But I Loved It Cause It’s Dangerous

Willa: This spring we’ve been talking quite a bit about “Billie Jean,” both the song and the video. Raven Woods joined me in March for a post about Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” Then Nina Fonoroff joined me in April for a post about the initial scenes of the Billie Jean video and how they draw on film noir. Nina and I continued that discussion two weeks ago in a post that focused on the “second chapter” of the video and how it evokes and reverses The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, both visually and thematically.

However, in addition to being a song and a video, Billie Jean is also a character – a woman who tries to ensnare the protagonist by claiming he’s the father of her son – and the prototype for a recurring figure in Michael Jackson’s work. She’s a femme fatale, a “dangerous” seductress who leaves chaos in her wake. And that’s what Raven and I will be focusing on today. Thank you so much for joining me again, Raven!

Raven: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s always exciting to talk about one of my favorite subjects – Michael Jackson and his women, or at least, the mythical pantheon of female characters who dominate his work.

Many of them are quite well known to us – Billie Jean and Dirty Diana would come instantly to most minds. Others, like Susie from “Blood on the Dance Floor,” are perhaps not as well known outside the hardcore fan base but are perhaps even more lethal. Then there are the many nameless women who managed to wreck their own particular brand of havoc, such as the title characters of “Dangerous” and “Heartbreaker” and the seductress of “In the Closet” who threatens the stability of a married man’s life and home. Whether it is very well known tracks like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” or lesser known tracks like “Chicago,” in which a married woman manages to entangle a naive and basically decent man in her web of deceit, the femme fatale was certainly a recurring motif throughout Michael’s body of work.

Willa: She really was. There are subtle differences between them – for example, the scheming woman who lies about him in “Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t have the aura, the same power to entrap men’s minds, as Dirty Diana or the femme fatale in “Dangerous,” though all three of them tell a manipulative kind of lie that hurts My Baby and drives her away. And there’s a kind of sorrow surrounding the adulterous wife and mother in “Chicago” that we don’t see in his other femme fatale songs. But despite their differences, these women nevertheless share important characteristics and function in similar ways, and they appear again and again, as you say, Raven.

Raven: The big question this raises is Why? I think it is a question worth addressing, especially given that the sheer number of such femme fatale characters who have populated his songs have given rise, perhaps, to some unfair criticisms of Michael’s personal character. For starters, these songs haven’t exactly alleviated the beliefs in certain quarters that Michael had a misogynistic streak in him. And that is certainly something I would like to address, while at the same time remaining ever respectful of the fact that when we are talking about art, we must always take care to differentiate the artist from the person.

Willa: Yes, that’s a very important point that his critics sometimes forget. And we also need to differentiate the characters he portrays from the artist and the person as well. The protagonist of “Billie Jean” or “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Who Is It” or “Chicago” is a fictional character, not Michael Jackson.

Raven: Interpreting – or trying to interpret – motifs that occur repeatedly throughout an artist’s body of work has always been a fascinating study to me, anyway. As a literature teacher, this is a subject that often comes up in my classes, though unfortunately the somewhat rushed pace of a typical semester (where many different writers and works are to be covered) doesn’t always allow the leisure time to study any one particular author’s work in depth. But sometimes it is very apparent, even from comparing and contrasting two to three works, how some writers are obsessed with certain themes – themes they feel compelled to keep returning to over and over.

And it is not a tendency limited to writers by any means, but seems to run the full spectrum of art, from music, painting and film to sculpture and architecture. We might ask why, for example, was F. Scott Fitzgerald so obsessed with characters who are trying to recapture some elusive ideal from their past? Of course, if we understand even a little of the man’s life, we know why this theme was so important to him. Similarly, in turning to pop music, we might ask why is Prince so concerned with images of the apocalypse in his songs? What was Kurt Cobain’s obsession with dolls, fetuses, and bleach? (References to all three crop up repeatedly in his songs). Why did snakes and lizards feature so prominently in Jim Morrison’s lyrics? Why did Hendrix’s songs feature so many references to both astral and aquatic themes and out of body experiences?

