Mar 19, 2015
You Don’t Own Me
Sandefur explores how the idea of self-ownership has been expressed in American popular culture and intellectual discourse.
Lesley Sue Goldstein, who died in February at age 68, was only 17 when her third hit record was released. She’d had her first success, using the stage name Lesley Gore, only a year earlier, with the vapid love pop single “It’s My Party,” a teen melodrama about an evening ruined by her boyfriend’s infidelity.
According to the lyrics, “Johnny’s” unfaithfulness has been particularly heartless: he has absconded from Lesley’s sixteenth birthday party with her rival “Judy,” only to return later in the evening in Judy’s company. Judy is even “wearing his ring.” Johnny may be a remarkable Casanova, but he is certainly one of the earliest of the many cads who would come to populate 1960s music, predating even the misogynistic Rolling Stones by several years.
“It’s My Party” was so successful that it warranted a sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” recorded less than a week after the release of the previous song. In it, Lesley celebrates her tomcat’s return in lyrics both sadistic and masochistic. Encountering Johnny and Judy together at another party, Lesley wreaks vengeance by kissing “some other guy,” thus prompting the possessive meathead to “hit him / ‘Cause he still loved me, that’s why.” This thumotic savagery makes Lesley’s heart go pitter-pat, but she also experiences a bit of a tingle to see Judy weep sad little tears at the cycle of petty justice.
This tone of craven pride at being chief of Johnny’s harem is nowhere to be found in Gore’s third success. Released as a single in December, 1963, and on her 1964 album, Lesley Gore Sings of Mixed-Up Hearts, the song “You Don’t Own Me” is a pronouncement of independence that puts away such childish things. One can only imagine Johnny’s uncomprehending stare as his best girl tells him:
You don’t own me.
Don’t try to change me in any way.
You don’t own me.
Don’t tie me down ‘cause I’d never stay…
Don’t tell me what to do;
Don’t tell me what to say;
And please, when I go out with you,
Don’t put me on display.
The timing was perfect to make Gore’s song—written by two men—into the first feminist pop ballad. That genre has now morphed into a gloved Grrrl Rock which offers empowerment instead of power, but “You Don’t Own Me” asserted a genuine independence only a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique first appeared. Friedan indicted social attitudes that demanded and rewarded feminine passivity so intensely that they transformed women into precious but owned objects. The “mystique” of femininity coddled women, protected them, stifled and undermined them. It imagined femininity as “mysterious and intuitive,” rather than rational and mature, and consequently instructed women to “find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love” (92).
To make the point, Friedan pointed to Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, which had aired on television in 1959, in an acclaimed performance starring Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer. Nora’s climactic conversation with Torvald remains fresh and startling even today. She chooses to leave her kind and considerate, but dense and unchallenging husband because he has regarded her not as a companion and partner, but as a plaything—as a child. “When I was at home with papa…[h]e called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you…I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours…. [O]ur home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife” (106).
This, Nora says, has been “a great sin.” Her father and her husband have always been kind and gentle to her—but that very gentleness has destroyed her hope of self-reliance. “It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.” These words, Friedan wrote, resonated with American women who found the life of a housewife empty, and who wanted “the freedom to love, and enjoy life, and decide for themselves in the eyes of their God the problems of right and wrong,” not because they were women but “because they were also human” (140).
The lyrics to Gore’s smash single certainly sound like Ibsen’s Nora:
You don’t own me.
I’m not just one of your many toys….
And please, when I go out with you,
Don’t put me on display.
