Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Getting Your Gun

Today is both International Women's Day and Blog Against Sexism Day. I hope someday to be an International Woman; now let's Blog Against Sexism.

I was raised on the musical theater of every era since the genre's inception; it is mostly through this that I know the lyrics to more than two hundred songs. One of the songs whose words remain etched in my head is this one, from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, based on the life of legendary markswoman Annie Oakley and sung by her love interest, Frank Butler.

The Girl That I Marry
The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery
The girl I call my own
Will wear satin and laces and smell of cologne
Her nails will be polished, and in her hair
She'll wear a gardenia, and I'll be there
'Stead of flittin', I'll be sittin'
Next to her and she'll purr like a kitten
A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry must be.

'Stead of flittin', I'll be sittin'
Next to her and she'll purr like a kitten
A doll I can carry,
The girl that I marry must be.


Why do I recall so vividly such an insipid song, you may ask? Because it was how my father first taught me about the concept of sexism, when I was six or seven. I'm the child of two feminists, so the word had probably been in the household since my birth--certainly I had learned over and over that a girl could be anything she wanted when she grew up, and sweet lord did I have plans. But my first recollection of the word "sexist" is when my father told me that this song was sexist, and when I asked what that meant, he explained it to me and explained what about the song was sexist. Sexism, my father told me, is when a woman is judged solely by her appearance or femininity rather than the substance of her character. He offered another song from the musical to prove his point, a song that is musically lovely and even a great deal of fun in its ideas.

Who Do You Love, I Hope
He:
I've got the question
I've had it for days
You've got the answer, dear
I'll put the question
In one little phrase
Say what I want to hear

Who do you love I hope
Who would you kiss I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me

Who do you want I hope
Who do you need I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me

Is it the baker who gave you a cake
I saw that look in his eye
Is it the butcher who brought you a steak
Say that it is and I'll die

Who do you love I hope
Who would you kiss I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me


She:
I heard your question
The answer you know
Love is my middle name
You asked a question
That worried you so
Mind if I do the same

Who do you love I hope
Who would you kiss I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me

Who do you want I hope
Who do you need I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me

Is it the blondie who acted so shy
I heard the things that she said
Is it the redhead who gave you the eye
Say that it is and you're dead

Who do you love I hope
Who would you kiss I hope
Who is it going to be
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me
I hope, I hope, I hope it's me


Here, he explained, the salient characteristics of the men are their professions, the women their hair color.

All this seems oversimplified, and at this particular time in my life, it certainly is. But it was a firm foundation for my thinking in the future. And speaking as someone who recently had to explain the concept of anti-Semitism to two Jewish eight-year-olds, I feel strongly that such a foundation is not to be underestimated.

I have never lived in a place where a woman is not expected to do the things I do: to write, to direct, to teach, to lead. I've never considered my independence, my status as a single woman living on her own without "belonging" to her family or to her husband, to be unusual; such is the case for most of my friends and acquaintances. It would be years before I knew that there were real places, places relevant to the way I choose to live, where that was not normal, not the case and not the philosophy.

I was not to see a production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun until I was thirteen, when my views about girls and women and their strength were firmly in place. Since the climactic decision of the musical is made in dialogue, not song, I didn't learn how unpleasantly the piece betrayed its female heroine until that point. Early in the musical, Annie Oakley sings a song that is not itself sexist, but a reflection of the sexist society she inhabits.

You Can't Get a Man with a Gun
Oh, my mother was frightened by a shotgun, they say
That's why I'm such a wonderful shot
I'd be out in the cactus and I'd practice all day
And now tell me what have I got

I'm quick on the trigger
With targets not much bigger
Than a pinpoint, a number one
But my score with a feller
Is lower than a cellar
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun

When I'm with a pistol
I sparkle like a crystal
Yes, I shine like the morning sun
But I lose all my luster
When with a bronco buster
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun

With a gu-un
With a gu-un
No, you can't get a man with a gun

If I went to battle
With someone's herd of cattle
You'd have steak when the job was done
But if I shot the herder
They'd holler bloody murder
And you can't shoot a male
In the tail
Like a quail
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun

If I shot a rabbit
Some furrier would grab it
For a coat that would warm someone
But you can't shoot a lover
And use him for a cover
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun

The gals with umbrellers
Are always out with fellers
In the rain or the blazing sun
But a man never trifles
With gals who carry rifles
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun

With a gu-un
With a gu-un
No, you can't get a man with a gun

A Tom, Dick or Harry
Will build a house for Carrie
When the preacher has made them one
But he can't build your houses
With buckshot in his trousers
For a man may be hot
But he's not
When he's shot
Oh, you can't get a man with a gun


Annie struggles with competitive Frank Butler, who cannot bear to be outdone by a woman yet to whom she is ruthlessly attracted, throughout the musical. During a climactic shooting competition, Annie's surrogate father, Chief Sitting Bull, reminds her of her revelation that "you can't get a man with a gun." (I've omitted the lyrics to both "Anything You Can Do" and "I'm an Indian Too" here, as they're not entirely germane to the discussion at hand, but it's worth looking them up, in one case for amusement and in the other for absurd, amusing datedness.) And so Annie Oakley, legendary markswoman, deliberately misses a shot in order to win the heart of her beloved, in order to let him win. And lo and behold: it works.

In being against sexism, what am I, then, against? I am against subversion of a person's character to a preconception--being a woman I see this mostly from a woman's perspective, and the difficulty is certainly more pervasive for women, but I've seen it cause substantive problems for men as well. I am against the treatment of a person as an object all of the properties of which can be known and quantified. I am against the teaching of limitations by artistic or advertised means, through cultural saturation without explanation, discussion or critical thinking.

This post stands both as a tribute to Berlin's lyrical mastery and as the acknowledgment of an era that I hope, and mostly believe, has gone by. I have learned to watch for sexism in my life from these lyrics, which lie under most sexist behavior, no matter how subtle or insidious the behavior may be. One form of critical teaching and crticial thinking inevitably leads to another, and critical thinking, rather than gazing, is therefore the most valuable skill we can teach. I was fortunate to have it even in my childhood, and I support vociferously the training of all others to do so.

3 Comments:

At 3:17 AM, Blogger Maude said...

Hi. I just watched the film version of Annie Get Your Gun for the first time today. Having had no experience with the play or the film adaptation, I was expecting some early feminism, or at the very least the quiet dignity that Oakley always seemed to exude in photographs. I have not been so disappointed in a long time. It's so upsetting to think that when that film was released, there were probably quite a few little girls who looked up to Annie Oakley and were basically told that strength, character, and talent get you nowhere when it comes to being "happy" with the man you love. I shouldn't be so upset, but I can't help it.

 
At 3:18 AM, Blogger Maude said...

I forgot to say that I thought your article was the best and most in depth I've read so far about the sexism so blatantly shown in this movie. It was really really nice to read.

 
At 3:12 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Thanks, Maude! Nice to hear that, even lo these years later. Makes me wanna go read a biography of Ms. Oakley and see how true the whole thing was . . .

 

Post a Comment

<< Home