Often when these kinds of discussions come up in class, we have to agree that no one, not even the best critics and scholars, can ever really probe into an artist’s mind to arrive at some definitive answer.

Willa: That’s true. We can’t even probe the depths of our own psyches, so how can we ever presume to know what’s happening in an artist’s mind?

Raven: Even the artists themselves may often find that they are returning to these themes subconsciously, perhaps not even aware of how often they are reoccurring. The best we can say is that these kinds of recurring themes are almost always an indicator of something the artist is trying to work through (again, whether consciously or subconsciously) and this is because the act of creating art is in itself a therapeutic process.

Clearly, Michael had somewhat of an obsession with femme fatales – even (we might daresay) a love/hate relationship with them.

Willa: Or a love/hate relationship with what they represent, which leads to a very different type of interpretation. For example, in one of our very first posts, Joie and I talked about these “bad girls,” and Joie said something that just blew me away. She suggested that maybe these seductive but threatening women represent the allure of fame:

Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.

When Joie said this, it hit me like a thunderbolt and gave me a whole new way of interpreting these women. This love triangle we see over and over in his work, with the main character torn between My Baby (quiet, domestic, the “good” woman who loves him) and a femme fatale (very public, very visible, wild, sensuous, unpredictable – the “dangerous” woman who lures him “into her web of sin”), can be seen as conflicting parts of his own personality.

As he repeatedly said, he was actually very shy and rather fearful of fame and all the attention it brings. He also said he liked to spend quiet evenings at home and didn’t really go in for nightclubs and the party scene – just like My Baby. But at the same time, he loved performing before an audience, loved the energy and excitement – and maybe even the danger – of being on stage. And one way to approach this ongoing conflict between My Baby and the femme fatale is to see it as reflecting and working through this internal conflict between those two sides of his personality.

So I tend to interpret these women much more symbolically now, but that doesn’t mean other interpretations aren’t there and aren’t valid. I mean, it’s true these songs are populated by a series of seductive, dangerous women, and there are many ways to interpret that …

Raven: That is an interesting interpretation. If one were to ask any woman in Michael’s life – Lisa Marie Presley being a prime example – which came first in his life, she would probably tell you very quickly that his work and career came before anything else. Michael said many times that he was “married” to his work, and it seemed to become a way of explaining why real-life relationships were so hard for him to sustain. If we consider that his work was put ahead of most relationships in his life, then we can also pretty safely add to that mix the seduction of fame and all that his fame represented for him.

I think he may have always, to some degree, felt a measure of guilt about the fact that he could not entirely rise above that seduction. For example, after watching the clip of Michael’s particularly moving Brunei performance of “Earth Song,” one of my students astutely observed that Michael had a higher calling than performing. She believed he could have worked for God and saved souls, but instead made the conscious decision to remain a secular entertainer instead. And it did seem sometimes that Michael was torn between two dual sides of his nature – the one that wanted to heal the world, and the one that loved being in the spotlight and adored by screaming throngs. The former satisfied the altruistic aspect of himself – that higher ideal of himself that he aspired to – while the latter was a kind of immediate gratification that validated both his ego and the desire to feel loved.

I believe this was at least part of what he meant in his piece “That One in the Mirror” from Dancing the Dream. Initially he describes the experience of looking in the mirror as looking at an alter ego version of himself who is detached from the world’s suffering and actually quite content to remain so. He ends the fourth paragraph of that piece by admitting that maybe all of the world’s problems are hopeless to solve, but “that one in the mirror” assures him that “you and I will survive. At least, we’re doing all right.” Michael then writes of his alter ego reflection:

He sees problems “out there” to be solved. Maybe they will be; maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way …

Eventually, of course, the dualities are merged and “that one in the mirror” begins to fade away. The ideal (the compassionate soul who cares about the plight of the world) trumps self-gratification.