In fact, “You Don’t Own Me” seemed to respond directly to the lyrics of “You Belong to Me,” which only a year before been recorded by Patsy Cline and also by the all-male Duprees, in a version which reached number 7 on the Billboard charts. That song is a gentle but possessive reminder to a loved one away on a trip that while she may enjoy seeing the pyramids along the Nile, and the sun on a tropic isle, she should remember “all the while / You belong to me.” More disturbing was The Crystals’s 1962 release “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” which featured such lyrics as “He couldn’t stand to hear me say / That I’d been with someone new, / And when I told him I had been untrue / He hit me… / And I knew he loved me.” Thisproved controversial enough that radio stations soon pulled it. It was, incidentally, produced by Phil Spector, who 41 years later would be sentenced to prison for shooting to death an actress who repelled his advances. In any case, “You Don’t Own Me” calmly but firmly announces the opposite: Lesley expects to be treated as an equal, not a possession.
The idea you don’t own me reaches back to the seventeenth-century revolutions in England that set the terms on which the American Revolution would later be fought. The wars of that era—the overthrow and execution of Charles I, the collapse of Cromwell’s republican government, the restoration of the monarchy, and the Glorious Revolution that replaced the Stuart dynasty with William and Mary—generated such political philosophy classics as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and Algernon Sidney’s Discourses, much of which centered around the question of whether we are owned by other people. Hobbes, and Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha, built a defense of monarchy on the denial of the individual’s right to himself.
For Filmer, the monarch has the right to rule because he is the father, and the subjects are children. The obedience of offspring to parents is “the fountain of all regal authority, by the ordination of God himself,” because God gave Adam “the absolutest dominion” over “the whole world,” and this has—somehow—been inherited by contemporary monarchs (7). James I, author of his own treatise on monarchism, asserted that “By the Law of Nature the King becomes a naturall Father to all his Lieges at his Coronation,” meaning that while the king must discharge his “fatherly duty” to “care for all his [subjects],” they must also submit to their “fathers wrath and correction” (195). Hobbes’s argument is more robust: subjects are not the children, but in a sense the property of the state—they have agreed to surrender themselves into the state’s possession by joining in a political covenant. And just as “[t]he master of the servant is master also of all he hath,” including not only the servant’s “goods,” “labour,” and “children,” but also his “life,” so the king is the master of the subject and all his property. “[T]he rights and consequences of both paternal and despotical dominion are the very same with those of a sovereign by institution; and for the same reasons” (131). Whatever freedom the subject enjoys is essentially a permission, given by—and ultimately revocable by—the father-figure sovereign.
Locke and other Classical Liberals found this revolting. No person, they thought, fundamentally owns anyone else, nor has any right to decide how others should live. Nor are mature, responsible subjects to be regarded as children. Each individual, created by God, is consequently owned by God, which means that none may justly claim to possess another without violating God’s right. Instead, those in power must obtain their authority bythe consent of the governed—they must ask permission to rule. Locke’s devastating and concise rejoinder to the idea that kings own their subjects was to ask whether this meant that they might also eat them (Laslett, 160).
His elder contemporary, John Milton, who had cheered Cromwell’s revolution against monarchy and served in his government, explained in Paradise Lost why rulers can claim no natural right over others. At the poem’s end, the archangel Michael lets Adam peer into the future, and they witness King Nimrod building the Tower of Babel. Having never even imagined such a thing as government, Adam is bewildered, only to have Michael explain thatin the future, the “joy unblam’d” in which primitive man lives will be destroyed by “one [who] shall rise / Of proud ambitious heart,” who,“not content / With fair equalitie,” will “arrogate Dominion undeserv’d / Over his brethren” (Bk. 12, ll. 22-29).Shocked, Adam replies,
O execrable Son so to aspire
Above his Brethren, to himself assuming
Authoritie usurpt, from God not giv’n:
He gave us onely over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free (ll. 64-71).
For Milton, as for Locke, man is free because he is the possession of God, and any effort to domineer over mankind is a sort of theft from God. People do not own themselves—they possess themselves temporarily, in what lawyers call a “life estate.” Upon death, our souls are once again returned to their true Maker. This difference is important because it ingeniously circumvents Hobbes’s claim that mankind, though once free, has already surrendered any claim to freedom through a compact that gives the state possession of every subject. By Locke’s and Milton’s reasoning, the subject never owned himself in the first place, and had no power to sell himself into slavery to the state.
