This article originally appeared on Cara Kulwicki’s blog, The Curvature, a feminist perspective on politics and culture.
Introduction: Oh Yoko!
For J. I think you would have loved these five posts perhaps more than anyone. I wish you could have read them.
I’ve mentioned in passing before that I had intentions to write a feminist analysis of the culture treatment of and perception towards Yoko Ono. Desiring to make sure that I’m not retreading on well-covered ground, I did a quick search. And to both my dismay (because it ought to be covered) and relief (because it means I still get to do it), I found only one real substantive conversation on Yoko Ono as a feminist issue. Now, I know, that’s a big call to make. Yoko Ono is a well-known feminist – but a feminist issue? I’d say yes, even if a peripheral, somewhat outdated one. In addition to interesting me on a personal level, I think that the treatment of Yoko Ono is still relevant to our understanding of art, relationships and a woman’s place in society.
Yoko Ono’s name is tossed around as an insult, sometimes “jokingly,” sometimes really and truly hatefully. Any woman who dates a male band member and expects to be treated like a person, or any woman who is seen to in some way cause a change in a male artist of any kind, is particularly at risk of being called “Yoko.” To a lesser extent, so is any woman who expects to be given equal consideration as her partner and her partner’s friends friends. Why is it an insult, exactly? Well, because “everyone” hates Yoko Ono. She’s a mentally unbalanced, scheming, money-grubbing, castrating bitch. Oh, and she broke up the Beatles. Or so they say.
I’m deeply embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I, too, used to greatly resent Yoko Ono. Virtually every Beatles fan I know has at some point hated or at least disliked Yoko, though unfortunately too many still do. It’s almost a rite of passage. The moment you realize the true genius of the Beatles – of course, I’m speaking as someone who was not alive at the time of their popularity as a contemporary band – you start to mourn the fact that they ever broke up. Why would they do such a thing? The moment you ask such a question, Yoko’s name will invariably come up thanks to some uniformed soul. And how could you not hate the person responsible for putting an end to the greatest band of all time, and for supposedly ruining one of the greatest musical geniuses to ever live?
What changed my mind on the issue was simple education. If you actually take the time to read Beatles history, you’ll see pretty clearly that the cracks in the band were showing for some time before John Lennon even met Yoko. John was growing away from the Beatles musically, struggling with drug addiction and with the insecurity he seemed to feel in varying degrees throughout most of his life, and was therefore lashing out and pulling away from the group. Paul McCartney was making a power grab for control of the band, one that he was winning and John felt powerless to stop – and while John had a tendency to be nasty to the people closest to him, Paul had a tendency to be extremely condescending and controlling. George Harrison was resentful of John and (especially) Paul’s refusal to take his songwriting and musicianship seriously – even though despite being neither the greatest songwriter or vocalist in the group, he was absolutely fucking brilliant. Ringo Starr never had a serious problem with any of the other Beatles, but was feeling incredibly marginalized within the band and distraught over the disharmony.
The other thing that changed my mind was John himself, and his persistent, repeated earnestness in professing that he wanted out of the Beatles long before Yoko and she only gave him the strength to do it; not to mention his proclamations of happiness and rightful insistence that anyone who hated Yoko and didn’t respect their relationship certainly didn’t love him or have his best interests at heart.
And realizing that Yoko wasn’t to blame for the Beatles breakup makes you ask a question. Why does the myth persist?
I had come to believe that most Beatles historians and true, educated fans had wised up enough to see the Yoko charade for what it is. So imagine my disappointment when proven wrong. Earlier this year, I finished Bob Spitz’s biography The Beatles, which is arguably the most comprehensive Beatles biography in existence. The book starts out amazingly, but about halfway through inexplicably begins to decline rapidly in the number of details provided once the Beatles become famous. That was annoying. But far more so was the unabashed, unapologetic and shameful smearing of Yoko Ono – made even worse by its presentation as fact when so clearly Spitz’s personal opinion. And this opinion is indicative, I think, of the opinion of most Yoko haters. (I’m far too lazy to cite page references for everything, but throughout this series anecdotes can be traced to Spitz’s book, you can rest assured that I double-checked that of which I was unsure, and I will otherwise note when information came from elsewhere.)
What are the charges that he lays out against Yoko Ono? A short list: she was pushy, controlling, got John addicted to heroin, was rude to the Beatles, stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong, constantly showed up uninvited, was a horrible artist who cared more about self-publicity than quality, she connived to get together with John for his money, encouraged him to leave the Beatles because she saw them as competition, and all around used him. And from the way he tells it, yup, she sure helped to break up the Beatles.
Spitz also felt the need to rudely, pointlessly and judgmentally bring up the fact that Yoko, by her own admission, had undergone numerous illegal abortions. She referred to her as “Oriental” (in fact, not being a rug, she’s Japanese) and “exotic.” John himself (in Lennon Remembers, All We Are Saying and elsewhere) often argued that the Yoko hatred had a racial element in addition to the misogynistic one, and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that he was right. Spitz called her “adolescent,” “self-indulgent” and immature. He heavily implies that Yoko is a monstrous, evil, ball-busting bitch for even asking John how he would feel if made to change his name upon marriage, and lightly mocked as cheap publicly John’s genuinely touching, not to mention bravely political, decision to change his middle name to “Ono,” so that they could officially be the Ono Lennons. Though Paul’s once-girlfriend Dot’s miscarriage – of a pregnancy that Paul was miserable about – was referred to as a “tragedy,” one of Yoko’s miscarriages – of a pregnancy that she and John both desperately wanted – is mentioned in passing, literally as a single clause to a single sentence, only in the sense of upstaging other Beatles news. When she has another miscarriage that nearly kills her, she still gets no sympathy.
Spitz has more astonishing double-standards. Earlier in the book, Spitz – very rightfully, I might add – chastised the Beatles, particularly John and Paul, for their horrendous, disrespectful and misogynistic treatment of women. John and Paul treated their respective girlfriends from before the Beatles broke, Cynthia (later his wife) and Dot, like crap. They literally weren’t “allowed” to partake in conversations when out together, let alone publicly disagree with their boyfriends. Paul refused to see Dot for weeks after she got a haircut he didn’t like. They were never even remotely faithful (though the same applied to both George and Ringo as well), sleeping with groupies, prostitutes, and even contracting STDs while in these relationships.
Later, Spitz notes an apparent competition among Beatles’ wives (at this point Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starr) over who could be the most submissive, doting doormat of a spouse – from Cynthia being not allowed to make a single peep until John woke up in mid-afternoon, to Maureen staying up until all hours of the morning to serve Ringo a hot meal whenever he decided to stroll in. They were never consulted on business decisions; the idea of seeking their opinions at all was generally unthinkable. And there are even numerous stories where a Beatle wandered off at a party without saying a word, leaving his wife/girlfriend to find her own way home, or on supposedly better nights leaving her to wait in the backseat of a limo for hours on end. Seemingly, apologies were never issued.
