Can't Help Hatin' That Song

by | May 30, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Last night I took my dad to see The Manhattan Transfer play at the Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver. It was awesome and they brought the house down. For the record, there was co-ordinated snapping but no flashy 80’s pants – their style as well as their music has adapted well to changing times.

At least most of it.

The one point I felt kind of uncomfortable was during Tim Hauser’s solo rendition of the jazz standard “She’s Funny that Way.” The song was first released in 1929 and has been re-recorded several times since, notably by Frank Sinatra. Here are the lyrics that gave me pause:

Though she’d love to work and slave for me every day
She’d be so much better off if I went away…

When I hurt her feelings once in a while
Her only answer is one little smile
I got a woman, crazy for me
She’s funny that way

I’m going to choose to interpret that as funny-bizarre more than funny-ha-ha.

K.J. McElrath at guesses the song was partially inspired by the similarly-themed “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” by Jerome Kern from Show Boat. And there are a bunch of other jazz standards, especially from that era, that present a similar story: a lazy and selfish man in a relationship with (read: in possession of) an endlessly patient, self-sacrificing woman. (In the case of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, the song has an additional undercurrent of racism that has led to several rewordings over the years.)

Ava Gardner in the movie of Show Boat

Some other examples: “I Enjoy Being a Girl”, “Black Coffee”, “I Got a Woman”, “My Man”, and “Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys”.

These songs are heteronormative and are most obviously sexist towards women, implying women should subordinate their own needs to their husbands’. But they don’t exactly present a flattering view of masculinity, either. In these songs, men are thoughtless louts.

Just as it sucks for women to get the message that they have to put up with crap in a relationship, I’d imagine it would suck for some guys to receive the societal message that they’re not expected to be competent or emotionally intelligent.

Even in the present day there are similar narrative in sitcoms like My Name is Earl, Family Guy, and King of Queens, where guys are portrayed as incompetent, lazy bunglers compared to their smart, attractive wives.

The messages are still around, so when I heard Tim Hauser sing “She’s Funny that Way” I had no idea it was written in the 1920s. Granted, I was one of the few people in the audience under fifty, so that could be generational.

So here’s what I’m wondering: are these songs merely a product of their times and thus nothing to worry about? Or is there something damaging about recording and performing these types of songs outside of historical context? In a contemporary setting are these songs value-neutral or do they sentimentalize sexism and unequal gender relations?


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