This is clever, but as philosopher Eric Mack (2009, 41) notes, probably too much so. Supposing each person is the possession of God means in effect that the victim of a crime cannot really defend himself. An innocent person attacked by a mugger might kill his assailant—but that would deprive God of His property in the assailant just as surely as the anticipated violence would interfere with God’s ownership the victim. At the very least, the community can have no standing to punish the assailant, since presumably that would be God’s job. And if being God’s property makes it impossible to sell oneself into absolute subjection to the state, it should also forbid any kind of political rule. I cannot sell another person’s property, but I also can’t lease or even lend it, without the owner’s permission.
The argument also imposes some disturbing limits on individual freedom. Because people do not own themselves, they have no right to engage in self-destructive behavior, such as suicide or even drunkenness. This invites the state to police our conduct to protect us against the temptation to misuse our freedom—precisely the proposition that writers like Milton, whose Areopagitica remains the most powerful thing ever written on freedom of expression, would have abhorred. Milton was repelled by the idea that bureaucrats might dictate our behavior to ensure that we thought and acted uprightly. Yet if we violate God’s property rights by destroying ourselves, then we hardly have standing to complain if the king intercedes to ensure that we use our freedom rightly.
Gore’s song, which envisions her life as truly her own, hints at just such concerns. She tells Johnny:
I’m young and I love to be young.
I’m free and I love to be free.
To live my life the way I want,
To say and do whatever I please.
In the context of the 1960s, this existentialist demand for independence struck many conservatives as the dangerous first step toward licentiousness. In some cases, at least, it was. The Sexual Revolution was liberating, and liberation always brings risks. The disruption of “traditional family values” so characteristic of that era did bring ruin on many of those who demanded the freedom to say and do whatever they pleased—let alone to “go with other boys.”
Erin Belieu expresses this theme in her poem “Wayward Girl,” published in her 2000 collection One Above And One Below. Here we witness “the girl”—she’s never given a name—who “drifts / around the Dairy Barn parking lot” in a maternity dress, smoking Pall Malls. “She could be the official model for / generations of trouble, the daughter sent / away to any place with parentheses, / which, in 1965, lay behind the gates of / the Salvation Army Home for Wayward / Girls.” The unnamed girl is an alien, living beyond the borders of moral comprehensibility. She is something the poet can imagine, but not really know, a girl who Went Too Far, something unnatural—no, that is not the right word, for she is plainly natural—anti-social. And her child will be “born / into trouble,” carrying the seed of even more trouble, a seed
soldered at conception:
in the back of a candy-red Corvair,
on the coat pile in any blue suburban bedroom
as the party music drifts down the hallway:
You don’t own me,
I’m not just one of your little toys.
You don’t own me,
don’t say I can’t go with other boys….
Fears of such risks were urged heavily and often against the liberating sixties, by those who would later call themselves the “Moral Majority.” But were they sufficient ground to deny women, or anyone else, the right to self-determination? That was the debate that would rage throughout the era—as it had already for centuries. But while Lesley demands the right to say and do whatever she pleases, it is not a shallow or irresponsible demand. On the contrary, she asserts a mature and responsible claim to independence. She tells Johnny, I’ll respect you if you’ll respect me:
I don’t tell you what to say,
I don’t tell you what to do.
So just let me be myself,
That’s all I ask of you.
The superficial girl who once felt a pathetic twinge of joy at Johnny’s hypermasculine violence has become a woman who acknowledges others’ rights, and deserves her own freedom to take risks—and pay the price if she decides wrongly. She anticipates in some ways Billy Joel’s 1978 “My Life,” but Gore has none of Joel’s defiance. She does not ask Johnny to “Go ahead with your own life / Leave me alone.” She will stay, she may even agree to be a wife someday, but the price of her companionship is respect. Intimacy must be on her terms. What she shares must be her self.
