C. Feldman-Barrett: A Women's History of the Beatles

A Women’s History of the Beatles.

Feldman-Barrett, Christine
New York 2021: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
255 S.
£ 85.50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Julia Sneeringer, History Dept., Queens College CUNY

Recently, the host of Philadelphia’s Breakfast with the Beatles radio show celebrated his 1000th episode. He reminisced with “the guys” who help produce the show; the women he interviewed were Olivia Harrison (George’s widow) and backup singer Lizzie Bravo, while several female listeners got a shoutout. I mention this because the show encapsulated a persistent trope of women’s place in the Beatles’ story: they appear primarily as fans or romantic partners in a literature dominated by male voices.

Christine Feldman-Barrett, senior lecturer in Sociology at Griffith University, cracks open that narrative in her new book, which explores the “strong female presence throughout the history of the Beatles.” (p. 1) She is not the first to analyze the Beatles from a gender perspective – Barbara Ehrenreich et al.’s influential essay on Beatlemania as a precursor to the Women’s Liberation Movement appeared in 1992.1 But her book is distinctive in charting both the band’s role in women’s lives and women’s impact on the Beatles from the 1960s to the present. Drawing on her earlier work on Mod subcultures as well as fan studies, social geography, anthropology, and postwar history, Feldman-Barrett presents engagement with the Beatles as productive activity that impacted women’s lives in myriad, positive ways. Personal narratives structure the book, offering histories of subjectivity formed by music fandom from the US, UK, and Australia, with voices from Germany, Brazil, and Fiji as well. The source base includes over sixty interviews with fans (full disclosure: I was among those interviewed), ego documents, magazines, and fan-generated publications. Linking music to broader trends in leisure, labor, education, gender, and sexuality, Feldman-Barrett concludes that female engagement with the Beatles “facilitated new forms of expression and different ways to understand and move through the world.” (p. 173)

Chapter one discusses women’s and girls’ essential role during the Beatles’ formative years; the band, in turn, became a vehicle for new female freedoms. Space plays a key role in this analysis. Liverpool’s port city culture fostered female support networks and alternative family structures that lifted the group. In the postwar context of expanding opportunities, fandom “became a vehicle for young women to more fully inhabit public leisure spaces while aspiring to new adventures of their own.” (p. 10) During the Beatles’ Hamburg stints, Astrid Kirchherr modeled a new independent womanhood; her photographs reframed the Beatles in wholly new ways to themselves and the world.2 Chapter two carries the story through the 1960s, echoing (if not directly engaging) Ehrenreich’s argument linking Beatlemania with second wave feminism. Fans used the band in their processes of identity formation. Feldman-Barrett finds national and regional specificities here, as well as differences and similarities in meaning-making across lines of race and sexual identity. Lesbians, for example, responded to the band’s “female masculinity.” (p. 60) Black female fans perceived the band as open-minded and appreciated John Lennon’s love of Japanese artist Yoko Ono. Fans’ quest for knowledge about the group in the pre-internet era gave them valuable skills and exposure to new cultural and intellectual fields. Private engagements with music allowed girls to create personal cultural space; fandom also generated new forms of sociability. The book’s stories of often-multi-generational relationships forged through shared love of music are delightfully warm and human.

Chapter three focuses on women in the band’s inner circle. Drawing on feminist scholarship on fairy tales, Feldman-Barrett explores narratives generated by the press and fans of the band as “princes,” with some companions (e.g. model Jane Asher) cast as worthy “princesses,” fairy godmothers (Kirchherr), “girls like us” (Maureen Cox, a Liverpool fan Ringo married in 1965), or interlopers (Linda Eastman). Stories of Beatle wives and girlfriends reveal changing ideals of feminine beauty and possibility. Ono, who faced vicious, racist treatment as a “witch,” morphed over time into a feminist icon (thanks in no small part to punk’s recasting of gender roles in music). Lennon and Paul McCartney themselves evolved from chauvinists to devoted partners of independent artists Ono and Eastman, mirroring larger shifts in “women’s and men’s desires, attitudes regarding gender, and ways of living.” (p. 104)

Final chapters offer portraits of women inspired to create culture themselves. Pushing back against the argument that the Beatles’ rise narrowed popular music’s scope and women’s role in it3, Feldman-Barrett emphasizes their wide-ranging influence on female musicians across genres through their “female-accessible” songwriting, style, and refusal to accept the boundaries imposed by prevailing social categories. The Beatles’ cultural presence influenced other career paths for women too, including tourism, journalism, fashion, and academia. Casting the Beatles as “strong advocates for self-actualization,” (p. 139) Feldman-Barrett effectively connects their rise with young women’s expanding mobility, education, and desires for fulfilling work since the 1960s.

The book presents engagement with the Beatles as joyful and empowering. But Feldman-Barrett’s obvious sympathy with her subjects and her reading of the band’s oeuvre as generally “girl- or woman-positive” (p. 5) can leave the reader wishing for some critical distance. The historian in me wished for more serious interrogation of the workings of memory and nostalgia, as the book relies heavily on retrospective testimony from self-identified fans. Fandoms routinely create new forms of distinction: were all Beatles fans truly equal? How did forces of peer pressure or conformity play out among them? I generally agree with Feldman-Barrett’s claims about female agency, but the workings of the culture industry can’t be ignored. The Beatles rode to stardom on a marketing juggernaut – a machine that continues to function (with Peter Jackson’s Let It Be documentary set for imminent release). The Beatles were not the first performers to inspire intense female devotion: how did this differ from or resemble, for example, Frank Sinatra’s bobbysoxers? Mathias Haeussler’s recent analysis of the fan-produced Elvis Monthly would make a fascinating comparison with Beatles Monthly for future research (but appeared too late to be included in Feldman-Barrett’s book).4

Ultimately, Christine Feldman-Barrett makes a compelling case that the Beatles belong to girls and women across social lines in distinct and important ways. Her book persuasively argues that to understand fully the Beatles phenomenon – one of the defining cultural episodes of the twentieth century – we must read it through the lens of gender.

1 Barbara Ehrenreich / Elizabeth Hess / Gloria Jacobs, Beatlemania. Girls Just Want to Have Fun, in: Lisa A. Lewis (ed.), The Adoring Audience. Fan Culture and Popular Media, London 1992, pp. 84–106.
2 Kirchherr’s vital role in the Beatles’ story is discussed at length in Julia Sneeringer, A Social History of Early Rock ‘n’ Roll. Hamburg from Burlesque to the Beatles, 1956–69, London 2018.
3 Examples include Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. An Alternative History of American Popular Music, New York 2011, and Robert Palmer, Rock & Roll. An Unruly History, New York 1995, pp. 35–43.
4 Mathias Haeussler, Inventing Elvis. An American Icon in a Cold War World, London 2021.

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