In a recent article titled “The Only Three Women in Bruce Springsteen’s Music,” writer Rebecca Bohanan critiques the role that female characters have played in Bruce Springsteen’s music. She ends her article stating:
…Springsteen’s American Dream is still about a man providing for his family, but is this an accurate vision of contemporary America? Where are the women who want to provide, too? The ones who get the same joy and satisfaction from putting food on the table or sending their kids off to college as their husbands do?
Springsteen’s reliance on ideas about gender roles from forty or fifty years ago dates his songwriting more than anything else does. Maybe his next album will feature a song from the point of view of an accomplished young woman like his daughter, or just a female character who exists to do something beyond pine or be pined for. That’s a vision I’d like to see dance across the front porch.
Though many of her criticisms, while not novel, are worth noting, I took issue with most of Bohanan’s piece, not just because I am a die-hard Springsteen fan (ok, mostly because I’m a die-hard Springsteen fan), but because I think that her arguments are misplaced and her evidence is weak.
Bohanan claims there are only three types of women in Springsteen’s music: the goal, the savior, and the burden. While a love interest is certainly a solution to or cause of many of the problems Springsteen characters face, Bohanan misses the larger theme of togetherness in the songs that she cites. In “Rosalita,” both the male and female characters are actively involved in the night’s escape: “You pick up Little Dynamite, I’m gonna/pick up Little Gun/And together we’re going to go out/tonight and make that highway run…” In “Born to Run,” the characters, again, are in it together: “Together, Wendy, we can live with the/sadness…” Where Bohanan sees the male and female characters only as isolated parts – woman as the goal or the savior and man as the renegade hero – she misses how the characters work as a team in many of these relationships. For example, in “Thunder Road,” Springsteen sings, “”Don’t turn me home again/I just can’t face myself alone again…” and “Well now I’m no hero/That’s understood/ All the redemption I can offer, girl/is beneath this dirty hood…” As in many Springsteen songs, the male character is not a hero at all but is instead a guy with big dreams who’s scared to leave his small town and hit the open road on his own. In this song, like so many others, the character’s vision of freedom is not one of rugged individualism, but one of togetherness with a partner, which can be heard in the “We’s,” “Us’s, and “Our’s,” that permeate every verse. The woman is not his goal or his savior; she’s his wing(wo)man.
There are also many examples of the female characters being referred to as “friends,” again showing that while Springsteen’s male characters do idolize their women, they also see them as partners. In “Born to Run,” the narrator asks Wendy to let him in because he wants to “be [her] friend.” And, in one of Springsteen’s later songs “Better Days,” he brags “I got a new suit of clothes and a pretty/ red rose/And a woman I can call my friend…” Even “Backstreets,” a song Bohanan cites as an example of woman as object, is really about a strong friendship that develops between the narrator and a woman named Terry. While the narrator may want Terry to be more than a friend, the entire action of the song suggests that the relationship is pretty much Platonic (maybe with some flirting): “On the beach at Stockton’s Wing/Where desperate lovers park/We sat with the last of the Duke Street/Kings/Huddle in our cars…” Instead of being intimate at a typical make-out spot, Terry and dude are just hanging out with their buddies. The emphasis on friendship in the first and last verses (“…we swore forever friends…”) seems to indicate that it is the friendship with this woman – not necessarily just the unrequited love or potential sexual encounter – that he misses when she leaves.
While I think that Bohanan overlooked some central elements of the relationships in Springsteen’s music, I think that the biggest issue I have with her article is the criticism that women are portrayed as burdens in Springsteen’s music. Say what you will about Springsteen’s male characters maybe loving and idolizing women a bit too much, but the notion that he in any way perpetuates an idea that women are obstacles or hindrances is just ludicrous. Besides the aforementioned evidence of how much women/relationships are vital to Springsteen’s notion of personal freedom, she says that this woman as burden idea is a constant theme, yet can only cite one example of her point. In regards to “The River,” Bohanan writes,
This is a woman who the protagonist has gotten stuck with somehow, but he loves her no matter what, and that love will be enough to – you guessed it – save them both. Probably the best example of this is in “The River:
“I got Mary pregnant / man, that was all she wrote /for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”
These women are huge parts of the story, but they remain voiceless and often actionless – they’re accessories to the men’s life journeys. (You really think Mary’s goal was to get pregnant and get married by eighteen? What’s she thinking in all of this?) Springsteen wants us to believe in the amazing power of love, but in his love stories, the woman is often the albatross around the man’s neck – something to emphasize the hero’s perseverance.
Her reading of this song is completely misguided. First, the song is not at all about a hero’s perseverance. One of the last few lines of the song is “Now those memories come back to/ haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse…” This song is about regret; no one makes it out of this story with their chin held high. Additionally, the man is not the only one who’s stuck in a loveless, forced relationship. Neither character seems too keen on their situation: “Now all them things that seemed so/important/Well mister, they vanished right into the/air/Now I just act like I don’t remember/Mary acts like she don’t care.” As to the pregnancy, the narrator says, “Then I [my emphasis] got Mary pregnant.” The narrator blames himself for what has happened to the two of them, almost making it seem as though he is the albatross around both of their necks. As for Mary being voiceless, this is true. The story is told from the male character’s perspective, so he does not give her an actual voice here. But, of their wedding day, he does say, “No wedding day smiles, no walk down/the aisle/No flowers, no wedding dress…” This line is her perspective: these are all things a woman might typically want on her wedding day, and she doesn’t get them. It’s a very dark, telling line that indicates just how much they both suffer equally under the weight of their choices.
As for The Boss not including a woman’s point of view in his vision of America, obviously Bohanan fast forwarded over some important songs on her Springsteen playlist. Not too many male rock stars tackle the miracle of birth, the hardship of single motherhood, and a mother’s devastating loss of her son, but Springsteen does. Before Jay Z rapped about Blue Ivy, Springsteen was singing about watching his wife give birth to their first child in “Living Proof.” Before Tupac told “all the ladies having babies on their own” to “keep your head up,” Springsteen was singing about a woman whose baby-daddy abandoned her, leaving her to raise the child on her own in “Spare Parts.” And, when only certain adventurous artists even dare to call out the police for their brutality on the African American community, Springsteen wrote “41 Shots,” a song about the NYPD senselessly shooting a teenage boy on the front steps of his home, from the mother’s perspective.
In America, we believe that freedom and success are achieved on our own. We celebrate the rugged individualist. The man who makes it without any guidance or support. The man who can leave behind all attachments. The man who cares not for feelings but only for the bottom line. The Howard Roarks of the world. Bruce Springsteen is not that man. He is a man who believes that freedom is found in togetherness. He is a man who believes in equality and partnership. He is a man who believes in love. When he writes of men and women in cars speeding away from the refinery towns of North Jersey toward an unknown but seemingly better life, those men and women are not just men and women; they are symbols of opposites and differences coming together for a common purpose, to defy the man, to escape the system, to start over and build something new. To reduce Bruce Springsteen’s characters down to individualized parts and roles misses the entire point of why these characters exist in the first place. They are not there for us to see a reflection of our individual selves; they are there for us to see us.