Remarkably, this, too, echoes a favorite theme of Milton’s. In a series of pamphlets published the 1640s, he argued that the Puritan Parliament should liberalize the nation’s divorce laws, his reason being that marriage is not an institution of patriarchal rule and procreation, but a partnership—“conversation” is his term—between men and women. Centuries ahead of his time in some ways, Milton envisioned marriage as a joint undertaking of the intellect and the spirit, of which women were fully capable. If a couple proved incompatible, it was a sin for them to remain married in “spight of antipathy…to their unspeakable wearisomnes and despaire of all sociable delight” (Works, 4:16). Milton was not prepared to declare women equals in quite our modern sense—man lives for God, he wrote in Paradise Lost, and women for God in man—but his model of marriage as a partnership is startlingly modern, depending as it does on respect for women as responsible and self-possessed. Marriage depends on a couple’s “tempers, thoughts, and constitutions,” not on physical subjection (Ibid.).
Contrast this with the obsessiveness of, say, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, who, of all literary characters, most thoroughly confuses love with ownership. His obsession for Lolita is obviously not based on a respect for her powers of reason. She is his toy, his plaything, petted and adored and locked away and possessed—that word of chilling double meaning that Humbert repeatedly deploys.“She was mine, she was mine, the key was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket, she was mine” (125). Notwithstanding his cry that she seduced him (132), in fact Humbert drugs and rapes her—“What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation,” he says afterwards, “another, fanciful Lolita…having no will, no consciousness—indeed, no life of her own” (62). He then pays her for sex, only to resent her keeping the money, and steals it back. When she runs away with Quilty, Humbert tracks him down and murders him in revenge for stealing his property. Writes Azar Nafisi, “[t]he desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another” (33). What has made the novel so uncomfortably deathless is precisely its appeal to the atavistic possessiveness left to us by evolution, that still and always wars against our mature recognition that women are independent beings.
Contrast it, too, with Shakespeare’s Petruchio, who regards Kate as “mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (Taming of The Shrew, Act III sc. ii.). After much comedic jousting, Kate at last concludes that a husband is indeed “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign,” whom a wife is “bound to serve, love and obey” (Act V sc. ii). This is notably the same duty she “owes the prince,” and a wife who is “not obedient to his honest will” is “a foul contending rebel / And graceless traitor” (ibid.). Petruchio’s spirited breaking of Kate’s will still makes us laugh, but The Taming of The Shrew resolves itself on a note of submissiveness so foul that modern directors struggle for ways to rationalize it. When California’s Marin Shakespeare Company staged the play in 1997, the actors appeared in Elvis Presley-era costume, and Kate responded to Petruchio’s bombast by bursting into a refrain of “You Don’t Own Me.”
Milton admired Shakespeare, but he was unprepared to follow in the direction of feminine subjection. For Milton, liberty was the necessary test of virtue, given our free will. This was no less true of women than of men. In his Comus, the upright Lady is kidnapped by the god of revelry, who tries to debauch her. But the Lady resists, and her resistance is centered around her power of independent thought. In words precisely opposite to those of Kate, she says,
Fool do not boast,
Thou canst not touch the freedom of my minde
With all thy charms, although this corporal rinde
Thou haste immanacl’d….(Comus, ll. 663-65).
You don’t own me, and though you may chain my body, you cannot chain my will. Milton—who futilely urged his Cromwellian comrades not to “prohibit the innocent freedoms of the good…only on account of the abuses to which they may occasionally be exposed” (Ball 1850, 1: 523)—understood that without freedom, moral behavior is not even praiseworthy. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d virtue…that never sallies out and sees her adversary,” he wrote in Areopagitica. “[T]hat which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary” (Ibid., 174). It is only free choice that can make moral or immoral decisions, and a woman’s will is as free as a man’s. That is what makes her human, and fit for the marriage “conversation.” Conservative fears that individual autonomy may lead to vice are simply not a good argument for limiting it.
