Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Woman on Woman Action Part 1: Direct Competition

As part of my series analyzing songs about women competing over men (see intro here), I'm going to examine songs where both women get a voice. These duets bring us a raw, passionate fight over not just a man, but status. Each woman presents herself to be worthy of the man's attention but because success requires the man's faithfulness, it becomes a zero sum game. In order to "win," the man must choose her.

Ultimately, this gives all of the power to the man in question, but these women can't let that position of powerlessness consume them. Instead of focusing on the man (who presumably has been unfaithful or at least may soon be unfaithful) and his relationship to her, each woman instead focuses on the other woman. If she can prove her worth to the other woman and to the audience of the song, she feels like she has controlled the man, forced him to make the "right" decision.

"The Best Woman Wins" Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan

As the oldest song on this list, it's perhaps fitting that these two ladies are very conscious of their position of powerlessness. 
I'll beg and I'll plead/I will suffer and bleed/But he must make a choice between us
Neither woman makes a direct attack on the other's character, but both maintain that she is the "best woman." They also each make it clear that "I'll never give up or give in." It is perseverance that is rewarded in this game. The lyrics also suggest that these women recognize the level of performance surrounding their situation:
This soap opera play that we're in/Is just like you watch on TV/But I never thought that I'd ever get caught in it/Starring you, him, and me
Each woman has staked her claim to "best" on the decision of a man, and now there is nothing that either can do but wait and see if that man will affirm her claim, choose the other and forever deny her, or leave both of them waiting, unable to think of anything but their positions to each other and to him.

"Does He Love You?" Reba McIntire and Linda Davis

The women in this song are not stuck in limbo the way that Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan were. They are not waiting for the man to place them in their roles; their roles are already solidified. The woman voiced by Reba McIntire is firmly placed as the wife, as her rival points out:
But you're the one he rushes home to/you're the one he gave his name to
At the same time, she recognizes that her position as mistress, as plaything is also set:
You have his mornings, his daytimes and sometimes I have his nights 
The roles that they are playing are all-consuming in this song. Reba's character reminds herself "I should not lose my temper. . . because I have everything to lose." Linda's character reminds herself "I should not be ashamed . . . I have nothing to gain."

The tension in this song is less about one of them coming out on top and more about each of them recognizing that they are defined by the other. Reba is now "wife" not only in the sense that she is paired with her "husband," but she is also "wife" as opposed to "mistress." This new dimension to her identity leaves her dependent upon Linda's presence, and she doesn't know what that means for her. Likewise, Linda can only be "mistress" because there is a "wife." Both women are left wondering if the love they feel from the man is real. And the question "Does he love you like he loves me?" is partially rhetorical, but partially earnest. Can he love both of us? Can we all exist this way?

The song gives no answers to this question, but the video is fascinating. As Linda and the husband get into a boat for a rare daytime tryst, Reba's character stands on the shore and watches it explode into a ball of flames. Immediately, we are whisked out of the scene with a dramatic "CUT!" where we see all three actors--Reba, Linda, and the husband--laughing together as they look at footage from the drama they're shooting. Just like Dolly Parton and Lorrie Morgan, these characters are intensely focused on the roles that they have to play within this triangle. Turning it into a (literal) fiction by making the whole interaction part of a movie disarms some of the tension, but if we just look at the lyrics, there's no end for that tension in sight.

"The Boy is Mine" Monica and Brandy

This song takes the now-familiar problem of two women battling for the same man, but each of these women thinks she has already won the battle. Instead of waiting for the man to choose (like Dolly and Lorrie) or recognizing that they are stuck in oppositional roles (like Reba and Linda), Brandy and Monica each maintain the primary position, choosing to believe that the other woman is simply delusional and jealous. 
I'm sorry that you seem to be confused/He belongs to me, the boy is mine 
But when will you get the picture/You're the past, I'm the future 
Each woman ascribes so fully to her version of the truth that she purposefully ignores the very real warning signs of infidelity. Instead of seeing the other woman as an equal victim of a cheating boyfriend, each must see herself as superior to the other woman. Though the video suggests the two women do come together long enough to confront the man (and slam the door in his face) the lyrics give us no such finality.