This servitude, along with tolerating the drug use, and the ways in which they were often completely ignored and constantly cheated on, were referred to by Spitz as “the rules.” But rather than calling out the Beatles for being chauvinist pigs, he presents the women repeatedly as wonderfully forgiving, selfless and demurely accepting of the “rules,” rather than abused and mistreated. And in then introducing Yoko by saying that “after ten years, the rules were about to change,” it’s heavily implied that breaking the rules was indeed an offense worthy of scorn. You see, it was wrong for the Beatles to treat their wives and girlfriends like subhuman shit – that is, until one of them had the audacity to demand respect, and even worse, actually got it.
So who is the main purveyor of the Yoko myths? Can we pin it on historians like Bob Spitz? Certainly, they hold part of the blame and need to be called out on it. But no, I blame someone else entirley for the bulk of the treatment and misogynistic cultural perceptions of Yoko Ono, as did John. In the first/next part of this series, they are the people who I’m going to discuss. And their names are Paul, George and Ringo.
Part One: The Ballad Of John And Yoko
Ah, the Beatles. Perhaps the most brilliant musicians to ever live. Innovators. Loved by millions. Smart, charming, lovable goofballs. Endlessly fascinating personalities. And yet, not always the nicest guys. No, they were not only all capable of being assholes (though some more than others), they also tended to fall into that group we like to refer to as “men who swear that they’re progressive, except for when it comes to women.” And John Lennon was certainly no exception. In fact, I’d say that he and Paul McCartney were nose to nose in the race for worst offender. That is, until John met Yoko Ono.
Until then, all of the Beatles were often raging misogynists. I discussed this briefly towards the end of my introduction of this series, in their treatment of their wives and girlfriends. Women were sex objects and property. Take a look at some of their catalog: No Reply, You Won’t See Me, You Like Me Too Much, and the most notorious of all, Run For Your Life. Stalkerific! And this is the stuff they felt appropriate to say publicly. All four of the guys came back from Hamburg with the same STD, and their manager Brian Epstein had to hide it so that John’s new wife wouldn’t divorce him on those grounds. Ringo openly cheated on then-girlfriend Maureen and told her that if she didn’t like it, he’d find another girlfriend who would. John and George were both serial and prolific adulterers. Paul also could not keep his pants on to save his life, and the biggest problem in his relationship with Jane Asher was his resentment towards her wanting to maintain her acting career rather than sit home and behave dutifully like a Good Beatle Wife.
Most shocking and inexcusable, and usually obscured in Lennon bios, John was abusive. When talking about the song Getting Better, he confessed in All We Are Saying, his last major interview: “I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women . . . I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
With the exception of his mother Julia and his Aunt Mimi who raised him, I’d be surprised to learn that John had ever really respected a woman in his life prior to meeting Yoko. And even then, he idolized his mother more than saw her as a person, and his aunt never really appreciated his work him, therefore earning some resentment. Yoko was different. According to Bob Spitz in his book The Beatles, when John met Yoko he was fascinated by her personality, her art and her wit – and was very confused by it. Yoko was perhaps the first woman outside of his family who he truly saw as a human being before seeing her as someone to potentially fuck. Having never experienced such a thing, it supposedly took him weeks to realize, to his surprise, that in addition to being intellectually captivated by Yoko, he was also sexually attracted to her. The concept of feeling both at the same time was completely novel.
Why was Yoko different from every other woman in John’s life? Was it the fact that he recognized Yoko has his soul mate, and saw her as someone remarkably similar to himself – and therefore an intellectual equal? Was it Yoko’s feminism and refusal to put up with the shit that he dumped on his wife Cynthia? Was it John’s unresolved feelings about his mother and wanting a strong, assertive woman in his life? Was he simply ready to finally grow up and be happy, and Yoko was just the right person at the right time? I don’t have the answer to that. But I do know that the Beatles were unhappy about it.
Supposedly, anyone who was not directly involved in recording was not allowed in the studio with the Beatles. But this was especially so for women. Bob Spitz quotes Paul McCartney as describing the Beatles relationship in the studio like “four miners who go down the pit . . . [y]ou don’t need women down the pit, do you?” And then, in describing Yoko’s grand entrance to this forbidden land, Spitz writes this remarkable paragraph:
Yoko’s appearance in the studio functioned as a declaration of war. John knew the bombshell he’d drop by pulling such an aggressive stunt, and he seemed perfectly willing to light the fuse. The look on his face “dared the others” to say the wrong word. He almost longed for the opportunity to stage a showdown. Of course, at that very moment, someone should have stood up to him. Someone should have taken John aside and ordered him to get his act together. Someone should have demanded that Yoko leave the studio immediately. Someone should have laid down the law. Incredibly, however, no one did a thing. The other Beatles pretended that nothing unusual had occurred.Inside, they seethed and cut one another tense glances, furious at the intrusion but reluctant to confront John.
Wow. Well look at that. I guess that if Bob Spitz had been in that studio, the Beatles would still be together! What with his psychic, amazing, telling everyone what to do abilities, I imagine that he would have somehow broken up John and Yoko, thereby preventing John’s moving to the U.S. and being eventually murdered. And he would have warned George about the unknown dangers of cigarettes, convincing him to quit and preventing his cancer! Lord hopes he would have convinced Paul McCartney to not get that mullet, and to find a plastic surgeon that wouldn’t make him look so scary. Then the Beatles would still be touring like the Rolling Stones, and John and Cynthia would have some nice little home in the South of France, while Yoko sits old, disheveled, poor and lonely with her 40 cats, regretting all of those abortions and her troublesome feminist ways.
Or maybe, just maybe, Spitz is just like the rest of us and can’t see into the future. Maybe he doesn’t have the right to tell other people what to do, and is actually a raging misogynist asshole who needs to shut his mouth. I know that it’s one of the two.
First of all, it’s outrageously irresponsible to editorialize like that, and to do so as though the opinion is universal and needs no defending. That’s right, John needed to get his act together – not because he was a junkie at the time, but because he had the audacity to bring his girlfriend into the studio!
But the problem is, of course, that the Beatles actually agreed with him. [It bears noting that in All We Are Saying, Yoko denies the Beatles being mean to her and claims that she got along with all of them well. As you’ll see, the rest of this post belies that telling, as does video evidence, John’s statements, and statements by the other Beatles. Yoko is a smart woman, smart enough, I think, to know when to quit and not stir the pot. It’s my theory that she let them have that one because she knew she was never going to get it anyway]. It’s hard to fault Spitz for claiming that Yoko never should have been there when he watched the same Directors Cut of the Beatles Anthology that I did (only available on bootleg). The stuff that’s in there really did make my jaw fall open. Most say that Yoko asked for the cuts, though I’d like to believe that the Beatles themselves made the decision after seeing the tape and realizing they looked like grade A assholes.
George Harrison kicks things off by bitterly commenting that “she just moved in,” to the studio. Later in the segment, George says that his problem wasn’t with her simple presence, but that there was “a definite vibe” coming from her. And then, he says that Yoko “saw the Beatles as something between her and John,” complete with mimic of sticking a wedge in something. (More on this in the next post.) She didn’t like the Beatles, he whined. He also notes that “everyone was getting cheesed” – and then said Ringo left the group, directly implying that it was because of Yoko, even though it wasn’t.