There is a deeper level to the theme of self-possession in “You Don’t Own Me.” Between its release and the 1980s, the song became a standard not only among feminists but among gays as well—and not just in the version recorded by the outlandish neo-Vaudville performer Klaus Nomiin 1981. The gay poet David Trinidad loved Gore’s song when it appeared, and recalled how he would sit in his room and play the record over and over until it was too scratched to enjoy. In his 1994 poem “Answer Song,” he imagines how Lesley’s marriage to Johnny might have fared:
Week after week, she’ll exchange recipes,
attend PTA meetings and Tupperware parties,
usher Brownie troops past tar pits
and towering dinosaur bones. Whenever
she hears one of her songs on an oldie station,
she’ll think about those extinct beasts.
Then one day, after their children have grown and moved out, Lesley finds
pair of earrings in the breast pocket
of Johnny’s business suit. It’s down hill
after that: curlers, migraines, fattening
midnight snacks. Or is it? She did,
after all, sing “You Don’t Own Me,”
the first pop song with a feminist twist.
What if Lesley hears about women’s lib?
What if she goes into therapy and begins
to question her attraction to emotionally
unavailable men? Suppose under hypnosis,
she returns to her sixteenth birthday party,
relives all those tears, and learns that
it was Judy—not Johnny—she’d wanted
all along. There’s no answer to that
song, of course, but I have
Lesley Gore in fact was a lesbian, as she admitted to herself only a few years after“You Don’t Own Me” hit the air. Photographs of the period show her wearing a pinky ring, sometimes used as a subtle symbol of gay identity. In 1982, she started a relationship with New York jewelry designer Lois Sasson, with whom she lived the rest of her life. Yet Gore only publicly announced she was gay in a 2005 interview on AfterEllen.com, a website devoted to the lives of celebrity lesbians. Her sexual orientation was an open secret, she told her interviewer. “I really never kept my life private. Those who knew me, those who worked with me were well aware…. I didn’t avoid anything, I didn’t put it in anybody’s face. Times were very different then, so, you know, I just tried to live as normally as humanly possible. But as truthfully as humanly possible” (Swartz 2005).
It’s not hard to guess why “You Don’t Own Me” hit home with gays, who until only recently were barred from expressing themselves publicly or marrying those with whom they had chosen to spend their lives. To be shunned for one’s deepest feelings has long been an inspiration to art—sometimes in the esoteric mode, with euphemism and pseudonyms substituting for what the artist truly wishes to say—the love that dare not speak its name—and sometimes in the form of “appropriation.” In the former sense, gay artists have often deployed subversive metaphors to stand for a sexual orientation that if openly declared could bring recrimination, imprisonment, and in some societies, death. In the latter sense, simply restating another’s words in a different context could create a powerfully living metaphor. The popularity of “You Don’t Own Me” at gay pride festivals speaks to the need among gays—only now being welcomed as equals in some western societies—to pronounce such words, at least within their own hearing.
Ironically, the effectiveness of “You Don’t Own Me”as a cultural weapon of self-defense has made it prime for borrowing by others whose message is not quite so gay-friendly. The rapper Eminem sampled the song in his 2010 tune “Untitled (Here We Go),” to fling back criticism about his violently homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. “Untitled” revels in violent fantasy and braggadocio, citing Gore’s song both in irony—to ridicule the notion of feminine assertiveness—and in conviction. He admits he’s “always shittin’ diarrhea at the mouth,” but “don’t strut away from me, cause / You don’t own me.” As for “remorse, I really don’t feel any.” He is “fashionable and ’bout as rational / as a rash on a fag’s asshole / Now let’s take that line, run it up the flag pole with Elton.”