But what’s interesting to me about this piece is not so much the outcome, but the fact that he introduces and honestly acknowledges this kind of dual conflict between his alter egos. I love it because this is Michael honestly acknowledging the side of him that is very human – after all, if we are totally honest with ourselves, aren’t we all more concerned with our own well-being and gratification than the suffering of humans on the other side of the world whose names we will never know, or of animals whose suffering will never directly affect us? And it was that very human side of Michael that loved the instant gratification he got from performing and the adulation of fame.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven, and it reminds me of another piece from Dancing the Dream that I’ve struggled with how to interpret. It’s called “Two Birds,” and one bird sings with a voice “like crystal from the sky while the other bird keeps silent.” One is beautiful and highly visible – it glows with “light on its silver feathers” – while the other remains invisible. One is celebrated while the other is ignored. And we can interpret this invisible bird as someone he loves, someone the world knows nothing about, but we can also interpret it as part of himself – as “my soul,” as he calls it. As he says in the concluding lines,

It’s easy to guess which bird I am, but they’ll never find you. Unless …

Unless they already know a love that never interferes, that watches from beyond, that breathes free in the invisible air. Sweet bird, my soul, your silence is so precious. How long will it be before the world hears your song in mine?

Oh, that is a day I hunger for!

I go back and forth on how to interpret this. On the one hand, we can read it like a love letter to someone who quietly supports and sustains him. But it’s also possible to interpret “Two Birds” as representing two parts of his own psyche – one quiet and hidden, the other famous and successful – just like My Baby and the string of dangerous women he sings about in song after song.

Raven: You have me very intrigued with this! I dug out my copy of Dancing the Dream to re-read “Two Birds.” I have noticed that these themes of duality between body and soul, or the dualities between alter ego versions of himself, seem to be quite prominent throughout the book. In looking up “Two Birds” I also ran across “The Elusive Shadow” in which he describes his soul as a stranger he has never allowed himself to know. “Your music I did not hear,” he says. “Two Birds” seems like a continuation of that theme, although in reading it I also get a sense of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” As you may recall, that song is written from the perspective of someone who has a lot of glory, and is paying homage to the “invisible” friend who was always there, unrecognized and unsung in the background, lending the support that made it possible for the other to fly.

This poem could have possibly been Michael’s homage to such a friend, but Michael tended to be pretty straightforward when paying tribute to his friends and I believe he would have provided a clue to the person’s identity had that been the case. After all, there was certainly nothing cryptic or especially metaphoric about his poem “Mother” or the piece titled “Ryan White.”

Willa: That’s true.

Raven: And given that the entire book is really about a man’s journey of self discovery, it lends even more credence to the interpretation of “Two Birds” as a conversation with his soul. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s conversation with his soul in Part 5 of “Song of Myself” in which the separateness of his body and soul are resolved through an erotic encounter. In the edition of Dancing the Dream that I have, “Two Birds” is accompanied by a beautiful photo from the climactic moment of his “Will You Be There” performance when the angel swoops down and wraps him in her wings. I interpret that as the protection of a guardian angel, or God’s love enveloping him and holding him up. If we assume that photo was chosen deliberately to accompany “Two Birds,” it could give a possible clue to the interpretation, as perhaps his guardian angel or spirit who sustains him.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Raven. I hadn’t put those together, but you’re right – when you look at it that way, that photo does suggest that the invisible bird is his inner self.

Raven: Of course, the conclusion that Michael eventually comes to in “That One in the Mirror” is that the two halves of himself need not be mutually exclusive, and I think this was also the same peace he eventually made with his own internal conflict regarding Fame vs. Selflessness. To go back to what my student said, although it was a very good point, who’s to say that Michael wasn’t fulfilling his calling to God by performing and using the very gifts that God gave him in order to reach out to millions?

Willa: Exactly. He was able to spread his vision of a more peaceful world, a more just world, through his art. His art was his calling.

