Friday, April 13, 2012

"Try a Little Tenderness": Misogyny or Feminist Call to Action--It All Depends on What "It" Is?

The song "Try a Little Tenderness" wasn't originally Otis Redding's (it was a love song from the 1930's), but his version is definitely what catapulted it into the pop culture vernacular. Since his 1966 rendition, it has been covered again and again and placed on many "best songs" list, including reaching 207 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song has also made cross-medium jumps, appearing in  films like Pretty in Pink and Shrek. In these films, the song is not just background music, but an integrated part of the scene. It definitely means something.

But just what is that something? I'm not going to lie to you, I love Otis Redding's music. I can listen to "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" on repeat. It is superb. But listening to "Try a Little Tenderness" always leaves me perplexed. It sounds good--of that I am sure--but just what is the message? What do these words mean? Let's take a closer look.

I'm sure there are other interpretations, but I most readily see two (conflicting) narratives that all hinge upon a subtle ambiguity in the line "It makes it easier to bear." 


Key to my interpretation is the rhetorical positioning of the singer to the audience. The singer is speaking directly to the men (it's a pretty heteronormative song that relies heavily on the existence of traditional gender roles) who are interacting with these "young girls." In this way, the singer acts as something of a sage, doling advice to the would-be suitors. The singer has insight into both what the women want and what the men need to do with that information.

What's stable in both of my interpretations is the way that the singer sets up the women, young girls on the cusp of adulthood who are recognizing that their position in the world isn't really as powerful as they may have thought it was (here I thought of Jill from I Blame the Patriarchy's post on how women seldom realize how powerful the patriarchy is until they get older). Now that they're facing this reality, they are "weary" but still holding on to hope that they can escape it.

Oh she may be wearied/And young girls they do get wearied/Wearing that same old shaggy dress/But when she gets weary/Try a little tenderness
These "young girls" are "wearied" by the battles of relationships. They're constantly putting on that same "shaggy dress" (or, even more telling, "miniskirt dress" as Redding sometimes sings) to impress a man and play the game, to fit into societal standards of beauty and try to work their way into a relationship--the thing that culture tells them they must attain to be successful.
You know she's waiting/Just anticipating a thing that she'll never never never never possess/But while she's there waiting without them/Try a little tenderness
The thing that she's anticipating is her full autonomy as an adult and the success of her future. She is a "young girl" who is entering into adulthood, an adulthood that she's been imagining her whole life. Now is that moment that she will reach her potential, but she's beginning to realize that the patriarchal system she's a part of won't let her do that easily. She can't just do whatever she wants; she has to play into the system. She has to be beautiful. She has to find a man. She has to be sexy. She has to play roles that will get her where she wants to be.
It's not just sentimental no, no no/She has her grieves and cares yeah, yeah yeah/But the soft words they are spoke so gentle, yeah/It makes it easier, easier to bear
Life's not easy for this woman, but when she's with a man who speaks "so gentle" she is able to believe that she might be able to play the game and win after all. Maybe she can be appreciated for who she really is and enter into a meaningful relationship. Maybe she'll still get to go after her dreams.
You won't regret it no, no/Young girls they don't forget it/Love is their whole happiness/But it's all so easy/All you gotta do is try, try a little tenderness
These women, seeking for their own identities while navigating the relationships (both with other people and with their cultural norms) that are shaping those identities, latch onto love. When they feel they are in a real, authentic relationship, they can be themselves. They won't forget the moments (and the people) who allowed them that authentic self. "Love is their whole happiness" because it is in that moment that they can stop acting, drop the guise, and give into their desires. In those moments, that "thing [they'll] never, never, never, never possess" seems attainable.
All you gotta do is hold her where you want her/Squeeze her, don't tease her, never leave her/Get to got got try a little tenderness
If a man is "tender," then the woman will get to enter into that space of "love" and experience that seemingly impossible moment of authentic belonging. Through physical contact and assurance of the relationship's stability, a man can create the space where a woman can have this sense of identity.

Interpretation 1: A Misogynistic Guide to Tricking Women into Sex

So, since these women are vulnerable in their navigation of identity and powerlessness "all you gotta do is hold her where you want her." Say the things she wants to hear, and she's yours. Tell her you'll "never leave her." These young girls "don't forget it" when a man does that. As long as you play your part, "you won't regret it." She's sure to put out because "love is her whole happiness" and she won't risk losing that.

"It [lying to her to make her feel better about the relationship] makes it [becoming a sexual object in order to find her own identity] easier to bear."

Interpretation 2: A Feminist Call to Action for Men 

So, since these women are vulnerable in their navigation of identity and powerlessness, it's time to recognize your own privilege. "Squeeze her" because she is a sexual being who has physical needs and desires, too. "Don't tease her" because she's been teased enough about who she is and what she wants. "Never leave her" because too many people have pretended to be someone in order to get close to her and then walked away. Even if this relationship doesn't work out in the long run, these girls "don't forget it" when a man treats them like human beings and respects them without demeaning them. "Love is their whole happiness" because love is the whole happiness of all of us. We are most ourselves when we can feel secure and appreciated by other people, and if you give your true self to a woman without agenda or expectation, if you are "tender" and step outside of the rough roles you've been trained to play through patriarchy, you will get to experience that kind of love, too.

"It [recognizing your own privilege and working against the oppressive norms] makes it [her having to navigate this system] easier to bear." 

So, which one is right?

I think they both are, and I think that's why it's been such a pop culture phenomenon. Some people can cover it and mean one thing, and some can cover it and mean the other (I can only speculate on what any individual singer means when s/he sings it, but I can say that I feel the song is very different when coming from Joss Stone than it is from Chris Brown). It fits into narratives about identity and the quest for love because it brilliantly leaves itself open to both  maintaining the status quo and completely rejecting it. 


  1. I was just thinking about this today and am still trying to form my opinion, but I lean more toward the second option. This is mostly because we can't interpret things of the past through the lens of the present. It's a song that recognizes the importance of a woman's happiness and tells men they should think about it. Sure, the song gives more attention to clothing and romance than career, but ... it was written in the 30s. How many women had jobs then? In fact, now that I think about it ... "wearing that same old shaggy dress" ... well, it might just be referencing the hardship of the depression era in general - it's a stereotype, just as saying men in 2009 couldn't buy new tvs is a stereotype.

    So, I really don't see the misogyny. But it's also not a feminist anthem. It's more just a plea for kindness. In the end it comes off as slightly feminist, because in a world where domestic abuse is still very common, kindness is not the standard treatment for women.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful comment! You make a lot of great points, and I think that from a historical perspective, I agree with you.

    I take a postmodern stance on meaning and art, though, so I disagree when you say "we can't interpret things of the past through the lens of the present." I am certainly not making an argument about authorial intent or how audiences in the 1930's would have responded to it, but I do think that it has a life of its own in our contemporary times. It appeared in Shrek, after all, and I don't think the original author ever intended it to be sung by a donkey.

    I'm more interested in how contemporary audiences hear/use this song, since it is definitely one that has stood the test of time and continues to enjoy mass circulation. In order for that to happen, it has to have some kind of complexity that resonates beyond its own time period.