Elton, of course, was Elton John, among the world’s most successful musicians, gay or otherwise, who in 2001 chose to perform alongside Eminem at the Grammy Awards. Many gays were shocked at this public alliance with a performer whose lyrics regularly incorporate images of savage violence toward homosexuals. But John has often refused to boycott performances in similar circumstances. In 2011, he performed at the fourth wedding of conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who has long opposed same-sex marriage. “When it comes to people…who might enrage you,” John told a reporter, “dialogue is the only way. You have to reach out… Whether you make an impact in one year or 30 years, it doesn’t matter. You have to put your foot in the water and start the process” (Nichols, 2014). For similar reasons, John refused to join other artists in boycotting performances in Russia after Vladimir Putin’s government began tightening persecutions of gays. In 2014, he told a St. Petersburg audience that he was shocked that the government had removed a memorial to Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs claiming it was “homosexual propaganda.” “Can this be true?” John asked his fans.
Steve’s memory is re-written because his successor at Apple, Tim Cook, is gay?! Does that also make iPads gay propaganda?! Is Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music “sexually perverting”?! As a gay man, I’ve always felt so welcome here in Russia. Stories of Russian fans—men and women who fell in love dancing to “Nikita”’ or their kids who sing along to “Circle of Life”—mean the world to me. If I’m not honest about who I am, I couldn’t write this music. It’s not gay propaganda. It’s how I express life. If we start punishing people for that, the world will lose its humanity. (source)
John’s reference to “Nikita” was well chosen. That song was released in 1985, when John was not only still in the closet, but a year into his marriage to recording engineer Renate Blauel. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of state “anti-sodomy” laws in Bowers v. Hardwick. The state may impose the “majority[’s] sentiments about the morality of homosexuality” virtually without hindrance, wrote Justice Byron White (478 U.S. 186, 196 ). To this Justice Harry Blackmun answered that the right to privacy in intimate relationships deserves protection “not because they contribute, in some direct and material way, to the general public welfare” but in consequence of the “‘moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole.’” (204). You don’t own me. Blackmun would be vindicated only in 2003, when the Supreme Court overruled Bowers and declared that gays “are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime” (Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 578 ).
“Nikita” makes no reference to homosexuality—at first it appears to be an ordinary love ballad, sung to a sweetheart trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In the music video, John sits in a red convertible on the free side of the Berlin Wall, singing across the line to a gorgeous female border guard whose striking eyes really do “look like ice on fire.”
Oh Nikita you will never know
Anything about my home.
I’ll never know how good it feels to hold you.
Nikita I need you so.
Yet Nikita is a man’s name, and the song in reality plumbs the hopelessness of love locked behind the borders of an oppressive state. “The human heart,” John sings, “is a captive in the snow.”
That was a feeling with which many Europeans could sympathize. When Communist authorities decreed the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, they severed thousands of German families from relatives on the other side. In his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech—delivered the same month that “Judy’s Turn to Cry” appeared—President Kennedy called the wall “an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.” The “modern walled-in society,” wrote Vladislov Krasnov, who defected from the USSR a year later, had revealed to the world the basic principle of the Communist state: “all citizens are considered state property” (160).
Simply by using a Russian name that most Western listeners would mistakenly assume to be feminine, John could evoke all of these ideas, and employ both metaphor and appropriation to tweak the deplorable similarity between Soviet authoritarianism and the legal and social barriers against same-sex love still so prevalent in the west. Yet the song concluded with in anticipation of freedom:
If there comes a time
Guns and gates no longer hold you in,
And if you’re free to make a choice,
Just look towards the west and find a friend.
After his 1988 divorce, and only months before the Berlin Wall fell, John told Rolling Stone that he was “comfortable” with the public knowing he was gay. A year after the Wall fell, George Michael—who, like Gore and John, performs under a stage name—released his song, “Freedom! 90.”