Raven: His fame gave him the greatest platform imaginable for that purpose, as well as providing the wealth that made it possible for him to go forth with much of his charity work. And even if he did not, perhaps, strictly speaking, give up the allure of fame and secular entertaining to become Mother Teresa, he still found a way to merge these dualities within himself and to solve his internal conflict in a way that, I believe, eventually gave him peace with himself and his chosen path.

But to tie this back to our subject of femme fatales and the interpretation of these women as representations of fame, I definitely agree in the sense that these women represent the idea of something that is very alluring but forbidden – a temptation that holds a very strong sway over the male protagonist in these songs.

Willa: Yes, exactly. And that “something that is very alluring but forbidden” could be sex, but it could also be fame, or material success, or some other temptation.

Raven: We know that close on the heels of these sentiments comes guilt. And guilt is really the driving factor of all of these songs. Most of them (with a few exceptions that I hope we’ll get to cover) come down to a very simplistic moral tale of Seduction (Evil) vs. Overcoming (Good), with “good” often represented as “My Baby,” the girl who is waiting at home. What is interesting, however, is the fact that “Good” very seldom triumphs in these songs. The protagonist, being a man of flesh and blood, is almost always lured into these relationships, and thus the cycle begins – momentary gratification followed by the plunge into darkness and self-castigation, or “the wages of sin.”

Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and I think that’s part of what gives Michael Jackson’s songs their emotional complexity. The protagonist of these songs is not a simple “good” man ensnared by an “evil” woman. It’s much more complicated than that. He’s drawn to these threatening women – in fact, he’s drawn to them precisely because they’re so threatening. As he sings in “Dangerous”:

Her mouth was smoother than oil
But her inner spirit and words
Were as sharp as a two-edged sword
But I loved it ’cause it’s dangerous

So he sees very clearly what kind of woman this is – that she’s “bad” and “dangerous” – but that’s preciously what attracts him. And repeatedly we find that he isn’t battling her so much as the part of himself that’s drawn to her, that’s drawn to this kind of dangerous, intoxicating passion. That’s a really important distinction. So these femme fatale songs aren’t so much a story of good versus evil, but rather a psychological story about his own conflicting desires.

Raven: This is another aspect of Michael’s femme fatale songs that I find quite interesting. Other male pop singers also write and sing songs about seductive women, but more often, the songs are all about the celebration and even glorification of the seductress/vixen. An immediate example that comes to mind is Michael’s own arch rival, Prince, who brought us many sexy variations of the femme fatale in his own works. (I especially love direct comparisons of Prince’s and Michael’s two most famous groupie songs, “Darling Nikki” and “Dirty Diana,” respectively).

But from “Little Red Corvette” to “Darling Nikki,” sex with these women is almost always an ends to its own means, even when the girls seem to have the upper hand, as is certainly the case with both “Little Red Corvette” and “Darling Nikki.” There is none of the kind of self-castigation for the protagonist that comes with Michael’s songs. And clearly, this is for one simple reason – the protagonist in Prince’s songs, for example, feels no guilt about the encounter. He had a great time, living out every male’s fantasy, and other than being a little worse for wear and tear, obviously enjoyed the experience enough to celebrate it in song.

This is a far cry from Michael’s “forty days and nights” worth of penitence and torture over what most guys would consider a mere fling.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and you’re right – the protagonist of these two Prince songs seems to have a great time with very little guilt or angst or anything but satisfaction. But I think you can make the case that Prince felt more conflicted than it seems.

For example, I haven’t watched his movie Purple Rain in about 30 years, but I just looked up the “Darling Nikki” scenes from Purple Rain, and it’s surprisingly similar to what you might find in a Michael Jackson song. Prince’s character is on stage singing about the “sex fiend” Little Nikki, who seduces him – and as you say, Raven, the protagonist of the song feels very little remorse about that. But as he sings this song, he’s being watched by Appollonia, the “good woman” who loves him – a woman very similar to My Baby. She begins to cry and leaves the nightclub, and when he realizes he’s hurt her, he abruptly walks off stage and storms around his dressing room. Here’s a link.

