Bon Jovi and Damsels in Distress

The latest Bon Jovi album, The Circle, features a song called ‘Superman Tonight’. It’s a great album; the songs are, even after all this time, raw and powerful in a way that only Jon Bon Jovi can sing ‘em. The song in question is, itself, easy to listen to and fairly enjoyable. The sentiment, on first listening, seems harmless, in a sappy-enough way:

Who’s going to save you when the stars fall from your sky?

And who’s going to pull you in when the tide gets too high?

Who’s going to hold you when you turn out the light?

I won’t lie; I wish that I could be your superman tonight.

I can identify with the desire or need to protect one’s loved ones from hurt and harm, at almost any cost, I can identify with the desire to have superhuman powers to give them everything they want. Really, I can. I cannot, however, sing along with this song without a sense of disjointment. It is not quite the sentiment of Yeats’ “walk carefully, for you walk on my dreams”, loved ones giving up everything for that ‘significant other’. It is, instead, a song about boys saving girls, a fact only amplified by the opening line of “you’re tragic and beautiful”, which you would, for some reason, never sing as a girl in love with a boy. You would quite possibly not sing it as a girl in love with a girl, for there is something strange about painting your loved one as “tragic and beautiful” for it suggests first that they require saving and second that they are worth saving solely for their physical appearance.

This is a trope seemingly as old as time itself; beautiful damsels in distress who somehow manage to get themselves into all kinds of bother and then require shining knights to come along and rescue them, and their services are then rewarded with material and physical favours. (Obviously, a game of chess or a drink at the local tavern wouldn’t be quite reward enough.) This is a trope that was perpetuated along the way between then and now, by the superheroes of the 20th Century (and let’s face it, the super-heroines were just never quite as good) as they continued to save their female love-interests from danger over and over again.

For all their code of honour and desire to uphold chivalry, Arthur and his knights (and their literary manipulators) possibly never considered that their struggles to ensure the safety of women would, in fact, brick them into the small room of second-class citizenship. Up until recently in South Africa, for example, when a woman signed her name to a marriage certificate, she was automatically reduced to having the same rights as a child; in the eyes of the patriarchal state, women are just children that need to be kept safe, looked after, and provided for by their knights in shining armour. Even in those countries where we claim to hold up the very principles of an equal and fair society in a liberal democracy, our women are branded first with their father’s name and then with that of their husband, very few really finding it useful or acceptable to keep their own name at marriage. If a woman needs to be looked after, she is property, no better, really, than a valuable possession. If she needs to be rescued, it means she cannot look after herself.

This presents some difficulties, namely, that I have the sneaking suspicion that secretly everyone wants to be saved once in a while. No matter what your background, there will be certain moments in your life where you really wish someone would just step in, take over, and sort everything out. In just the sort of way that wounded soldiers cry for their mothers. This gives a woman some problems, because if she gives into this human need when it arises every so often, then she is not just merely a human in distress who needs a helping hand; very quickly she becomes that damsel in distress, and men can get a nice thrill about being all macho and sorting everything out.

In reality, of course, women turn to their mothers, sisters and female friends just as often as, if not more than, they turn to fathers, brothers and lovers for help. And yet there is a pervading idea, as we can hear in the crooning of Jon Bon Jovi’s lyrics, that women just can’t cope by themselves, and this pervasive idea helps to fuel the seemingly current understanding that women are not suited to certain things, right from not being able to do DIY, understand the offside rule, or work the barbeque, right up to not being capable in fields of maths and physics (science-based subjects, generally), not being able to deal with the stress of a high-powered business life, and not being good public speakers or politicians. These understandings are all, of course, strictly on the hush-hush, but we nevertheless meet with them every day; they are current everywhere, and none of our song lyrics help, even those coming from women. Think, even, of Eurythmics’ ‘I Need a Man’ which, to all intents and purposes, is a powerful, man-eating song. No man, I might point out, has ever sung “I Need a Woman” in quite the same way, “I got to get me some pussy”, certainly. These are different sentiments. Almost everywhere our song lyrics tell us that women are only good for having sex with, they are passive subjects to the raging male libido of rap artists and pop stars. Unfortunately, it seems that being sexually attractive, for a woman, is almost impossible to do without also being objectified, and that fact being put first, rather than after their other character traits. If poor Jon Bon Jovi can sing such a song as ‘Superman Tonight’, and no one even bat an eyelid, then we still have a long way to go.

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