But my beloved George Martin (The Beatles’ producer) – I’m so disappointed in you, George – agrees with George Harrison. He seems to corroborate the “vibe” theory, saying that the Beatles “were no longer the happy go lucky foursome, or fivesome if you include me.” Then, he heavily implies that Yoko was psychically sabotaging the Beatles recording sessions. He said that this “other person” there was affecting them with “their” thoughts -“even if they weren’t spoken” – and that these thoughts were “impinging on what we were doing.” Whoa. Yoko’s one impressive bitch.
Paul McCartney, unsurprisingly, supplies the best fodder. He starts off by briefly mocking Yoko’s accent, claiming she would say things like “I do not know Beatles!” He then says that Yoko was great for John, “but, the problem for us” was that she “encroached on our framework.” “This was our career” he notes earnestly, before saying “– and then there was this girl.” The incredulity with which he says the word is important and rather telling, especially in conjunction with the emphasis of “career.” Then, in the most outrageous quote from the entire segment, he talked about how embarrassing Yoko’s presence was, saying that it was “like she was holding court in a way.” The Beatles, he said were “like her courtiers.” Allow me to translate: he’s saying that Yoko was entitled and demanding.
Lastly, (road manager, close friend, and long-time Apple CEO) Neil Aspinall - someone else I love and am very disappointed in – noted very carefully and seriously the problem with Yoko’s presence. He talked about how it had been part of his job for years to keep outsiders out of the studio, saying with great emphasis, “because the studio is not a playground,” it’s a “work environment.” He says that the point was to make sure that no one was there – and again, this was with great emphasis – “who wasn’t part of making the music.”
Now, tell me, how many of these complaints and insults can you see being directed at men? How often to people get that unshakable “vibe” from men? How many men are accused of making everyone uncomfortable with their moods and simple presence? How many men, simply because they were there, would be accused of being overbearing and treating others like his servants? Do tell me, because all of this screams of sexist stereotypes straight out of ancient literature and modern sitcoms to me. And perhaps most importantly, how many men would be described as out of place somewhere seemingly entirely because it was a work environment? How many men – regardless of who they were – would be instantly dismissed as someone who wasn’t a part of making music, particularly in a band that would recruit virtually anyone to do hand claps and funny noises? Neil’s tone was as though he was talking about someone more like himself, who couldn’t play a musical note to save his life. We’re talking about Yoko Ono.
The problem with Neil’s comment is the same as the one with Spitz’s impressive demand for Yoko to leave the studio. It does precisely what pissed John off the most about the treatment that Yoko got – there was an immediate assumption that she had no right whatsoever to be there. John felt very differently, not because she was his girlfriend, but because she was a musician.
In fact, contrary to Spitz’s insistence that the Beatles were very particular about who the let in the studio, they had guests in and out all of the time. Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall practically lived there, but no one made a fuss when Eric Clapton showed up, or was bothered by Billy Preston’s presence, or felt encroached upon when Mick Jagger and other famous musicians would come by to just hang out. Further, interestingly enough, despite proclamations that women just weren’t allowed in the studio, clips that show throughout the same Anthology episode cited above and the one before it catch glimpses of young pretty women hanging out at various places in the studio, watching Paul perform with big wide eyes. They would occasionally hold parties or “happenings” while they were recording – see All You Need is Love, Baby You’re a Rich Man, Yellow Submarine, and A Day in the Life.
John saw Yoko as a similar musical talent who he wanted to work with and who he thought could do the Beatles some good. Of course, whether or not this was a reasonable belief is another story. Though a big fan of Yoko as a person, a thinker and an artist, I do not enjoy her music. I also don’t pretend that I am a great arbitrator in taste - and Pop Feminist has a good feminist defense of her music. But in the end, it’s really not the point. The Beatles didn’t reject Yoko because they thought she was a crap musician – the thought of Yoko as a legitimate musician never actually seemed to cross their minds – but because she was a woman, and because the role of a Beatles woman was at home waiting for you all dolled up, not sitting by your side.
John asserted more than once, and entirely correctly, that they never would have treated any other musician like that. He said that he brought Yoko in and expected that she would be treated with the same respect that their other musical buddies got, and would play with the band just like they did. Instead, the Beatles didn’t even have the decency to say that they didn’t like Yoko’s music, to argue with her when they disagreed, or to discuss the situation with John. They just ignored her. And I’d say that gave John and Yoko both the right to be pissed the fuck off.
Paul and George especially seemed to openly seethe at her presence. Paul would glare and, at least one time, scream to John about it at the top of his lungs – not confront Yoko directly when he had a problem with her, mind you. George would cast dirty looks, roll his eyes (check out some of the Let it Be footage) and make sarcastic remarks. Ringo, who always seemed closest to John after he and Paul began to drift apart and remained that way through to the end of John’s life, seemed most accepting of Yoko. John and Yoko stayed at an apartment belonging to Ringo. When they made Two Virgins, Paul and George were furious, but Ringo showed mild concern and then laughed it off. Since the band’s breakup, he has always been the most reluctant to speak ill of her – I’m not sure if he ever really has. When John was murdered, Ringo was there for Yoko; he and his wife Barbara flew immediately to New York to see and help care for her and Sean. But there’s also little evidence that he stood up for her, tried to make her feel welcome when John brought her to the studio, or even contradicted the accusations by Paul and George once the Beatles broke up and they saw fit to publicly gripe about her.
Now, I’m not saying that Yoko was never an asshole to the Beatles. I’m sure that she was. I’m saying that she was hardly the only or the worst asshole in the room. They were all acting like assholes – but as the history gets told, Yoko’s the one who bears the blame. The truly amazing thing is that in order to actually believe this, you have to totally erase the fact that John wanted her there. She wasn’t showing up in her own car, throwing hissy fits or tracking them down at secret locations. No, sadly for her detractors this misogynistic stereotype didn’t fit Yoko at all. When Yoko showed up at a meeting that everyone seemed to think that she had no right to attend – even when it was to discuss major decisions that would, as John’s wife, affect her own financial future – it was because John brought her. She didn’t infiltrate, she was invited.
Indeed, it makes little to no sense that people would blame Yoko over John. (Though personally, I blame Paul for the breakup more than the rest.) John was the one bringing her along, and he was also the king of passive aggressiveness. Though I do think his originally-stated intentions were genuine, make no mistake that as he saw how the band was treating Yoko, he knew exactly what he was doing. When Yoko had the miscarriage that nearly killed her and John had not only a bed brought into the studio for her, but a microphone positioned above the bed so that she could relay her criticisms to the band in the recording booth, it’s plain to see that he was being deliberately provocative.