So there’s a difference between the song as it’s written and how it functions in Purple Rain, where it creates a situation remarkably similar to My Baby and the dangerous women who threaten her and drive her away. Though maybe Appollonia is upset because she thinks he’s accusing her of being a “sex fiend” like Little Nikki. I’m not sure about that.

Raven: Yes, and as we have discussed before, songs can take on many additional layers of meaning as they evolve from track to video and live performance, or in this case, to film. I know that Prince wrote the album Purple Rain as a soundtrack to the film, but I don’t know if the songs came first or if he already had the storyline for the film in mind. (I suspect he did.) When his character “The Kid” performs the song “Darling Nikki” in the film, it’s clearly intended, as you said, to hurt Appollonia because he knows she’s in the audience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, also, so I can’t remember exactly what had transpired between the two characters before then, but I do recall this – his entire intention with that performance was to humiliate her and to spite the audience in general. (As you can clearly see, everyone is quite uncomfortable and put off by the performance.) When Appollonia leaves, he calls out for Nikki to “come back,” which does make it sound like “Darling Nikki” might have been her all along. And as you pointed out, even though the performance was clearly done out of spite, he regrets his actions afterward, so that is the guilt factor coming in.

Willa: Yes, but even so, to me it doesn’t seem to have the complexity of so many of Michael Jackson’s songs. This isn’t a psychological study. What I mean is, the main character may feel guilty, but he isn’t exploring his own mind and his own conflicting impulses as so many of Michael Jackson’s protagonists do.

Raven: Interestingly, it was said that Michael walked out on Purple Rain and when asked why, he reportedly said that he didn’t like the way Prince treated women. I don’t know if that is true, however, or just an urban myth. Their rivalry was always more of a press invention than anything else. But if you actually compare Prince’s sex or femme fatale songs to Michael’s, I would say the ones in Michael’s songs are often much more demonized. “Dirty Diana,” for example, is more than just a groupie. She is portrayed almost as a soul stealer. The same could be said for “Billie Jean” but I think with “Dirty Diana” it is even more graphic.

In going back and watching the original video of “Dirty Diana” I can see a lot of elements that lend credence to all of these interpretations. Diana seems to be both a literal woman who is a seducer and soul stealer (the protagonist knows he is supposed to go home to his wife or girlfriend) but could also be a metaphor for the seduction of fame itself.

At the video’s beginning, we see two events happening simultaneously: a guy is going onstage, walking into a lone spotlight to perform before an audience, and a girl with wickedly long, sexy legs is getting out of a limo and walking towards the backstage door. That first note sets up a very ominous tone, and we see her throughout the video only in shadow. The video will then continuously cut back and forth between the performer onstage and the gradually encroaching Diana. The moment when the protagonist steps onstage is also very reminiscent of the moment in “Billie Jean” when he steps into the lone spotlight and becomes “the one” in the round, but here, perhaps because it’s more of a rock song, the emphasis is on performing rather than dancing. But it seems to be the same concept, more or less.

Also, as in most of his “Billie Jean” performances, he wears a combination of black and white. Michael liked this color combination; he used it a lot. In short films like Black or White the meaning behind the color symbolism of his clothes was quite obvious. But he also liked to use this color combination in “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” and it may represent the duality of someone who is in battle with the pure/ideal side of his nature on the one hand, and the darker, corrupt side of himself that he seems to be battling.

Willa: That’s interesting, Raven. I hadn’t noticed that before.

Raven: To carry that analogy further, he also always wore a black-and-white color combination when singing “Will You Be There,” which is also, in many ways, a song about a protagonist’s battle with his own humanity vs. some imposed “ideal” purity of spirit:

But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
But I’m only human

In “Billie Jean,” black is usually the dominant color, with white usually providing a mere contrast via his undershirt, socks, and the stripes of the jogging pants. But in “Dirty Diana” it is the opposite. White is the dominant color via the full, flowing shirt he wears, and when he steps into the spotlight, it gives him an almost angelic appearance. This is contrasted sharply with the ominous, shapely legs in shadow, creeping ever closer. (Sadly, Lisa Dean, the woman whose legs were made famous in that video, lost her battle with cancer in 2010.)

