Why Joni Mitchell's rejection of feminism broke my heart a little (and why I'm tired of talking about Beyoncé)

I haven’t been able to muster the energy to care about, as everyone else seems to, whether Beyoncé is, isn’t, should or should not be, a feminist. I’m tired of trying to force female pop stars who think feminism is extremist or off-putting or who don’t really understand what it is to begin with to call themselves feminist. And, more generally, celebrities aren’t my go-to source when it comes to seeking out informed perspectives on political movements.

Beyoncé may well be a “strong” (whatever that means — I don’t find the “strong woman” label to be particularly descriptive unless we are invested in reinforcing some kind of “strong woman” vs. “weak woman” dichotomy, which I am not), successful woman, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a feminist. I’d say she’s empowered but that word has been overused to the point of having lost all meaning and now grates on my ears, so I won’t. Indeed Beyoncé has a particular kind of power in this world, but having power is not the same thing as being a feminist.

While, in the past, she conveyed discomfort with the feminist label, Beyoncé recently said, tentatively, in an interview with Vogue: “But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman.” Not exactly the defiant declaration Janelle Hobson, who wrote Ms. magazine’s controversial cover story: “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism,” wanted it to be, but fine, if Beyoncé wants to be a feminist, she’s more than welcome to join the movement.

Beyoncé is a pop star. I like her music in the same way I like any other pop music — without much thought or commitment/when it’s dance party time. She either chooses or is pressured to objectify herself and to use her sexualized body to sell her product. Likely it is a more complex combination of “choice” and social/industry pressure/standards which our intellectually dulled, neoliberal we’re-all-special-snowflakes, postfeminist minds can’t seem to get our heads around. We are more comfortable with binaries: choice or coercion, agency or exploitation, victim or survivor. Of course, nobody is just one thing and, therefore, the reasons for Beyoncé’s sexualized image are myriad. They are, without a doubt, cultural. They are, without a doubt, due to a standard set and reinforced by a music industry that, largely, doesn’t allow women who aren’t conventionally attractive and “sexy” success. Ugly men abound in music. Not only do they abound, but they rule (and are rewarded with groupies and “video hos”). Women, on the other hand, have to be hot. There are exceptions to that rule, as there are exceptions to all rules, but it’s still the rule.

So Ms. magazine put Beyoncé on their cover. Mostly, I assume, to sell magazines. Not being either “for” or “against” Beyoncé, I can’t bring myself to care too much about this decision. Unlike Hobson, though, I don’t Beyoncé’s fleeting girl power messages (“Who Run the World (Girls)”/ “All the Single Ladies”) as feminist and I can’t figure out why we need, so desperately, to force them to be. Sure, I wish every woman in the public eye were a feminist, but that’s unrealistic. It feels desperate to me — trying to drag stilettoed women into our clubhouse by their booty shorts, kicking and screaming, holding them down while we tattoo “This is what a feminist looks like” across their foreheads. I’d rather focus on regular women, working class women, poor women, marginalized women and on my sisters in the movement than on celebrities and pop stars, frankly.

To me, one of the worst things that came from the controversy that ensued as a result of Ms. magazine’s choice of cover model was, actually, the response from who says:

what is surprising to me is the level of vitriol and mean-girl over-the-top outrage that accompanied the news of Beyoncé’s cover on the Ms. Facebook page. Whatever one may feel about Beyoncé as a feminist icon, when did it become acceptable to call this married mother of a toddler daughter a “stripper” and a “whore”?

Now, I don’t know what angry internet user called Beyoncé a “stripper” or a “whore” but I reckon (based on their liberal use of sexist slurs) it wasn’t a feminist. Using that as an example of the backlash against the Beyoncé cover seems a tad misrepresentative, unless we are now taking what internet trolls say as legitimate feminist critique (in which case we’re all a bunch of “whores” — sorry ladies, internet says). The fact that Hobson felt inclined to note, in the same sentence, that Beyoncé is a “married mother of a toddler,” as though being a married mother is proof of her status as “good woman” and therefore NOT a “stripper” or a “whore” (sorry, but whether or not a woman is married or a mother has nothing to do with whether or not she deserves to be called those names) was also pretty off-putting.