It doesn’t make sense to blame Yoko instead of John, that is, if you look at this with a totally ungendered lenses. Once you factor in that Yoko was a woman – a feminist, opinionated woman who wasn’t blond or Caucasian or making herself up as eye-candy – things start to become clear. Bitches fuck shit up. It’s true that blaming someone other than your heroes, or other than your friends, is easier than going to the source. Indeed, if Yoko wasn’t there, it’s slightly possible that someone else like Allen Klein might have entered scapegoat city. But no, I think the blame would have gone – unfairly – entirely on John’s shoulders in Yoko’s hypothetical absence. The man is now a legend, so we often forget the mass public perception of him in the late 60s as an erratic, slightly unhinged hippie attention-seeker. John was the loudest, the most outlandish, and the easiest to blame. So thank god Yoko was there, eh? Otherwise, the Beatles might have had to look at themselves and look at their friend.
No one within the band wanted to do that. No one wanted to deal with John’s drug addiction. No one wanted to deal with George’s increasing unhappiness and resentfulness. No one wanted to deal with Paul’s over-inflated ego and narcissistic power trip. No one wanted to consider that maybe part of the reason why John wanted Yoko there was because he couldn’t stand to be around his band mates. No one wanted to look at how Ringo was unfairly losing his place and relevance within the group. No one wanted to look at how they were writing songs entirely separately, recording them without any or some of the others, and finding it all but impossible to maintain a cohesive sound. No one wanted to talk about the fact that Brian was dead, or the absolute catastrophe that was Magical Mystery Tour. It was probably best to not bring up George fucking Ringo’s wife. Certainly, no one wanted to talk about John and Paul’s vanity project Apple flushing money down the toilet, or how they had no real manager, and how Neil Aspinall, for all of his other virtues and the fact that he later got the hang of it, didn’t have the slightest clue what he was doing at the helm of this multimillion dollar joke of a corporation. Definitely, no one wanted to talk about how Dick James had stolen their songs. No one wanted to talk about how they were all just going in separate directions, and perhaps their time had simply come to end things.
But Yoko was something they could gripe about. Yoko was there. The public didn’t like her. She was perfect.
Women. On second thought, it seems like they may be good for more than giving the band blow jobs and making them sandwiches, after all.
Oh, you may say, I’m being too hard on them. The Beatles had a right to be upset! Yoko was a bad person! And they were just looking out for their friend! Etc. Those myths, up next.
Part Two: Don’t Let Me Down
Popular myth tells us that Yoko Ono didn’t only break up the Beatles, which has been the focus of my other posts so far; she also fucked up John Lennon really bad. John, they’d have you believe, was the brilliant best friend of fellow-genius Paul McCartney, until she came along and broke up his marriage – a double home-wrecker! – got him addicted to drugs so that she could fill his mind with all of her crazy radical feminist and other political ideas, rip the band apart and ruthlessly control John, thereby stealing all of his money. “Muahahaha,” one can imagine this Evil Yoko laughing, rubbing her greedy palms together.
This stereotype of Yoko didn’t materialize out of thin air. There was already a prototype in the words for the vilification of Yoko Ono, and that prototype is known as the “Dragon Lady.” The dragon lady is a stereotype of East Asian women as being calculating, conniving and all around evil. We also have to remember that in 1960s U.S. and England, there was still great, open racism towards Japanese people left over from WWII, and the Vietnam War was also stirring animosity towards East Asians who white people couldn’t be bothered to tell apart. And it’s just plain foolish to discount this when looking at the way that Yoko has been characterized and caricatured.
That caricature was and is a lie. As I’ve covered, the band was already falling apart. John and Paul, for better or for worse, could no longer be called best friends. Before the White Album and Yoko’s presence rolled around, they were all but entirely done writing together. Though John and Paul only grew farther apart because of the Yoko dispute, they were hardly pals, and mostly business partners.
But in spite of or perhaps because John was much closer to Yoko than to Paul or the other Beatles, we’re supposed to believe that she is the one who somehow fucked him over. The Beatles, they wanted to help their friend. They were concerned about his drug use. They were worried about how much time they were spending together. It didn’t sit right with them that Yoko would help John relate his feelings to others – even though the Beatles were perfectly fine creating their girlfriends’ and wives’ opinions for them. It seemed dangerous that she had such a hand in his business affairs.
But in fact – and though it is sometimes very sad – Yoko is one of the few people who didn’t fuck John over.
In the Beatles history, there’s a long line of users and abusers. With the exception of George Martin, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, all lovely people, you’ll find few who are innocent of exploitation. Though most of Brian Epstein’s bad business deals hurt him, too, and were a result more of incompetence than of greed, and even though he did become friends with the Beatles, he did in fact take advantage of their skill and fame.
And they weren’t exactly adverse at all times to fucking each other over. The story that cannot go without telling is that of Paul betraying John. Northern Songs is the company that held all of the Lennon/McCartney copyrights, back before they lost complete control over them. It was a corporation, and the Beatles held shares – particularly, John and Paul held shares, and the agreement all along had been that as they would hold equal shares in the company.
That is until Paul decided to start buying shares behind John’s back. Considering the devastation they felt when the company was sold out from under them, John would have easily jumped at the chance for him and Paul to make a concentrated effort to get more control of Northern. Indeed, if they had done that, the songs might not belong to Sony today. But clearly, Paul wanted the power, and as John believed and I agree, he wanted the songs. History has shown that Paul was never quite satisfied with that whole Lennon/McCartney deal, and he has thrown numerous temper tantrums to reporters about John’s name being first (See the book Yesterday and Today). He didn’t buy the shares for them, as he later tried to argue, but for himself.
Though not technically, what Paul was essentially doing was stealing from his business partner, his good friend, the man who helped to make him what he was, the man without whom their musical empire would not have existed. This, my friends, is fucking someone over. (And I’ve always found it ironic that Paul is furious over his once-friend Michael Jackson buying the Beatles catalog out from under his nose, whining “but we were supposed to be friends! I trusted him!”) When John found out, he was rightfully furious, and it certainly helped in straining their relationship for many years.
My reason for telling this long story is not only to make Paul look bad, but this: why is it so often forgotten? Why is it a couple of paragraphs in Bob Spitz’s Yoko-hating book The Beatles? Why, every time has Paul has been asked about it, has no one ever really challenged his innocent act? Why do we allow ourselves to forget? And why, other than misogyny and racism, does the Yoko fucked John over meme persist instead, with no evidence of the sort?
Something that is most often mentioned in supporting this characterization is Yoko’s hand in John’s business affairs. She was, they say, using him for his money. Supporting this argument are two facts: when Yoko first met John and before she got to know him, her main interest was in getting him to finance one of her art shows; and Yoko was in charge of Lennon’s finances. But the truth ends there. Yoko didn’t wrestle financial control from John, he gave it over with relief.
As John and Yoko’s best friend Eliot Mintz affectionately recounted in his surprisingly-honest essay for Memories of John Lennon, John didn’t know jackshit about money. I think that most 10-year-olds have a better grasp of basic budgeting and economics. Unlike the other Beatles who grew up dirt poor, John grew up in a middle-class household and therefore never had to worry about such things. He then went to being dirt poor, more or less eating only whatever was given to him by the club he was playing, and spending any money he had on prostitutes and drugs. And suddenly, the man had millions of dollars on his hands. According to Spitz, he was the worst of the spenders among the Beatles and there was absolutely no accounting for whether he was making enough to pay for it all. Apple was a disaster for a reason. Mintz pointed out that even throughout his 30s, John never carried cash, seemed nervous in its presence and could only poorly fake knowing what the hell he was talking about.