The fact that “Dirty Diana” focuses so prominently on a woman’s body part was not unusual for the 80s. This was, after all, a very sexist era and most of the metal videos of the day – which “Dirty Diana” is obviously parodying – would routinely feature a vixen’s sexy legs or other body part, and not much else. Both with Dirty Diana and those videos, it’s a kind of dehumanization intended to reduce the female to little more than a body part.

But there is a decided difference in the way this dehumanization is presented in most of the 80s metal videos as compared to Dirty Diana. Whereas in most of the videos from that era, the dehumanization of females to a mere body part was all done in cheesy fun (it was just part of the culture, and the girls were always shown as having as much fun with it as the guys) in Dirty Diana there is a striking difference. Again, in most of the metal videos from the era, it was obvious that it was all in good fun and the guys obviously adored the girls (even as they exploited them) but in Dirty Diana the dehumanization of Diana seems intended to both keep her at a distance and to demonize her in some respects. Thus, while some girls might have identified with typical groupies (“Look how much fun she’s having; I want that, too!”) Dirty Diana is not someone that either male or female viewers could ever get too close to, or identify with. There’s no face to put with her, and this intensifies the idea of her as something both mysterious and ominously evil – something not quite of this world. Even the lyrics make it clear that she’s not someone who is there to have fun. She is the equivalent of a psychic vampire or succubus, someone who is there to take your soul and to leave you among the damned.

There is that great, climactic moment as the song approaches its bridge (here it occurs at about 2:47) where Michael drops to his knees as if in prayer. The moment is suspended for several seconds (he doesn’t rise to his feet until he begins singing the next verse) so obviously, it was intended to have an impact on the viewer. Michael liked these kinds of theatrics in his performances; we know that. However, he seldom threw in such theatrics without some purpose that could be applied to the interpretation of the song. Here it seems to be, as I said, very much a gesture of prayer, as if the protagonist is aware of Diana’s ever-approaching presence and is praying for the strength of spirit to be able to resist.

There is also something of the sacrificial lamb in that pose, as if he knows he is ultimately going to be sacrificed at the altar of Diana. But as the song and performance enter the final stages, and Michael’s vocal delivery intensifies to match the intensity of the struggle, it’s obvious he is going to be on the losing end of this battle.

Willa: That’s so interesting, Raven. I tend to interpret “Dirty Diana” a little differently than you do. For example, I don’t see her as evil but as very human – a woman who wants a different life and will do whatever it takes to get that life:

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige
Who promise fortune and fame
A life that’s so carefree
She’s saying, That’s ok
Hey baby, do what you want
I’ll be your night loving thing
I’ll be the freak you can taunt
And I don’t care what you say
I want to go too far
I’ll be your everything
If you make me a star

In some ways, I feel a lot of sympathy for this woman who’s trapped in the life of a groupie because she craves fame so desperately – something Michael Jackson himself seemed to understand.

And as Joie mentioned in that post a long time ago, this is another case where My Baby is the quiet domestic good woman, while Dirty Diana is a femme fatale who seems to represent a lust for fame and stardom. So I tend to interpret her more symbolically, and the fact that we don’t see her face supports that. She’s a symbol of a drive or an emotion – a very human emotion – rather than an individual person.

Raven: I find a lot of elements here that do support Joie’s interpretation as well. For example, this entire video is set up as a showcase performance piece. We never actually see a man and a woman interacting or engaging. What we see is one man, on a stage, in a spotlight, with his band and the adoring audience in front of him. This could well represent the idea of fame and its seduction.

Willa: Yes, I agree.