Hobson’s response was disappointing, as it really only reinforced this “either you can be a slut or a prude” thing that is so prevalent in conversations about the sexualization of women’s bodies. Critiques of the fact that women learn to perform for the male gaze and to make their bodies into products are turned into “pearl-clutching” and represented as attempts to force sexy ladies into buttoned-up blouses. Hobson says the conversation about Beyoncé’s sexualized image is about “policing women’s bodies.” I say it’s part of a conversation about the ways our culture teaches women to value themselves and the ways we allow women to be visible. We feel powerful when we are desired. That power is temporary and without substance. That feminists might be critical of the fact that women have to dance around in their underwear in their music videos while men get to keep their pants on (and have women in their underwear dance dance around them) doesn’t equate to “pearl-clutching” or forced modesty.

Hobson wants to make Beyoncé’s self-objectification about Beyoncé’s own personal version of feminism and turns feminists into oppressors who want to “regulate” women’s bodies, when really feminism is about supporting all the choices women make because feminism is for everybody!

Are you bored yet? Me too.

The point isn’t “Beyoncé: Feminist icon or SKANK”. She’s neither. And for whatever reason (can I get a obsession-with-celebrity-culture?) this conversation has been had to death.

So while everyone else is all up in arms about Beyoncé’s feminism or lack thereof, what I really want to know is: Why isn’t Joni Mitchell a feminist?

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio’s Q, which was mostly wonderful and intelligent and the cause of much swooning in Mitchell’s fans (of which I am one), there was this awkward moment. And I tried very hard to ignore it.

My aural love affair with Joni Mitchell began over two decades ago, with my mother’s records. Blue became one of my all-time favorite albums when I was about 15. So when she told Ghomeshi: “I’m not a feminist,” I quickly suffocated the quote with a mental pillow and stuffed it into a suitcase along with everything I don’t feel like acknowledging (because, as it turns out, everything awesome gives you cancer). “I’m choosing to ignore that,” was my response to other feminists who noted their disappointment in Mitchell’s words. They, like me (though less committed to denial), felt let down by one of their icons.

And she didn’t just say “I’m not a feminist,” and leave it at that. She was downright hostile.

The painful thing about Mitchell’s rejection of feminism and feminists is that she teases us with all of her feminist consciousness. She says, of her album, Blue: “It was a man’s world… The game was to make yourself larger than life.” Mitchell was told she revealed too much of herself on that album, showed too much weakness and, in a man’s world, vulnerability is a bad thing. She brilliantly calls out the bullshit myth that was the “free love movement” of the 60s as being what it was: “a ruse for guys” — a way to get laid. Mitchell doesn’t fake humility, as women are meant to. She doesn’t hide her talent, she doesn’t pretend as though she is unaware that she is gifted and not only gifted, but better, much better than so many (most, even) other artists. Women aren’t supposed to know they are good. At very least, they aren’t supposed to say they are good. Mitchell isn’t afraid of her ego. “I’m too good for a girl,” she says. It made her male contemporaries uncomfortable.

But then — stab-stab-stab — “I’m not a feminist.”

“Where’s that line for you,” Ghomeshi asks. “I don’t want to get a posse against men,” Mitchell responds. Stab-cry-stab.

She qualifies her statement: “I’ve got a lot of men friends.” (more crying) “Too many amazons in that community… The feminism in this continent isn’t feminine, it’s masculine. Our feminism isn’t feminism, it’s masculinism.”

There’s this idea that being a feminist means being more “like men.” It’s a stupid idea, perpetuated, I’d thought, by stupid people and conservatives. Feminism is, of course, about challenging the idea that such a thing exists as “masculine” or “feminine.” It’s about the fact that we learn gender. Neither “masculinity” or “femininity” exists in a biological sense and therefore neither is better or worse than the other. Traits that are typically associated with “femininity” are, of course, seen as “worse” because all things “woman” are seen are “worse” in our culture. Feminism is neither “feminine” or “masculine.” Nor should it be a celebration of either.

It sounds like maybe she’s had some bad experiences with feminists. She says they’ve been nasty. To her, perhaps? I don’t know. But something or some things made her hate feminism.

In an interview done by Ani DiFranco back in 1998, the Mitchell tells her: “I prefer the company of men,” going on “to describe the pleasure of being the only female presence among men.”

I don’t want to have to say “I like men, too, Joni!” “I’ve got lots of men friends, too, Joni! And I think they’re great! AND I’m a feminist! See? SEE??” Because that isn’t the point. And I’m tired of hearing feminists have to say “We don’t hate men, we love them!” as a way to try to sell our movement.