Yoko, by contrast, was and is financially brilliant. In All We Are Saying, she compares investments and financial transactions with chess. The woman made millions for the two of them off of investments in cows. Cows! Dammit, I want her handling my money, too!
So when people talk about Yoko stealing John’s money, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Many also seem completely incapable of getting past Yoko’s original business interest in John. But by contrast, all of the many men in his life who he met through professional relationships and befriended, like Brian Epstein, George Martin, Eliot Mintz, Allen Klein, and Peter Brown, to name a few, were just boys enjoying that good old boys club. They worked together, realized they liked each other, and became friends – nothing wrong with that. But a woman works with him, they realize they like each other and form a romantic relationship – what a conniving, greedy whore!
Secondly, there’s the sexist assumption that it was John’s money. In All We Are Saying, John and Yoko together recount stories of important business papers being sent to John despite the fact that Yoko was known to be handling the business, or how he would get the credit when Yoko made a successful deal that completely mystified him. But in fact, they were married and treated their assets as one. Yoko was looking out for the best interests of herself and her family. Further, though Yoko probably wasn’t going to get rich off of conceptual art, she did make her own money, and it was her skill and intelligence that made John much more financially secure than he had ever been. When Yoko accompanied John to those business meetings that everyone felt she had no right to attend, she was asserting her right to be included in decisions that would affect both of them (something the other Beatles wives were never granted), and though they would never admit it, she was the smartest one sitting on their side of the room.
But no, that’s not the story you hear. Instead, Yoko was a greedy, money-grubbing bitch. That’s because women aren’t capable of being financially savvy, they’re just golddiggers. And of course, you’ve got your stereotype of the greedy Asian who will rip you off. So instead of Yoko Ono Saves John Lennon’s Ass, it’s Dragon Lady Steals John Lennon’s Money.
Another thing you’ll hear about is how Yoko Ono manipulated John and kept him on a very short leash during his so-called “Lost Weekend” – the 18 months during which the two of them were separated and looking towards divorce. You know, everyone knew that once Yoko got what she wanted out of John, she’d throw him to the curb. And then - and then- she had the nerve to talk to him all the time and yet refuse to let him come back to live in his own home!
What a bizarre rewriting of history.
The facts aren’t pretty, but they’re also in Yoko’s favor. In all honesty, once the two of them got back together, they both seemingly conspired to cover up the true reason for the split and the existence of May Pang, who John lived with during the separation. I get how it would have been embarrassing for both of them, and how Yoko would especially want to not talk about it after John’s death. Yoko has, actually quite kindly, taken the fall on this one out of both love and personal pride - though she isn’t entirely afraid to talk about it. But the truth is that John was an ass. And though getting together with Yoko was a good start on his road to feminism, it wasn’t enough all on its own. Once the honeymoon period was over, John started cheating on Yoko. And brazenly (see the previous link). Sorry, folks who didn’t know that. It hurt me, too.
Though largely forgotten by history, these facts were widely covered at the time in the tabloid press. But still, the coverage never exactly did Yoko any favors. The problem was twofold. Firstly, there’s the idea – persistent today but even more prevalent then – that when a man is unfaithful, it’s because his partner “can’t keep a man,” isn’t doing something right at home, and just isn’t handing out the sex enough. In that light, John’s cheating was supposed to somehow reflect on Yoko. The second problem is that Beatle wives were supposed to take that shit without blinking. After all, Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Boyd and Maureen Starr all kept their mouths shut like good girls, waited at home and never said a word. Other women? What other women? Not Yoko. Instead she said, Love ya John, but fuck this shit. And actually, she was far more understanding than most wives would be today, sending John off with a girlfriend and saying (according to Elliot Mintz in Memories of John Lennon) “Go to Playboyland for all that stuff that you apparently seem to be missing.”
When John spoke of Yoko not letting him come home, he didn’t mean the Dakota. If John wanted the penthouse, he would have hired some lawyers and gotten the penthouse. He was talking about the two of them living together as a couple – and in that sense, of course, Yoko had every right to refuse. As for those phone calls, John’s telling of the story in All We Are Saying is that he was the one calling her. Elliot Mintz said they each called each other everyday, sometimes Yoko only speaking with him instead of John, knowing that he was back to drinking and drug taking and wanting to make sure that he was okay. But though he called her just as frequently, drinking, sniffing and fucking his way all over Los Angeles, the idea still persists that Yoko was somehow moving the puppet strings.
As Yoko notes on the subject in All We Are Saying, she must be the most successful con artist in the world if John only lasted two months with the Maharishi and thirteen years with her. She also asks how the hell she would have the time to control John Lennon, saying “I have my own life, you know.”
And there it is. Accidentally or not, Yoko gets to the bottom of things. Yoko wasn’t supposed to have her own life. And I think that 28 years after John’s death, many people still feel this way. In the same interview, Yoko talks about how people kept asking what John was doing between 1975 and 1980 when he dropped out of public life to raise Sean. She says “But at least they asked him; they never asked me, because, as a woman, I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything.” She was married to John Lennon. What need would she have to do anything? Yoko has talked about everyone happily telling her once she married John that she wouldn’t need to work anymore. Cynthia Lennon and Maureen Starr raised the kids (still not seen today as doing anything), and along with Pattie waited on their husbands hand and foot and occasionally put on a pretty dress for a public appearance. As I’ve previously noted, Paul couldn’t get over his girlfriend Jane Asher’s refusal to put her career to rest like Pattie had.
The common story of women manipulating their male partners comes from the perception that these women are not supposed to do anything with their time except think about their man. It simultaneously ignores and depends upon the fact that women would of course not have to manipulate their husbands if they had equal power and autonomy in the relationship. Because Yoko had, on a personal level, equal power in her relationship with John, the assumption simply was that she could have obtained an equal status in no way other than manipulation. John couldn’t have enjoyed being a househusband. He couldn’t have just respected Yoko as a person. She couldn’t just be financially smarter than him. And god, he couldn’t possibly have actually liked that dreadful music and art of hers! The only explanation was that somehow, she had to be tricking him.
I think John himself said it well in All We Are Saying:
Nobody ever said anything about Paul having a spell on me, or me having one on Paul. They never thought that was abnormal – and in those days. Two guys together or four guys together! Why didn’t they ever say, “How come those guys don’t split up? I mean, what’s going on backstage? What is this Paul and John business? How can they be together so long?” We spent more time together in the early days than John and Yoko: the four of us sleeping in the same room, practically in the same bed, in the same truck, living together night and day, eating, shitting and pissing together. All right? Doing everything together! Nobody said a damn thing about being under a spell.
