I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series (previously featuring the Barenaked Ladies, Elbow, and Spoon) for a while now. And I’ve had some tunes in mind (Ben Folds’s “Jesusland” seems ripe for a conversation with Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland), but I thought I’d try something different: instead of selecting a song from my own collection, I’ll look into What the Kids are Listening To. Mostly crap, if the iTunes top ten is to be believed: Katy Perry, Usher, Eminem, and someone/thing called “B.o.B.” which I’m frankly too frightened too investigate further. But if the point of this series is to use pop music to talk about the past (which it is), then I suppose I should try a song that my students might actually know and, ugh, like. So, here goes with today’s top song on iTunes: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie.”
I’ll pass on the general themes of the lyrics, which seem to be a mixture of old-Eminem’s misogyny mixed with the allegedly-new-and-mature Eminem‘s regret and guilt. Instead, I’ll focus on one line:
Cause when it’s going good
It’s going great
With the wind in his bag
She’s Lois Lane
Ahh, but who is Louis Lane, exactly? I never got into comics — too busy fighting with my little brothers — but I am familiar with the character through Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in my pubescent years and my general consciousness of pop culture. But Wikipedia teaches all. And, apparently, “In the earliest Golden Age comics, Lois was featured as an aggressive, career-minded reporter.” [sidenote digression: note the pairing of “aggressive” and “career-minded.” One wonders if the anonymous author believes that any woman who is career-minded is therefore also aggressive; what “aggressive” means, exactly; and whether career-minded men are also, inherently, aggressive. That there is interpretation, folks, despite Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity. In short: don’t let the kids use Wikipedia or any encyclopedia as a source; they are too willing to trust it as neutral. /sidenote digression]. If Wikipedia is to be believed (and sure, let’s go for it), Lane’s character was assertive from the get-go in 1938. Students might be shocked to hear this: “But, but…that’s before Rosie the Riveter!” Teaching Moment! on at least two counts:
1. Big picture: let’s not fall into the trap of a progressive narrative of women’s rights (or anyone’s rights, for that matter). There are ups and downs and all-arounds. The constant feature is the presence of people fighting for and taking those rights at every opportunity and in many different ways, not only at the ballot box or on the assembly line.
2. Historical context: There are many books, I’m sure, that could give us more detail about the status of women’s liberation in 1938 (your suggestions welcome in the comments), but the book that comes to my mind is Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. It’s mostly about the post-WWII, Cold War period (hence the subtitle), when white, middle-class Americans turned inward to suburban “domestic containment” for security, satisfaction, and happiness. But May sets the stage for that part of her argument by looking into the post-Depression, pre-WWII era (when Lois Lane was introduced). May argues that the crisis of the Depression forced Americans to try different approaches to economic security–the big one, of course, was women going to work and becoming independent. Hollywood approved of and encouraged this idea, as seen in a number of stars like Joan Crawford; it seems like DC comics might have been doing the same with Lois Lane. But pop culture also reinforced the idea that women could not indeed have it all, that they had to make a choice: career or family. And family was the preferred choice for many women, and the only legitimate option for society (institutional barriers, such as New Deal rules re: multiple federal employees in the same family, also discouraged married women’s participation in the job force). Women working during the Depression out of necessity was viewed as unfortunate but necessary, something that Americans looked forward to leaving behind when prosperity returned. So the pre-WWII, Lois Lane period provided both the model and anti-model for the Cold War 1950s domestic-containment family.
At least that’s what I remember from my comprehensive exams. Also, May used a neat survey about sex lives in the 1950s, which I think students might be into. And it just might make up for having made them learn something from, of all things, an Eminem tune.