Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Real Men": The Questioning of Gender Roles in Song

“Some of the girls were boys. The view changes from where you are standing.
Words can wound, and wounds can heal. All of these things are true.” Neil Gaiman 2001
Starting primarily in the sixties, music began to question the condition of the human. Some artists questioned the government, some questioned racial relations, and some questioned gender roles. One of the first and most vivid examples was David Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust. Through this character, David Bowie challenged people to see beyond what was thought of as masculine and feminine while mocking these roles at the same time. The song “Real Men” written by Joe Jackson takes up the challenge and continues the push in questioning traditional gender roles. The original version appeared on Joe Jackson’s album, Night and Day in 1982. In 2001, Tori Amos covered the song for her album, Strange Little Girls. This conceptual album took songs originally written by men and retold them from a feminine point of view. Tori Amos created characters to tell these stories. Each character was given a visual interpretation and voice by Tori Amos, Kevyn Aucoin, and Neil Gaiman. While the meanings of some songs were fully changed, the questioning of gender roles of “Real Men” was completed in adding a feminine perspective. In the original, Joe Jackson questions what defines a real man. In the cover version, Tori Amos’ character adds the question of what defines a real woman. Through the analysis of the lyrics and the interpretations of the song, a clearer picture develops seeking not only to question gender roles but to deconstruct them as well.

The first verse begins with a call to remember the traditional binary identification of gender. A degree of sentimentality exists in the lyric expressing the ease of being able to identify girls from boys especially in youth. This was not Joe Jackson’s sentimentality though, but rather he was reflecting the sentimentality of a major portion of the population. The feminine perspective is slightly sarcastic in the same lyric questioning if those distinctions actually existed in youth. The lyric then turns into a question on how men are perceived:

“What’s a man now/ What’s a man mean/ Is he rough or is he rugged/ Cultural and clean?”

As a constructed gender role, the masculine is considered “rough” and “rugged” while the feminine is considered “cultural” and “clean”. The feminine perspective adds the question as to how women are perceived. Does a woman have to be clean or can she be rugged? The lyric then proceeds to state that the viewpoints have changed. The gender roles which in the past have been strictly defined begin to break down. The question on whether or not the deconstruction is continually happening is left hanging: “We think it’s getting better/ But nobody’s really sure”. People are not sure because the constructed gender roles still form the identities in men and women.

The second verse blurs the distinctions of gender roles in both perspectives. In the original version, Joe Jackson specifically references the male gay community of the late seventies and early eighties. His lyric, “All the guys are macho/ See their leather shine” shows the masculine being over-exposed to hide the feminine aspect. Whether by accident or on purpose, the word “guys” is pronounced as “gays” in the original recording further showcasing the construction. The feminine perspective contrasts a feminine aspect of the prior lyric: “Golden earring, golden tan/ Blow-wave in their hair” with the masculine lyric stated previously. The gender distinctions of what is typically denoted as feminine, a “blow-wave”, and masculine, “leather”, are openly mocked. The perspective then changes from the male gay community to the lesbian community with the addition of the feminine voice. The assignment of gender roles for males and females begins to be deconstructed, and the question whether people really need to be identified as one gender or another arises.

The last verse offers a distinct challenge to how gender roles are perceived and still clung to by a large portion of the population. In the original version, Joe Jackson calls on men specifically to change how they view themselves or get left behind and be defeated. The lyric, “Don’t know how to treat a lady/ Don’t know how to be a man”, openly accuses men of putting the masculine gender role first in their identity instead of understanding who they really are. The feminine perspective poses the same accusation to women. In the context of the feminine perspective, the next lyric, “’cause there’s women running past you now/ And you just drag your feet”, infers that there are others who have overcome that impasse and are in the process of understanding themselves free from the gender roles. The following lyric mocks the conception of the masculine gender role:

“Man makes a gun/ Man goes to war/ Man can kill and man can drink/ And man can take a whore/ Kill all the blacks/ Kill all the reds…”
In both interpretations, the lyric has an element of sarcasm, and the power and violence that is an accepted aspect of the masculine is confronted and ridiculed. In the original, these are listed, still with sarcasm, as things that men could get away with doing, but maintaining gender distinctions should not be one of them. Ultimately, the song calls for the deconstruction of gender roles through a warning: “If there’s a war between the sexes/ Then there will be no people left”. Both perspectives favor the elimination of constructed gender roles.
“And so it goes, goes round again/ But now and then we wonder who the real men are…”
The refrain shows that gender roles are always being questioned. As the questioning continues, it becomes deeper and more meaningful in the hopes of completely eliminating the traditional gender roles. The character Tori Amos created for “Real Men” is portrayed as neither female nor male. Being the last song on the album, the character becomes a non-gendered and omniscient being that can see past the distinctions humans make for themselves and also hoping that they will one day see past those distinctions themselves.


  1. I think you're interpreting things to suit what you think.

    I think Joe is questioning if the break-down of gender roles is a good thing or not, but "nobody's really sure".

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  3. Uh... Joe never ever sung "All the guys are macho". He wrote "All the GAYS are macho". In fact, he was PISSED at Tori Amos for changing those lyrics.

    1. Do you have a source to support the theory that Joe was PISSED about it? I know he always sang it as "gays" but my vinyl copy of Night and Day has the lyric printed as "guys."