Thursday, March 15, 2012

Woman on Woman Action Part 3: Defensive Attacks

We looked at duets where women fought over a man. We looked at songs where women flaunt their superiority by claiming they are  able to take a man. The third part of this series investigating popular songs about women attacking other women as part of a love triangle focuses on the ladies who take the defensive stance.

These are the women who were playing by the rules. They thought they were in stable relationships until something (sometimes something subtle, sometimes something unavoidably overt) tipped the balance. Now they have to fight, not only for their men, but for the identities they crafted as part of that relationship. And the ones they fight are almost always the other women, not the men themselves.

"Jane Doe" Alicia Keys

This speaker has been confronted by another woman who says her man is cheating on her. But the speaker is not convinced. She knows that this other woman is just trying to trick her into leaving an opening that she can wedge herself in:
I caught you trying to check my man out/How bout you explain what that's all about/You think you slick like I wouldn't know/But I got something for you Doe/Mess around end up in a choke hold 
This threat of physical violence is common to the defensive position. These women who feel their position of a stable relationship upended react primally. Interestingly, very few of the lyrics focus on why this man is worth fighting for (especially since he apparently can't be trusted not to stray on his own merit). The only hint we get is the line "Listening to you will leave me lonely/That's not what I'm trying to be."

The thing that has this woman ready to physically fight another woman is the threat of loneliness. Nowhere does she defend this particular man and his individual qualities so much as the idea of a man to begin with. The stability of a relationship, the guarantee of companionship, the social norm that comes along with being coupled--those are the things the other woman threatens, and those threats are not taken lightly.

"You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)"- Loretta Lynn

It takes a certain degree of cognitive dissonance to watch smiling, perky Loretta Lynn sing these lyrics:
It'll be over my dead body, so get out while you can/Cause you ain't woman enough to take my man
Later, she tells the woman who has threatened to take her man "Women like you are a dime a dozen" and this is eerily similar to Alicia Key's assertion that the "Jane Does"--faceless, personality-void women--are trying to take her man. These women see their position as half of a stable relationship as evidence that they are not like these other vapid women. Their relationship gives them purpose, but it is a very fragile purpose, one that can be ripped away from them if they cede their ground to these threats. Instead, they must be ready to fight.

"Getting in the Way" Jill Scott

When an ex-girlfriend calls her house and hangs up the phone, the speaker calls back and confronts her. 
Sugar honey girl, fly fly away/I've been a lady up to now, don't know how much more I can take/Queens shouldn't swing if you know what I mean/But I'm bout to take my earrings off give me some Vaseline
This song, too, focuses on the threat the other woman imposes rather than the actual relationship at stake. Even more interesting is the way the impending violence is glorified in the video. An entire neighborhood of people follow the speaker to the confrontation where they jeer and egg her on. A child pulls up a plastic chair to watch the argument as if it were a television show for his entertainment. The other woman gives dismissive body cues but she isn't given a voice. When the speaker humiliates her by tossing her fake hair into the crowd, the other woman runs into the house and slams the door. The crowd cheers, the child on the chair applauds, and our speaker walks away victorious. The threat--which the whole neighborhood recognized as the other woman's fault--has been disarmed. Order has been restored.

"The Earrings Song" Gretchen Wilson

Over on the opposing end of the musical genre, Gretchen Wilson similarly prepares to take her earrings off to physically battle a woman who threatens her relationship.

Our speaker sets herself up as a very sympathetic character. She just wants to spend a Friday night out with her husband, having found a babysitter and stepping out of the kitchen. She's just trying to wind down and reconnect with her man. And here comes a woman "slinking by" and "stealing his attention." By now it should come as no surprise that she's not angry at him for letting his attention be "stolen." No, it's the other woman's fault. And she's not afraid of her:
Don't make me take my earrings out/Cause I'll show you what a cat fight's all about/I'll throw you down and mop the floor/A man like mine's worth fighting for/So don't make me take my earrings out

The Wildcard- "Jolene"- Dolly Parton
Smash over at smashthep has a great post about this song (which is actually what got me thinking about this entire series).  She examines the way that a woman's dependence on a man can be economic and reach much deeper than it might appear.

Here the speaker confronts the potential other woman, but she has none of the fire and anger that the other women on this list have. Instead, she is pleading and she is scared. 
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene/I'm begging of you please don't take my man. . . Please don't take him just because you can
Your beauty is beyond compare/With flaming locks of auburn hair/With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green/Your smile is like a breath of spring/Your voice is soft like summer rain/And I cannot compete with you Jolene
The speaker goes on to say that she can "easily understand" how Jolene could take her man, but she begs her not to anyway. She doesn't try to assert herself as dominant. She doesn't threaten physical violence. She appeals to Jolene's human side; she appeals to her as a woman. Toward the end she says:
I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/Whatever you decide to do, Jolene 
And here, in a few simple words, is the message that runs underneath all of the rest of the songs on this list. These women are terrified by the power the other woman yields. They react with threats of violence because they see no other way to combat this very real threat to their relationship and the status and identity that relationship affords them. By recognizing that, by giving it a name aloud, "Jolene" casts a new light on all of these songs.

What happens if women stop trying to break one another down? What happens if they respect one another? What happens if they--above all--talk to one another?


This series was about the messages women are sent about how to deal with one another through songs about love triangles, but that's not the only place we get these messages, and it is certainly not the only place they play out. I started looking at this because the dichotomized rhetoric of the birth wars is so disheartening. Women rip each other to shreds over how and when and where they give birth. The same is true over breastfeeding v. bottle-feeding. Or between having kids or not. Or between staying home and having a career. Or what body type gets to be sexy. In the end, tearing each other down has become a part of our common vernacular. It's not only acceptable, but encouraged. Too often, women are shown that their strength must come at the expense of another woman's.

Success and strength are not zero-sum games. In fact, the sum of our whole can be greater than our parts, but we must first be willing to subvert the narrative that tells us otherwise.

Intro- Woman on Woman Action: Why Do We Tear Each Other Down?
Woman on Woman Action Part 1: Direct Competition
Woman on Woman Action Part 2: Offensive Threat


  1. Sometimes an individual woman is actually a bad actor, and all of your feminist bona fides cannot help you communicate with her. I despise the ways that patriarchy forces us to compete (or think we are competing) rather than cooperate, and I actively work and write against that narrative. However, I did have another woman (unsuccessfully) attack my relationship. My partner and I had to walk away from what purported to be a friendship. Talking with her still doesn't seem like an option, despite my wishes that she be healthier and happier.

    1. Oh definitely--I've been part of a few toxic triangles myself. It reminds me of this quote from Percival Everett's novel Erasure: "I don't believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that's just the way it is."

      Just because it's a social construct (and I'd be willing to bet that the woman who attacked your relationship was acting within a social construct of competition) doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt or impact our lives in very real ways.

      I'm sorry that you lost a friend, but I'm glad you and your partner were able to walk away without damaging your relationship.

  2. Hi Balancing Jane-- great post! I like what you say here:

    "Too often, women are shown that their strength must come at the expense of another woman's."

    This is so true, and is well evidenced by the other songs you cite.

    Another song on this topic that doesn't involve violence is Brandy and Monica's The Boy is Mine. Both women believe the man is theirs, but clearly he is playing both of them!

    Hopefully more women will recognize what you say here:

    "Success and strength are not zero-sum games. In fact, the sum of our whole can be greater than our parts, but we must first be willing to subvert the narrative that tells us otherwise."