Indeed, though it’s common to portray Yoko has treating the Beatles like competition for John’s attention, the Beatles’ themselves were always the ones more prone to coming off like “jealous wives.” She took away attention from them for which they’d never before had to compete. For all of their repulsive and inexcusable behavior, it’s really quite clear that at least partially behind it was a strong sense of loss over their friend – a friend they loved dearly.
What does it say about the levels of homophobia in this world where it’s easier for men to construct a story about an evil jealous woman, to make up stories about “work environments” and so on, than to openly admit that they love and want to spend time alone with their male friend? And what kind of mixed messages are these, where men can easily exist together in such a strong homosocial environment but not for a moment discuss their attachment? And what does it say about the levels of misogyny when living this way with your wife in such a homophobic world is treated as a significantly larger transgression?
As John suggests, the old boys club was acceptable so long as it went unspoken, but actually being friends with your wife was not. The vagina, as it so often does, made all the difference.
Part Three: Woman
I don’t know if John Lennon ever loved his first wife Cynthia or not, but I do know that by all accounts except for Cynthia’s own, he didn’t want to marry her. He got her pregnant. John married Cynthia because it was you did in those days. He wasn’t ready to become a father and was quite frankly a rather crap dad to Julian until they started to reconcile in the last few years of John’s life. He was an even worse husband, as discussed in the other posts. His unhappiness does nothing to excuse the way he treated Cynthia – there quite simply isn’t an excuse. But the fact of the matter is that while John always made sure to put on a smile when out in public with her, their marriage was never exactly a happy one. Yoko Ono – who was also married when she began seeing John – didn’t break up their marriage. And she didn’t publicly humiliate Cynthia, either; both of those would fall to John.
But it was an excellent dichotomy, wasn’t it? The nice blond, British, chaste housewife, versus the outspoken, non-conformist, openly sexual Japanese avant garde artist. Oh, the tabloid media loves a catfight, particularly when it’s two women fighting over a man – even when they’re not. After all, the idea that women can’t get along with each other undercuts the collective action necessary to effective feminism – and the idea that women fight over men reinforces the myth discussed in the last post that women do, or should, have no lives outside of their relationships.
Still to this day, that hasn’t changed. (Angelina vs. Jennifer, anyone?) But Yoko vs. Cynthia, that was a dream come true, and it’s pretty clear to anyone who understands a damn thing about gender and race that it was predetermined from the start which woman was going to win in the court of public opinion.
In the end, after a halfhearted and obligatory tsk-ing at the man, he is ultimately absolved of the blame for his own actions of deceit and betrayal when he cheats on his wife, and instead the blame almost always falls to one of the women (and sometimes both). And while it’s sometimes the “fault” of the wife for “not pleasing her man,” it’s usually played as the fault of the “other woman.” One’s the virgin, one’s the whore. One is the poor scorned woman, and one is the conniving home-wrecker. One’s Cynthia, one’s Yoko.
The imagined “problem” with Yoko wasn’t that John was fucking her while married – surely, people weren’t that stupid – it was that he was having a genuine relationship with her and didn’t keep it quiet. And it wasn’t that she was a woman, it’s that she wasn’t the right kind of woman.
Yoko was an artist; she had a career of her own. Even worse, it wasn’t one she planned to give up for marriage. (And though so often accused of ruining John’s career, no one ever wonders whether their relationship had a negative effect on hers.) Though soft-spoken, Yoko always has been simultaneously outspoken. In her music, she’s known for her wailing and howling. She sat beside John Lennon during interviews, and had the gall to expect to be able to say something. And say something, she did. And anything she said was always going to be too much.
The way that Yoko’s work is so regularly reviled is one such example. From avant garde lover Paul McCartney refusing to see her art shows, to Bob Spitz calling her work juvenile and adolescent among many other patronizing insults in The Beatles, there’s no shortage of men who fail to see the ground that Yoko broke, and that she was a significant part of a vital art scene in the 60s. In fact, a main difference between the kind of work she was doing and the kind that other artists of the time were doing is her gender. When she dealt with feminine and feminist themes, when she used the framework of the personal being political, it wasn’t real art. When she spoke up about “legitimate” political issues of war and peace, she was a little girl speaking naively about things she didn’t understand. And when she was being humorous or positive in her work, the criticism was that was speaking nonsense or had no real message.
The lack of desire to hear Yoko’s ideas – ideas coming from a woman – extended well beyond her (often brilliant) artistic endeavors. Though Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick in his excellent book Here, There and Everywhere comes down ultimately on the side of Yoko not affecting the breakup of the band, he does falsely claim that Yoko had no musical background and relates one particularly interesting story of a time where Yoko dared open her mouth – a place that was surely not hers. He writes:
I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but I was wrong. A few days later, the four Beatles, plus George Martin and, of course, Yoko, were in the control room listening to a playback of a backing track when John off-handedly asked her what she thought of it. To everyone’s amazement, she actually offered a criticism.
“Well, it’s pretty good,” she said in a tiny little voice, “But I think it should be played a bit faster.”
You could have heard a pin drop. There was a look of shock and horror on everyone’s face – even John’s. Everyone looked at John, but he said nothing. Infatuated as he might have been with Yoko, he must have realized that to leap to her defense would only add fuel to the fire. After a slight pause, they returned to their conversation, ignoring Yoko and what she had said. But the damage had been done, and things would never be the same again.
Can you believe that woman? How dare she butt in her opinion like that, and so rudely? And I mean, saying that! To the Beatles, of all people!
Wait . . . what did she say? She didn’t say “Dear God, Paul, what are you doing to that bass?” or “Who decided to let George play on this track again?” or “Ringo, aren’t you supposed to be keeping time, or is this some sort of new experiment?” She didn’t say any of those things?
Nope, she didn’t. She said that she thought the song might have sounded better if it was played at a slightly faster tempo. She said so, in my opinion, in a way that seems rather polite. And I think most importantly of all, she gave her opinion after John asked her for it. Even worse, they completely ignored her as though she hadn’t spoken – and yet Yoko is the one who is portrayed as being out of line.
But clearly, any sort of criticism whatsoever was not what was expected. Clearly, she was expected to act with deference the men in the room with regards to her own opinion. Clearly, asking what Yoko thought was not to be taken as a request for insight, but for blind, demure, feminine praise. Perhaps she was expected to offer a congratulatory sexual favor, I’m not sure, but the fact is that Geoff Emerick, and the rest of those present according to this account, certainly didn’t expect her to speak her mind. That’s not what a Beatle wife does, after all. That’s a place reserved for the white dudes.
Yoko failed to live up to standards of appropriate femininity in other ways, too, most notably with regards to her physical appearance and sexuality. First, and most damning, she was a woman of color. She didn’t generally wear skirts, and in fact often wore clothing that was very loose-fitting or even masculine. Her hair was regularly unruly and in her face, a trait noted negatively by many. After all, they couldn’t see her face well, and wasn’t she aware that a woman’s body is for easy gazing upon by others?
Even when allowing the male gaze, she was always doing it wrong. Prior to meeting John, she had an promiscuous sex life (her words) complete with an open marriage. She had numerous (illegal) abortions and refused to be ashamed by them. She included the sounds of herself (most likely mimicking) climbing to and experiencing an orgasm on one of her songs (Kiss Kiss Kiss). In other words, she owned her own sexuality rather than treating it as the possession of fathers and husbands.