With his group Wham!, Michael had become a phenomenon and a sex symbol—a heterosexual sex symbol—“every school hungry schoolgirl’s pride and joy.” But four years after the group dissolved, Michael used “Freedom! 90” to repudiate the pop music that had made him so rich and famous—or so it initially seemed. In fact, the song luxuriates in pop tropes, both aurally and in the accompanying video of lingerie-clad supermodels stalking across rooms or writhing in their bathtubs. The key to this paradox was that Michael, who continued living a closeted gay life until his arrest for lewd behavior in a Beverly Hills restroom in 1998, was hinting at his desire to break free of the demands of his straight audience and handlers. In the video to Wham!’s 1987 song “Faith,” the rugged, leather-jacketed Michael had swung his rear end in the camera’s eye, causing many a coed to swoon, but now he proclaimed that he could not continue to pretend. “There’s someone,” he sings, “I forgot to be.”
In an echo of “You Don’t Own Me,” “Freedom! 90” pleas not for privacy, but for respect. Michael wants his relationship with the audience to continue, but only on terms that are true to himself. “I would really, really love to stick around,” he says. But “the way I play the game has got to change.” Like Lesley’s relationship with Johnny, his relationship with his audience can only last if we
take these lies and make them true (somehow).
All we have to see
is that I don’t belong to you
and you don’t belong to me.
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
You’ve got to give what you take.
The idea you don’t own me speaks not only in terms of equality and privacy but also of maturity. Seventeenth century champions of absolute monarchy appealed to the model of patriarchy, likening the king to a father whose control over his children—ostensibly for their benefit—was unquestionable. Against this the Classical Liberals rebelled, arguing that mature adults are not to be treated as children. Once grown, “the father and son are equally free as much as tutor and pupil after nonage,” wrote Locke, “equally subjects of the same law together, without any dominion left in the father over the life, liberty, or estate of his son.” A century later, American colonists, too, refused to be regarded as children. “The phrase parent or mother country,” wrote Thomas Paine, had been “adopted by the king and his parasites” in order to gain “an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds.” In fact, the colonial parent was an abusive one, and Europeans had fled to America “not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster.” Thus the Declaration of Independence refers to the British as “brethren” and “friends,” not as parents, and lays out an argument in which equality comes first: because we are all created equal, no person may justly claim to rule another without his or her consent.
Yet slaveholders continued to deploy the language of parent and child to justify their claim to own others. Senator John C. Calhoun, a champion of slavery as a “positive good” insisted that there was “not a word of truth” in the Declaration’s assertion that all men are created equal, because only two people had been created according to Genesis, and one of them was “pronounced subordinate” (Cheek 2003, 681). Hierarchy was a fact of nature—the centerpiece of family life—and beneficial because it allowed those born on top to rule over, and to protect, those born below. Slaves were like children, in need of strict upbringing. “The Negro,” wrote another slavery advocate in 1859, “is always a boy” (Pollard 1859, ii). Masters insisted on referring to their human property as their “family” and their “people,” reinforcing the compelled intimacy that is the essence of slavery. Maintaining slaves in perpetual childhood—keeping them illiterate, giving them only first names—also kept them property.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, to become an abolitionist spokesman, at times wryly introducing himself to audiences as a robber, who had, after all, stolen his limbs and his mind from his master. After European admirers raised funds to purchase his freedom, he could not resist dispatching a letter to his former master to tell him, you don’t own me:
I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, and so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me….I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence. In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner (113).
Over a century later—and four months to the day before the release of “You Don’t Own Me”—Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream Speech.” He insisted that the Declaration of Independence was a “promissory note” which the nation had issued to all citizens, but which was being defaulted by Jim Crow. Blacks continued to be infantilized by whites—“stripped of their adulthood,” in King’s words. (King’s published version uses the word “adulthood” [p. 3]. In his spoken remarks, he substituted the word “selfhood.”) Their future together as equals required that both races respect each other’s“dignity and discipline.” But the Civil Rights Movement was also largely a generational movement, in which young Americans demanded an end to long-established generational practices. The young protestors who marched to Washington or rode buses in Freedom Summer were, King said, the “integration generation.”
