What does it mean to be a woman? And what does it mean to be woman to a man?
Usually, when your boyfriend says a classic love song reminds him of you, it’s a cause for immediate celebration. Not for me. Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman” was the song that my boyfriend said evoked my image for him and instead of celebration, the nature of the lyrics gave me cause for alarm.
In the song, Joel lists the complicated character traits of a woman he admires, citing characteristics that are hard to distinguish as either positive or negative: she “takes care of herself,” “steals like a thief,” and “can take you or leave you.” As he continuously lists the questionable character traits of his lover, Joel asserts at the end of each verse that, despite what the listener may think about her, the woman he is singing about “is always a woman [to him]”.
This begs the question: what does it mean to be a woman? And what does it mean to be woman to a man?
After I was compared to the woman in the song, I listened to it on repeat until I found the link that connected all of her character traits, whether positive or negative. What I found was that every characteristic listed in the song, in some way, reflected the woman’s independence and autonomy.
So, what does it mean to be a woman? Billy Joel would say to be a woman is whatever we say it is. If we consider “steal[ing] like a thief” and other questionable traits to be unwomanly, then the woman in the song can be considered not to be a woman. But what does it mean to be a woman to a man? If you ask Billy Joel, he would say to be a woman to him is to be yourself, no matter how multi-dimensioned, complicated, or boundary-defying. With “She’s Always a Woman,” Joel recognizes that we as a society define what it means to be a woman, and asserts that, at least to him, womanhood can include independence and autonomy.
However positive Joel’s intentions in writing the song might have been, good intent does not make “She’s Always a Woman” a feminist anthem. Joel makes the case for expanding the definition of womanhood through two problematic means: by appealing to our sense of essential woman-ness, and by implying that being a woman or man determines worthiness of respect, and in turn, implying that not identifying with a gender warrants disrespect.
Sociologist Erving Goffman claims that we as people falsely assume everyone has an “essential nature,” which includes a person’s gender. In our society, we operate under the assumption that gender is an inherent part of who a person is, just like how we assume being funny or kind is an inherent part of who a person is. In the same way that we perceive a person to have an inherent “kindness” to who they are, we perceive a woman to have an inherent “woman-ness” to her.
In “She’s Always a Woman,” Joel attempts to expand our idea of womanhood to include a sense of both agency and of amorality, in order to validate the “essential nature” that he saw in the woman he loved. With his claim “she’s always a woman to me,” Joel appeals to our sense of essential woman-ness, which Goffman would argue is just as socially constructed as the definition of “woman” that Joel is fighting against.
Additionally, Joel’s claim “she’s always a woman to me” seems to imply that granting his lover the status of “woman” deems her worthy of respect. This idea is a double-edged sword because the logical deduction from the claim is that individuals without the status of “woman” or “man” are not worthy of respect. This idea is harmful and pervasive, and is instilled in us at a very young age, as we’re encouraged to be “big boys” or “big girls” instead of the gender-neutral “baby.” The connotation of gender-neutrality with unworthiness polarizes the sexes and discourages the visibility of individuals who identify beyond the man-woman binary.
In all, “She’s Always a Woman” is not quite the misogynist song I feared it was. With his lyrics, Joel strives to celebrate the autonomy and agency of the woman he loves. However, the nature of his claim “she’s always a woman to me” only highlights the inescapable nature of gender in our society. Joel, frightened by the thought of his lover being labeled an “unwomanly” woman, seeks to expand the term to include her personality traits and spare her reputation. However, the better solution to the problem would be to forego the idea of gender altogether, and assert his love and respect without (albeit expanded) confines.
*Source: Doing Gender, CANDACE WEST and DON H. ZIMMERMAN, Gender & Society, Vol 1, Issue 2, pp. 125–151, First Published June 1, 1987
Originally published at toughtotame.org.