Had a discussion about this a while ago with the blog’s propriatrix (?) I’m a huge proponent of Dylan, who I was raised on together with Phil Ochs and Joan Baez. Mireille says of Dylan: “I can’t forgive him for his treatment of women. Everyone forgives him, but I can’t.”
I’d counter that, short of criminals (paging Roman Polanski,) the artist’s personal life is largely separate from their product. Eliot was a Jew-hater, but he’s a fine poet even if I wouldn’t invite him over for my grandma’s beef brisket.
However, at least one critic offhand has gone beyond the personal and accused Dylan of sexism in the work itself. Richard Goldstein brings it in The Nation:
“Hostility to women is a recurring motif in Dylan’s songs, from “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind.” His love songs, and there are many, bask in feminine submission, as in the ballad on Infidels (1983) that asks, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?” and answers “You know a woman like you should be at home/That’s where you belong/Watching out for someone who loves you true/Who would never do you wrong.”
I’m not going to sit here and defend Infidels on aesthetic merit, (though “Jokerman” has a cool video), but it’s worth noting that the commentators on Songmeanings seem to think “Sweetheart Like You” is actually about Christ and they’re not alone. Of course, random people on the internet are notoriously unreliable: witness the epic Youtube comment, “”bob dyln sux hes a wannabe jon mayer.” Not to mention the analysis of Van Morrison’s “Madame George” as being about Morrison’s aunt; a Belfast transvestite; social intolerance; growing up; leaving home; Yeats’ wife; or heroin. Point is, interpretations are free.
But “Like a Rolling Stone?” Goldstein’s flat-out wrong. It’s not about sex, it’s about class — even if it takes a Marxist to notice it. After that historic rim-shot, how does Dylan open Rolling Stone’s number one song of all time?
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine / Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”
There’s chapter and verse of this pissed-off poor-boy stuff:
“…Nobody ever taught you how to live on the street / And now you’re gonna have to get used to it…,”
“…Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people / Drinkin’ thinkin’ that they got it made / Exchanging all precious gifts and things / You’d better take your diamond ring you’d better pawn it babe.”
The bitterness is driven by rejection and poverty, not misogyny.
“Idiot Wind” makes a better argument, as the lyrics are pretty nasty at face value. But even that comes with a caveat. After slamming his lover the whole way through, (assuming there isn’t a different target in the lines about the Capitol,) Dylan turns from away from blame in the last verse…
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.
…and crucially, changes the pronoun from the “You” he’s been using the whole song to “We.” It may not negate the hostility of the thing entirely, but it’s there for a reason.
Some of Dylan’s other stuff, including “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” receives a nice defense here, see pages 64-68.
Goldstein goes on with the condemnation, dropping naughty words for effect:
“What do women think of this shit? We don’t really know, since rock crit (like lit crit) is such a male preserve. But it’s safe to say that Dylan’s current public is skewed toward the (straight) male end of the sexual spectrum.”
Not only is the make-up of the “rock crit” field totally irrelevant, but he has no proof that Dylan’s audience is any more straight male than the audience for rock in general; classic rock in general; folk rock in general; or any relevant genre. If we want to cite anecdotes, I have a half-dozen women off the top of my head who love Dylan, and a half-dozen straight men who can’t be bothered. Then there’s the logical leap:
Take Dylan’s trademark elusiveness: The self is masked; nothing is revealed. This stance is a major signifier of machismo in American culture, always has been. Think of all those masked superheroes, or the hard-boiled guys in film noir whose eyes are shown in shadow. Think of Noah’s son, cursed because he saw his father naked. Dylan is steeped in that saga. He’s a keeper of the patriarchal flame.
So: Elusiveness —-> machismo —-> film noir —-> Old Testament —-> “patriarchal flame.”
I think I went to grad school with this fool. Actually, I think we all did. Goldstein wraps with:
I don’t claim that Dylan is determined by machismo–there’s much more to him than that. But I will say that he reaches many men of a certain age and status on precisely these grounds. He digs beneath their ambivalent embrace of sexual equality, the insistence that they acknowledge their interests as a sex, and he proposes that these demands insult the fundamentals. Liberals won’t accept that regressive message when it’s wrapped in conservative politics, as it often is in country music. But because Dylan is as critical of injustice as he is of liberation, he overrides such reservations. And if you take a purely textual approach, it’s possible to forget that his mystique rests substantially on his sexual politics. Dylan is a liberal man’s man.
Same dreck. Even if we concede that Dylan has personal problems with women, it’s a fantastic leap to an “insistence [men] acknowledge their interests as a sex.” There’s certainly no evidence of a political agenda anywhere, even if Bob had some nasty breakups. Besides which, Dylan isn’t a “liberal man’s man” any more than he’s a liberal’s anything . (“The madness of becoming / What one was never meant to be?“)
Chairman Dylan’s apparant issues with women are rarely if ever about about women. Yes, Dylan has a whole sub-catalogue of “You broke my heart go fuck yourself” material. Thing is, the central problem to this stuff is rarely if ever the nature of women. It’s usually about class (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” possibly “Queen Jane Approximately,) or at worst a whiny sort of she-asked-too-much self-pity (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” or that great line “I gave her my heart / But she wanted my soul” from “Don’t Think Twice.”) It’s sex, it’s love, it’s class, but it’s not women qua women.
The best defense of the stuff I can offer is that so much of it can be performed gender-backwards to fantastic effect. Take five minutes of your life (and possibly a cigarette) for this, or check out Nina Simone’s cover of “Just Like a Woman” where she inverts the pronoun to “I”and try to pretend the intent is misogyny.