And then there was the naked album cover. That was most wrong of all. Just look at it (obviously NSFW); there she is in all of her bare glory. Just like John standing beside her, she isn’t attempting to arouse the viewer. She’s not using her nakedness to express sexuality at all. And she looks equally as confident as he does. John once said that they purposely picked the least flattering photograph, and especially by today’s standards, Yoko would be considered downright unphotogenic by the mainstream. She has full pubic hair, some hints of cellulite on her thighs, a waist that is not particularly defined, and most shocking of all, large breasts that do not defy gravity, and an unremarkable yet undeniable bit of hang with nipples pointing downwards.
In other words, she looks like an average woman. Her body resembles the one that most of look at in the mirror more than the ones we see in magazines. It exists not for the pleasures of others, but for her.
And Yoko is considered ugly.
This tells us something. Yoko’s “ugliness” is a truism, something that most do not even consider before nodding in assent. The absurdity is apparent, as when you look at the woman it’s plain for all to see that she was clearly quite stunning. It tells us something about beauty standards. Indeed, it tells us something about racist beauty standards. It certainly tells us something about how women are valued as human beings based on their adherence to those beauty standards. And I think it also tells us something about the treatment of women who don’t meet them.
What John and Yoko did in posing for this photo, though entirely unintentional, was open the door for all of the misogynistic and racist bigots of the world to ask very loudly, he could have any woman he wants, what is he doing with her? The voices of those looking at John’s skinny, pale body with slightly hanging chest and asking what Yoko was doing with him were of course relatively few.
Of course, when a woman is of color, she is either supposed to be extra hot – “exotic” – or extra ugly by virtue of being not white. And race, as I’ve argued in other posts, also played a huge role here. Yoko’s treatment wasn’t just about failing to live up to femininity; she was also reviled for inevitably failing to live up to whiteness. One only has to look at her treatment versus that of the woman who most strongly warrants a comparison: Linda Eastman/McCartney. Paul McCartney’s beloved, and white, first wife.
Like Yoko when she met John, Linda was a divorced women with a daughter when she met Paul mere months later. There are stories similar to those about Yoko of her “scheming” to meet and marry Paul. In the same way that Yoko is said to have joked prior to meeting him that she was “going to marry John Lennon,” Linda joked like any woman with a celebrity crush about how she was “going to marry Paul McCartney.” (Bob Spitz notes both in his book The Beatles. Guess which one he thought was conniving, and which one he thought was adorable.)
Linda had a career, too. She was an artist in her own right, albeit a far more conventional one (a rock music photographer), who broke ground as a woman in her field. She didn’t wear makeup. She often wore loose-fitting and masculine clothing. She had unruly hair. Though I think she was quite pretty, by popular media standards she was a rather average looking woman. She didn’t keep her mouth shut (and can be seen reacting sarcastically to journalists interviewing her on her and Paul’s wedding day). Her husband expressed love and admiration for her equal to that which John expressed towards Yoko. And yes, she very, very regularly – to the erasure of most Beatles historians – attended recording sessions. Hell, Paul too put her in his post-Beatles band despite outcry from fans!
Certainly, Linda took her own share of shit, as did Paul’s later and now ex-wife Heather Mills. She was, after all, in the spotlight and taking a very eligible bachelor off of the market. People felt that she, too, was “ruining” Paul’s music. Yes, Linda was ridiculed, harassed and insulted.
But she’s not the archetype of an evil, conniving woman who sets out to destroy a good man. No, that title still falls to Yoko.
And so, I put before you the question of why. Why are Linda’s equal “sins” so quickly forgotten, and Yoko’s exaggerated? Why did Linda’s ambition, breaking into a male dominated field, spending outrageous amounts of time with her husband – it’s often noted that she and Paul never spent a night apart until his 1980 arrest for marijuana possession – and refusal to doll up in a skirt and lipstick for the media go excused by history? Was it the lucky fact that Linda got the scene a few months later than Yoko, or was it her whiteness?
The answer – and lack of awareness over it – is one that still affects the public’s consciousness to this day.
Addendum: (Just Like) Starting Over
A few months ago, I finally joined Facebook. Knowing that Yoko Ono has stayed technologically up to speed, I wanted to see if she had a page (it’s here), and ended up perusing “groups” with her name under them. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find many more hate groups than love groups. But this one nearly took my breath away and made me feel like breaking down in tears: Yoko Ono Should Have Died Instead of John Lennon.
There are a lot of things that I can say to that level of hate and misogyny. But I will only say one: John Lennon would have hated you assholes much more than Fuck Face McGee who murdered him.
Oh, and that’s hardly the only group calling for Yoko’s death — yes, her death. It’s just the most popular and obscenely-titled (there are many other groups about simply hating Yoko).
I share this for simple reasons. Firstly, I’m selfish and didn’t want to be alone in this sadness and disgust. Secondly, it’s to revisit the introduction to this series. There, I argued that Yoko hatred is still alive and well, but also that while Yoko hatred is interesting to examine as a feminist issue, it probably shouldn’t be considered a particularly contemporary one. On the former point, I do believe that I have been proven quite right, while on the latter, I will admit that I was wrong. Over writing this series, I’ve begun to realize that slowly, and ultimately decided to preserve my original introductory analysis in the hopes that you might make that same journey as a reader.
Of course, we should take solace in the fact that Yoko has thousands of Facebook “fans” and this group has only 130 members. But it’s existence — just like “Hillary Should Have Married O.J.” — is depressing regardless of actual popularity.
The kind of hate we see for Yoko, we still see today for other powerful women married to men of great influence. Hillary Clinton gets the Yoko treatment when people claim that her marriage to Bill is all a sham intended to bolster her political career, and when Bill was derided for working with Hillary on policy issues. Michelle Obama gets the Yoko treatment when people suggest that she has too much influence over Barack’s decisions, up to and including pushing those she doesn’t like out of the picture, and when Barack is criticized for having a wife with her own opinions. Everything old is new again.
Though I think that Yoko is now more widely appreciated for her own art and intelligence, there’s still a lot of hate out there. If you’re looking for Yoko merchandise, what you’re almost certain to find is anti-Yoko merchandise. The most popular slogan seems to be “Still Pissed at Yoko”— because 40 years later, it apparently still makes sense to blame the problems between four men on a woman. And when a Hillary Clinton reference just won’t do, Yoko is the go-to figure for ball-busting, castrating radical feminists everywhere.
But the most common accusation leveled against her modern actions has nothing to do with the Beatles but with Lennon’s legacy — and the idea that even in death, she’s still controlling and manipulating him solely for her own benefit:
Bill Harry, a friend of Lennon who ran the Mersey Beat newspaper in the 1960s and wrote the John Lennon Encyclopaedia, says Ono has an “iron grip” over what is released.
“Yoko controls everything,” he says. “John doesn’t belong to the world any more. He belongs completely to Yoko, who is able to filter anything that goes out.
