In her paper “I want to hold your hand”, Jane Tompkins narrates the impact of her exposure to music by The Beatles. She describes members of the infamous band as well as their music as “androgynous”, thus they helped women; or rather women like her, to become more androgynous. Androgyny, in its context, is a term used to describe gender identity; applying to elements of the society whose gender roles or incriminations do not perfectly fit within the constructs of masculinity as the society describes it, neither do such people fit well in feminine gender roles as constructed by the process of social evolution.
The author of this article was, growing up, an introvert who, like most of her kind, are interested only in the formalities of life like education. Jane Tompkins was not interested in the things her contemporary peers were interested in; and the gender role she played in the society was based on constructions of American popular culture of the 1950s under which gender roles were rigid. She talks about her perception of popular artists like the Rolling-stones as being violent beings who possessed the highest degrees of male chauvinism and its associated aggression towards the opposite sex.
In the 1950s, gender roles were strictly based on guidelines virtually constructed by the society. There were the symbols of masculinity, represented by ruggedness of the male being. Such qualities were exhibited in people like Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Elvis Presley or John Wayne. The male was supposed to be domineering, and when it happened that a man was gay (as Jane Tompkins alleges for Rock Hudson), such sexual orientations were kept far from the eye of the public. Gender roles were strictly defined.
The same applies for women. Jane Tompkins gives an example of Marilyn Doris Day as the perfect examples of the stereotyped American women under the new cultural dispensation: they looked nice, loved to dance, exhibited high levels of self confidence and had sexy figures. At the time (that is during the 1950s) the woman did not exactly know her role in contemporary society. Whether she was supposed the apron-wearer, the woman who utilizes her intellectual prowess in order to succeed in academia and the formal job market; or to play a feminine role and portray sexpot.
Music from a certain generation or a specific period in history is usually a portrayal of the generation’s or that period’s culture. Popular music of the 1950s, according Jane Tompkins, was not only devoid of real feeling and emotions as they occur in real people, but was an avenue for artists to express their feelings, anger and lifestyles without having in mind the emotions, feelings, trials and tribulations of the listeners. People sang about love as a lust, expressing their thoughts without human feeling in them. It is for this that the author says she lacked interest in the music of the times because it “had no range of topic or feeling”. The songs composed where all about a shallow context of love, hate, lack of appreciation (in love) and unrealized aspirations in love; and that was all it boiled down to. Women were portrayed as objects of sexual desire, and then came The Beatles.
Jane Tompkins names her article in honor of the first Beatles song she ever heard, I want to hold your hand. In the Beatles music, she found a music she could relate to. It was a spectacular feeling finding out that other people were just like her, harboring “real” human emotions the songs had themes and depth, talking about the strife of ordinary people living ordinary lives. They sang to subtle beats without any problems, talking about issues like loneliness, having trouble, being misunderstood by parent, being in the need for friendship and a variety of other intricate human needs.
In addition, the Beatles deviated from the vocalization, instrumentation and representation of music and musicians that had characterized other bands before. They were not extremely masculine, and they tried beautiful melodies and harmonies with a lot of playfulness. It made them look very innocent and appealing especially because they did not want to appear all-knowing and world-weary; instead they tried to look very vulnerable just like many people in their audience and it worked. Their voices lacked the authoritarian baritone exhibited in the voices of most of the male singers who had come before them; and who had intended to super-impose their masculinity and superiority of the male and his point of view; and they sang with much depth. In addition, they did not have rugged looks; they had curly hair and did not don tans or tight bathing suits like most of their predecessors.
The Beatles presented newness not only congruent with the 1960s popular culture but also members of this generation. They shattered the demarcation between feminine and masculine roles, effectively allowing misunderstood young men and women (and especially women) stop obsessing about structuring their lives according to gender stereotypes; like the way the author herself had given up the hope of ever becoming a Marilyn Monroe or a Doris Day. By being androgynous, the Beatles made women feel comfortable with them and permitted them to be more androgynous too. Women who had been scared of getting into the popular bandwagon on account of their not possessing features that were regarded as the symbols of feminism, like large breasts, cinched waists and curled hair.
I agree with the author in her argument that the Beatles and sixties culture re-framed images of “masculine” and “feminine” in a way that was salutary. The influence of the Beatles was immense not only in the rock music arena, but also in popular culture. For once, their storming of the music industry shifted dominance of pop and rock groups from the United States to include acts from the United Kingdom, whose culture has been described to possess some gender-bending characteristics relative to American popular culture.
The Beatles feminized American popular culture because in most of their compositions, they usually adopted a stand more sympathetic to the women and the plight of women than any other rock group that had come before them. They also sounded feminine, and donned long, curly hair. Through their antics, the Beatles narrowed the line between masculine and feminine, and women and men, especially in their teens and twenties who comprised a large segment of their fan base, could be more androgynous but still extroverted and emancipated. The Beatles also popularized a culture in which women virtually become the creators and sustainers of rock culture, making men the sex objects in place of the women. Such reversal of traditional gender roles reshaped the definition of masculine and feminine to a large extend.
Tompkins, J. (2006). “Afterword: I Want to Hold Your Hand”