ("Trying to get some girl pregnant," for example).

It's not my place (nor am I able) to propose a reason as to why the Beatles described such strong, independent women in their songs. However, it makes their decision to eventually wed strong, independent women and stick with them (Yoko, Linda, Olivia, and Barbara all fit that description, I think) less surprising. It also suggests that the Beatles might have had ideas about gender equality in relationships that were a bit beyond their time. This doesn't serve as an excuse for their infidelities, but perhaps it introduces some nuance into the state of their romantic relationships, and their ideas about women in general. As always, let me know what you think in the comments!


  1. This is an excellent analysis I've not seen before. Nice work! It is a facet of the larger question of whether the Beatles were reflecting the times or whether they were one of the drivers. It must have been a bit of both. Would be interesting to take those 3 lists you've created and plot the songs on a chart by release date, to see if their views changed over time.

  2. Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and you're right -- a graph would be interesting. I haven't posted in such a long time, so I might take you up on your suggestion and make a new post out of it!