Mitchell’s rejection of feminism doesn’t make me mad, though I understand the angry and frustrated reaction from some of her feminist fans who wonder how this seemingly feminist and highly intelligent woman could take such cliched and ignorant stabs at them — it made me sad. She seems like she’s right there with us, until we get to the movement part.

DiFranco writes:

Joni has been personally disturbed by her own second-class citizenship for many years, as well she should be. It is interesting to study her public treatment, especially in the context of, say, her buddy Bob Dylan. For 30 years, Bob has been surrounded by a wealth of media hyperbole (“voice of a generation,” etc.) that was never lavished on Joni. Only now is she beginning to receive some of the public strokes befitting her contribution to popular music. After all this time, though, some of the praising “rings hollow,” she confided. Why has Bob been so thoroughly canonized and Joni so condescended to over the years? Maybe, in part, because when Joni was uppity, she was considered a bitch, and the media retaliated. From day one, however, Bob could be as uppity as he wanted, and the great mammoth rock press lauded his behavior as rebellious, clever, renegade and punkishly cool. Maybe it’s also because Bob’s songs are inherently more masculine (go figure) and have therefore been viewed as more universal, while Joni’s writing, which has a more feminine perspective, is put in a box labeled “girl stuff.”

Mitchell knows that her experiences in life and in music are gendered. She knows she’s been treated differently in the “man’s world” that is the music industry. Maybe she feels she wants to side with the men because she feels she made it on her own accord. The boys don’t need a movement to make it.

I remember wanting to be one of the boys. I tried, in a number of ways, in various periods of my life, to be one of the boys. I tried playing with He-Man instead of Barbie. I refused to wear pink until about 2010. I tried going to strip clubs and I tried hating girls. But hating women won’t make you one of the boys. Things will never get better for women by rejecting women or by trying to be more “like men.” I have lots of male friends because I like those particular men. I have lots of female friends because I like those particular women. I definitely don’t feel I should go to, or enjoy going to, strip clubs in order to be accepted by men. I no longer want to be accepted by men who go to strip clubs.

I can’t claim to know what led Joni Mitchell to reject feminism in the way that she has. I can relate, because of past experience, to what some might call internalized misogyny (if you’ve ever heard a woman say, or even said yourself: “Oh I just don’t get along with other women,” you might know what I mean) — meaning that when one learns all their life that being a woman is a bad thing, sometimes we take that on and respond not by challenging that socialization but by rejecting and hating women and all that comes along with what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal culture.

I still love Joni. I love her music. I respect her. But I’m sad, not only that she’s rejected feminism but that, in many ways, she’s rejected women. I’m sad that her experiences of sexism made her turn against us instead of develop her feminist consciousness; instead of thinking about and challenging the larger power structures and the ways in which inequality shaped her experiences.

It’s hard to be a feminist. You can’t just go along your merry way, pretending as though your status as “woman” doesn’t stalk you at every turn. But feminism has provided me with lens through which I can see and understand my experiences and the world around me in a way that freed me from anger. Which isn’t to say I don’t get angry. I do. But I know why that anger is there and I know what to do with it. Being more “like men” or being “one of the boys” isn’t going to change the fact that I’m a woman in this world. It isn’t going to stop rape or domestic abuse. Being “strong” and independent isn’t going to save me or any other woman from being harassed or groped on the bus. Objectifying other women at the strip club isn’t going to empower me or the women on stage. Objectifying myself isn’t going to protect me from objectification. Which is why feminism matters. Individual women can try as they might to change their individual circumstances, but they still are part of a social class called “women” and that still means something in this world.

With all of Mitchell’s feminist analysis and all of her experiences, we wanted more from her. But I can’t bring myself to hold it against her. All it does is to remind me how hard things still are, and how tired we all get, struggling to make it, to live our lives, and to not feel a constant sense of rage about the ways that our gender determines our experiences. We don’t want it to be true, but it is. And the awfulness of misogyny isn’t only in the ways women are treated by men, but in the ways we treat ourselves and the ways we see other women. Feminism doesn’t mean we have to love all individual women. I definitely don’t. But it means we don’t hate them because they are women. We don’t hate Beyoncé because she poses in her underwear in magazines — we hate that she has to.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.