March 16 2017
“Mister Right could be nice for one night
But then he wanna take control
And I would rather fly solo”
Those are the lyrics that my 10-year-old daughter walked off the school bus singing a couple of weeks ago. They come from a song released last year called “Sit Still, Look Pretty” from a singer named Daya. And they belong to a genre that I like to call “We don’t need no stinkin’ men.”
The idea that women can be independent and empowered is not exactly new to pop music. “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” by the Annie-Lennox-fronted group The Eurythmics, came out in 1985. But like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” or Karyn White’s “Superwoman,” these anthems were not a suggestion that women stay away from men or keep their relationships strictly casual. They were a plea, instead, for greater equality between the sexes and for men to treat women better. As Annie Lenox sings in “Sisters:” “Now we ain’t makin’ stories/ And we ain’t layin’ plans/’cause a man still loves a woman/And a woman still loves a man/(just a same though).”
But in recent years there has been a steady stream of songs about women kicking men to the curb or never getting too involved with them in the first place. “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child was probably the beginning of this theme of modern woman’s anthem. “I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings/Only ring your celly when I’m feelin lonely/When it’s all over please get up and leave.”
Though there are no doubt certain segments of American society where women are better off not attaching themselves to men—because the available pool typically includes men who are in trouble with the law, men who regularly cheat on them, or men who do nothing to support their families. But for most of the listeners of these songs, this is not the situation.
There is, frankly, a kind of attraction to these female empowerment songs for parents of middle-class adolescents and teenagers. We don’t want our daughters to be (forgive the old-fashioned phrase) “boy-crazy.” We want them to focus on their schoolwork and their goals for their lives. We want them to understand their worth apart from whether or not boys think they’re attractive. We want them to be strong enough to resist the demands of classmates to send nude photos or engage in sexual activity they are not ready for. And if singing about how they’d rather “fly solo” accomplishes that, well, so be it.
But ultimately that’s not the right message either—or, it’s not the right message for very long. Writing in The Atlantic a few years ago about the hookup culture on college campuses, Hanna Rosin noted, “For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the nineteenth- century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”
The notion that we want our daughters to keep romantic relationships as casual as possible through college and possibly throughout their twenty’s in order for them to have the best careers possible is questionable. At what point do we go from wanting them to stay away from boys to wanting them to get married and settle down? Is twenty-nine the magic number? Thirty-two?
Many mothers and fathers are confused about which messages to support. But at some point we need to explain to our daughters that they can be independent creatures, deserving of love and respect, and that they may also find great fulfillment and love in the context of marriage and family. Whatever their pop idols tell them, not all men just want a woman who will “sit still” and “look pretty.” The trick is finding the ones who don’t.