(To be fair, they just debuted their reunion track, "It All Belongs to Me." Fourteen years later, these women are no longer fighting over a man. Instead, they're focusing on all of the things they bought that man and how--at the end of the relationship--they get to keep those things. Maybe maturity brings the ability to put aside the woman-on-woman bickering--or maybe it's just money.)

The Wildcard-"Beautiful Liar" Beyonce and Shakria

What would happen if the women didn't tear each other down and instead focused on the real problem: the cheating man? Beyonce and Shakira give us some insights. 

Tell me how to forgive you when it's me who's ashamed/And I wish I could free you of the hurt and the pain/But the answer is simple, he's the one to blame!Hey!
Ay! Let's not kill the karma/Ay! Let's not start a fight/Ay! It's not worth the drama/For a beautiful liar
Oh! Can't we laugh about it?/(Ha ha ha)/Oh! It's not worth our time/Oh! We can live without him/Just a beautiful liar
Though both women feel scorned and hurt and both are tempted to blame the other ("You stole everything" "Tell me how to forgive you"), they ultimately recognize that those thoughts of jealousy and anger are blinding them to the truth: the man is a cheat, and he's "not worth the drama." These women represent what can happen when female communication is not centered on breaking each other down, but building each other up. While all of the other pairs of women (Dolly/Lorrie, Reba/Linda, Brandy/Monica) are left in limbo, constantly wondering how to define themselves, these two are able to move on.

"We can live without him." And it's communication with other women that helps us get to that cathartic point.

Next up is Part 2, a look at songs where women send offensive attacks to communicate that they can take a man if they want him.


  1. I'm curious about how you feel about these characters playing out these scenarios in song, and how it being a character changes things.

    Like, on the one hand, I can see how these sorts of songs set up a paradigm where this is what we expect women to do. But on the other hand, these are characters created to act out a mini-drama, and I can see the value in representing all kinds of situations (like the ones you've laid out here) as dramatic (musical) scenes. The Beyonce/Shakira song is satisfying as a statement of power and victory, but the Dolly/Lorrie song is satisfying as a dramatic representation of struggle and backbiting. Should we only tell the first story?

    Not trying to say which is the right answer really... I'd need to process more. But I'm curious how you feel about those kinds of issues.

    1. I would never say that we shouldn't explore multiple perspectives through fictive drama. I definitely think that there's value in showing multiple character viewpoints and, yes, in showing potentially damaging portrayals. However, when those portrayals become the dominant narrative, I don't know that there's much value in continuing to perpetuate the same story line again and again.

    2. True, for sure. I just wonder how many of these damaging portrayals are meant to garner the audience's sympathy, and how many are people we're supposed to dislike. Like maybe it's just me, but when I listen to Brandy & Monica I hear women in a bad place, one I'd like to avoid at all costs.

      And I guess from a dramatic standpoint, conflict is key to effective drama. So while it's certainly possible to make a great song without direct conflict, the duet genre THRIVES on conflict because that makes for good theatre.

      Don't get me wrong, please. That's not to say that we shouldn't try to put better portrayals of women out there. I definitely think the music world could use MUCH more enlightened, not so cynical, not so stereotypical views of relationships. But I think it's very difficult to do so, because the more conflict there is in a situation, the better drama it has.

  2. Thank you for this analysis; it's a great start. For me, your post brings up questions of date of release, race, and culture. I can't help but notice that the first two are released by white artists in the country music genre (traditionally white) and the second two are released by black artists in the R&B genre (traditionally black). Are the differences playing into stereotypes? Cultural expectations? Or simply coincidence?

    Such a complicated topic. I'm looking forward to your next two posts!