In January, 1968, only months before King’s assassination, the connection between the movement for racial equality and the generation gap found ingenious expression in the film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton. Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, who travels to San Francisco with Joanna Drayton (Houghton), whom he has just met on a trip to Hawaii, to visit her parents and announce their engagement. Joanna’s parents are stunned, especially her father Matt. They are upscale liberals, who have no racial prejudices—they’ve taught their daughter from birth that bigotry is “always, always wrong”—and yet…. They are floored by the passionate intensity with which their daughter has embraced their teaching. Of course he seems perfect for their daughter—and they are proud of her purity and maturity—but still… They may reject prejudice, but they fear this new era more. “They’ll change this stinking world, yeah, sure,” says Matt. “Fifty years, maybe,or a hundred years. But not in your lifetime. Maybe not even in mine.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is actually not about race, but about the older generation accepting their children as adults. The quickness of that change, Matt tells John, seems “just a little unfair.” He and John’s father, John Senior (played by Roy E. Glenn) are simply unprepared for a world cleansed of the evils their generation has borne, railed against, and somehow become accustomed to. Even Tillie, the Draytons’s elder black cook, is unprepared to let go of the old and predictable injustices. She uses the film’s only racial epithet in a rant aimed at John: “You may think you’re foolin’ Miss Joey and her folks, but you ain’ tfoolin’ me for a minute. I see what you are. You’re one of those smooth-talkin’, smart-ass niggers just out for all you can get with your ‘Black Power.’”
Of course, John is none of these things. He is a responsible and considerate man—perhaps a tad too considerate, because by the end of the film, John learns that he must stand up against even those he loves to assert himself as an adult free to make his own choices. Upon first meeting Joanna’s parents, he privately promises that if they disapprove, he will withdraw. He is even more petrified of what his own father will think. John Senior is a retired mailman who struggled hard to put his son through medical school. His son can hardly summon the courage to tell him that the bride is a white girl. And when the families finally meet, John Junior fidgets and trembles at the thought of what Dad will think.
As expected, the elder John is just as opposed as Matt. The parents’ concerns are well-grounded. The film premiered only six months after the Supreme Court’s decision in the aptly named Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1 ) struck down state laws that forbade interracial marriages. (The movie retains a reference to the “sixteen or seventeen states” that still barred such marriages when it was filmed.) And the couple does seem impulsive. Joanna is 23; John fourteen years her senior. They have known each other for only ten days before getting engaged, and they plan to fly off the next day for a wedding in Switzerland. When Matt grumbles “they’re behaving like lunatics,” he seems to have a point.
It is a point to which John is sensitive. Joanna cannot envision any problems with the engagement—she’s made up her mind, and sees no reason in the world not to be married immediately. But for John, the struggle is harder. His admiration for his father has left him unwilling to buck the older generation until at last he is forced. And when he is forced, the film’s climactic confrontation comes not in a clash the white and black families, but between John and his father. In words that might just as well have been spoken to white America by the rising generation of blacks fed up with being treated like children, John announces his independence and his right to make his own choices:
You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing. If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what youwere supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me, like I will owe my son…. But you don’t own me. You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line or try to get me to live my life according to your rules…. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be! And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the deadweight of you be off our backs! You understand? You’ve got to get off my back.
John realizes that he has sold himself short by failing to assert his independence as a mature man who can say or do whatever he pleases, and marry whom he wishes even if his elders disapprove. Now that that break has been made, he can calm himself, and, smiling at his father, invite him to a new kind of relationship. “I love you,” he says. “But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myselfas a man.” From this new plateau—as equal adults—John and his father can be friends, instead of master and subject, instead of parent and child.
From the very beginning—from Filmer and Hobbes, to Calhoun and East Berlin, to many in the present day—those insisting on the power to control others’ lives have asserted one simple claim: that due to their superior birth, their race, gender, or age, they have ownership over others and may dictate the terms on which they live their lives. Those seeking freedom, on the other hand, have been forced to proclaim that they are neither property nor children—that they have the right to direct the lives that are their own. Each has found in the idea, you don’t own me, the kernel of self-determination and the perennial message of liberation.
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