“Everybody has to have her permission for anything – which is why we have the most abominable stuff coming out on John.”
You know, I can’t say that I agree with every decision that Yoko has made about how and when to use Lennon’s name, legacy and music. (Case and point.) But if I did, I think that would be an eerie sign that she was being far too careful, and therefore willing to also let us miss out on a lot of good stuff. Do I cringe when Lennon’s music is licensed commercially in advertisements? Yes, and so thankfully it’s rare. But when I see people moaning about Lennon-themed merchandise like coffee mugs and watches, the action figure and the sunglasses, I just have to roll my eyes. If I regularly drank coffee, what mug do you think I’d be using? If I’d wear a Beatles watch in the event that I could actually afford one, I don’t see why I wouldn’t want a Lennon one. If John’s glasses didn’t look so horrible on my very-round face, OMFG you better believe that I’d want some signature Lennon glasses. The action figure was pretty cool — and I don’t see anyone crying over the John and Paul Yellow Submarine action figures sitting on my shelf over there (btw, anyone have a George or Ringo they want to send me?).
And when I see the Imagine Peace Tower, I am in awe. When Happiness is a Warm Gun was used so well in Bowling for Columbine, I wanted to applaud (though that song doesn’t belong to the Lennon estate, Michael Moore thanks Yoko Ono at the end of the film, indicating that he respectfully sought out her permission, I’m sure realizing how close to home the subject matter was to her). When I saw the John Lennon exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, I wanted to worship the ground she walked on.
And when I saw the blood-covered glasses that Lennon was wearing when he was shot, at that exhibit, when I look at the Season of Glass cover and this billboard using the same photograph, I support and deeply appreciate her. To those who take offense at the use of John’s glasses in this way, Yoko responded:
“John would have approved (of using his blood-covered glasses on the cover of Season Of Glass) and I will explain why. I wanted the whole world to be reminded of what happened. People are offended by the glasses and the blood? The glasses are a tiny part of what happened. If people can’t stomach the glasses, I’m sorry. There was a dead body. There was blood. His whole body was bloody . . . That’s the reality . . . He was killed. People are offended by the glasses and the blood? John had to stomach a lot more.”
The woman simply wants people to remember that her husband was murdered; that he wasn’t supposed to die. She commits a huge portion of her life to celebrating his legacy and willingly steps into the shadows as she does it. And yet, when she asks people to stop doing John a disservice by acting as though he just dropped dead one day, or as though he overdosed like so many other dead musicians, she’s treated as someone exploiting his death for his own publicity.
All of this has very little to do with Yoko’s actions. She donates large sums of money to charity and reaps little profit from the use of John’s songs. She celebrates his art and makes it available to the world. Twenty-eight years later, she’s still forced to talk about her late husband over her own, current accomplishments, and she does so without complaint. None of it is good enough to some people and never will be simply because she’s Yoko Ono. If she keeps her memories and treasure trove to herself, she’s hoarding a man who supposedly “belonged” to everybody (a contention I think John himself would have resented). When she shares, she’s being greedy and attention-hungry.
It’s really very simple: people are angry that a woman they hate is for the rest of her life in charge of what happens to a man they love. And now that she literally does control his estate, many people seem to think it gives their accusations that she controlled his life extra credibility. Women aren’t supposed to be in charge. And widows certainly aren’t allowed to have fulfilling lives filled with creativity or walk around smiling and wearing white — they’re supposed to hide and weep forever in their black mourning clothes. (Of course, when Yoko did go into hiding for some time after John’s murder, people still picked on her.)
And what of her own work? In virtually every article I’ve ever read about one of her art shows or peace initiatives, she is either discussed in relation to her late husband, or defended with the proclamation that she is more than John Lennon’s widow. How absurd that this point need be hammered home. The woman is an absolutely brilliant artist! She is hilarious and insightful. She creates great works on both a visual and intellectual level, and often creates an almost surreal sense of serenity. She’s not adverse to feminist statement and controversy either, pushing the idea that not only are our mothers beautiful, but so are our unsexualized vaginas and breasts.
So, who is Yoko Ono? I’ve spent thousands and thousands of words arguing what she is not, and when trying to say what she is, words begin to fail. Contrary to what some seem to think I believe, she’s not perfect. No, like all of us, she has made many mistakes, and I’m sure will continue to make them. She’s human, pure but hardly simple.
Yoko Ono is an artist — a conceptual artist, a performance artist, a visual artist. She’s a filmmaker. She’s a writer. She’s a musician. Yoko is a peace activist, a feminist, and someone who believes deeply in equality and social justice.
She’s a loving and incredibly devoted mother who nevertheless was determined to have her own life. To disapproving stares that surely last from many today, she publicly declared that much as she loved Sean, she carried him for 9 months and now it was John’s turn. She believes that love is a profoundly healing force and that while male oppression needs to be combated, men and women are not adversaries. She is a widow who has carried on with her own life, but still loves and misses her dead husband terribly 28 years later.
Yoko Ono is a woman who has done many radical things and broken down many doors. She was the first woman to ever be accepted into the philosophy program of prestigious Gakushuin University and then had to gall to walk away after two semesters. As early as 1964, she sat before an audience of strangers and had them cut off her clothes (”Cut Piece”). She has put her own reputation and credibility on the line for what she believes (all of her earlier peace events). She wasn’t afraid of the Beatles and in fact influenced one of them enough to be accused of breaking up the band. Yoko Ono is the kind of woman who would, in 1971, laugh at Dick Cavett like she pitied him when asked if he could light her cigarette.
Yoko never has been and I hope never will be a well-behaved woman.
But of course, as always, that may in itself be the problem. People want her to be nothing more than an evil caricature. She’s easier to pin down, understand, and revile that way. Her wildly inaccurate image presents a way of understanding the world that backs up the misogynistic, racist status quo.
To admit that Yoko is brilliant and in fact not evil is indeed to admit something more about how we view the world, and how it is wrong. It’s to accept something radical about the way in which our supposedly increasingly enlightened society still clings to absurd stereotypes about women and Asian people as hard truth. It begs the question I began this series with, of why the myth prevails.
This article originally appeared on Cara Kulwicki’s blog, The Curvature, a feminist perspective on politics and culture.
About Cara Kulwicki
Cara Kulwicki is a 24-year-old American feminist and liberal with a BA in English, Text and Writing from the University of Western Sydney. Cara’s writing also appears at Feministe, where she is a regular contributor. She does a little bit of everything as volunteer staff at her local Planned Parenthood affiliate, until she finds a “real” job that is equally fulfilling. That includes acting as a blogger at Sex. Change. Justice. She lives in Western NY with her Australian husband and their bratty cat.
Cara enjoys reading, blogging, discussing politics obsessively, learning, making fun of celebrities that aren’t really all that famous, hanging out with her husband and cat and spending unhealthy amounts of time on the internet. Her favorite books are On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, her attention span is too short for movies, and she obsesses over Lost. Cara absolutely adores The Beatles and will talk about them incessantly if given the chance; it should go without saying that John is her favorite.