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Nobel prize winner. The voice of a generation? Greatest living songwriter? Key figure in 1960s counter-culture? And, misogynist? The last description seems incongruous alongside the others, but, could it be that for many years a dark element within Bob Dylan’s work has never been examined? Initially I didn’t want to believe that many of the most influential songs by one of my favourite artists were riddled with some, at best, questionable remarks about women. But as I dug, in search of what about Dylan’s signwriting spoke so intimately to me, I realised that indeed this was the case with many of his songs.
Just Like a Woman was the first song where I heard this strain in Dylan’s lyrics. The title alone purveys a problematic attitude towards woman suggesting a narrow, and as you listen to the lyrics demeaning, set of characteristics that apply to all women. It seems fairly easy to defend the song’s narrator, he has clearly been hurt by the woman and it is that pain at which his vitriol is aimed. I find this an uncomfortable defence, surely there is a level of respect people should be afforded even if they have hurt us. Does our pain really permit us to make the kind of sweeping generalisations about a whole group of people that Dylan’s narrator does. Throughout the song it is clear that the woman has made the decision to end her relationship with the narrator, probably a wise move on her part, but in the final verse the narrator turns this around in a particularly patronising way: ‘I just can’t fit/ Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit’. He takes ownership of her decision, limiting the agency that the woman has and trying to belittle her. Further on in the verse the narrator says: ‘When we meet again/ Introduced as friends/ Please don’t let on that you knew me when/ I was hungry and it was your world’, he seems to recognise that he may be at fault but instead of admitting this he, again patronisingly, asks the woman to simply forget it; I for one hope she calls him out for how he treated her in the past.
The idea of male entitlement appears as a theme in Dylan’s back catalogue. You’re a Big Girl Now, off his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, illustrates this theme. Although the song is far more remorseful than the earlier Just Like a Woman it still suggests a level of disrespect for women. The song is, again, narrated by a heartbroken man, I want to focus on four lines in the song: ‘I can change, I swear, oh, oh/See what you can do/I can make it through/You can make it too’. It is clear from the first of these line that the narrator recognises that he is, yet again, at fault for the end of the relationship however the second shifts the emphasis and suggests that the woman should also have to make an effort to accept him. The final line of the verse is another example of one of Dylan’s narrators patronising a woman, it suggests that the narrator has decided that reconciliation in the relationship is best for both of them and that it is the woman’s duty to pursue that end. The attitude of the narrator is on ‘if I can you should’ entrenching all the power in the relationship on the side of the man.
Of course, irony is one of the foremost characteristics of Dylan’s voice, just think of the humour lingering throughout Like a Rolling Stone, but these two songs are totally devoid of it. The snarling voice on Just Like a Woman leaves no room for irony, it’s hard to hear the song as saying ‘Just Like a Woman, ha, how ludicrous’ instead the overwhelming emotions are anger and fear. Although, as I have said, You’re a Big Girl Now does not have this biting edge, it is one of Dylan’s less vocally nuanced performances. On much of Blood on the Tracks the lyrics sit at the fore meaning that there is little room for Dylan to be, in a sense, criticising the views of his own narrators.
I remember sitting in a class on feminism and the teacher talking about Dylan in his introductory remarks, this at once struck me as odd, a man is the first thing you talk about? This was before I developed an interest in Dylan’s music and as I listened these comments struck me as even more odd, disregard for women was so blatant in some of Dylan’s work. I have picked out just two examples of Dylan’s questionable treatment of women, but throughout his back catalogue there are many more songs that show this attitude to women, think of the many patronising references to ‘low-life’ women in Visions of Johanna.
This leaves me in doubt as to whether Dylan deserves the unwavering praise he is often afforded. Many of his early anti-war songs still resonate, today we can still feel the threat of hard rain a fallin’ and see the hypocrisy of the White House having God on their side. But, ultimately, the way Dylan and his narrators treat women should make us think about how we elevate artists to the status of icon while brushing over more sinister elements in their work.