Raven: His girl wants him at home (the normal life) and a part of him wants to be able to give her that part of himself, but he seems to doubt if it is ever going to be possible. The allure and seduction of fame have too big of a grip on him.

Even if we take the song literally (let’s say it really is just the story of a groupie) the interpretation still works because, for male performers, groupies and women like Dirty Diana go with the territory. In other words, part of the price of fame is selling your soul and accepting the things that come with it that will corrupt you. Dirty Diana and Fame could well simply be two sides of the same coin for this guy, as he may find the distinction increasingly blurred in his mind.

The ending of the video has been the subject of much critical debate and scrutiny. The last thing we see is the performer (Michael) running offstage, hoping to escape in the waiting limo. But when he opens the door, “she” is waiting inside for him. That ominous pause where he simply freezes – the expression on his face an inscrutable blank that is neither totally surprise, joy, or dread – is hands down one of the greatest and yet most cryptic endings of the entire history of music videos. The only thing we can really interpret about that moment is that the performer seems to recognize that his soul is irretrievably lost from this moment, and there is no going back. And again, whether we interpret the song as a cautionary tale about sex and the wages of sin, or as a metaphor for the seduction of fame, both make sense. What we’re left with is a protagonist who knows he’s entrapped.

Willa: Hmmm. That’s interesting, Raven. Again, I interpret this scene a little differently. To me, this is a moment of conflict – the moment when he has to decide if he will get in the car with her or not. He’s been singing about this decision for four minutes, and now it’s arrived. So what will he choose? Will he go home to My Baby, or will he go off with Dirty Diana? And to me, that’s still very much up in the air.

Raven: I guess for me I don’t see it so much as a debate for him at that point as it is a foregone conclusion. But again, it may depend on how literally one is interpreting the song – whether it is a tale of conflict over a seduction, or something deeper. But he did leave that ending very ambiguous for a reason, obviously, and that reason is to keep us guessing. I don’t know; I may be reading too much into it, but I’ve always found it one of the darkest of Michael’s femme fatale songs.

But something interesting about Michael’s “sex” songs is the very clear distinction and progression we see moving from the 80s into the 90s. Although when we say “sex” songs I think we have to distinguish those, certainly, from romance songs. In his great ballad “Lady of My Life,” for example, this is obviously an intimate relationship but one gets the feeling that the female partner is definitely one of his romanticized ideals, probably a very classy young woman, one who is closer to “My Baby.”

I would also put “Rock with You” in that category as well. He is obviously singing about making love, but it’s very much in the vein of what Susan Fast calls his “soul man” persona, where everything is very sweet, very tender, very romantic. There aren’t very many songs from this era where sex and/or the femme fatale as an object of sexual desire is celebrated in and of itself, and of course, when such women did present themselves, it was almost always in the form of a cautionary tale.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” may be one of the earliest exceptions, a song that seems to joyously and simply celebrate the sex act, but even here, it becomes a bit of a cautionary tale. In the spoken intro, Michael is asking his partner whether they should continue because “the force, it has a lot of power.” So again, even though it is certainly a much lighter and more joyous track than “Dirty Diana,” it’s that same sense of struggling to resist yielding to a temptation that, once given in to, will ultimately ensnare you and from which there will be no escape. However, Michael himself argued (in part to appease Katherine) that “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” wasn’t necessarily about sex. “The force” could be whatever one interpreted it to be. But it is still, basically, the idea of something bigger than one’s self that acquires a certain kind of power over you. In this case, it’s simply that giving in just happens to feel good and provides joy rather than self-castigation.

However, it really isn’t until the 90s and the Dangerous era that we really begin to see a shift, with Michael seemingly willing to write or perform songs that could simply celebrate sexuality, groupies, and sexy women without the need for a moral consequence or self-castigation.

I am sure that breaking away from the Jehovah’s Witness had much to do with liberating his views sexually. Of course, as some have pointed out, the Jacksons were never exactly strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyway, but we do know that Michael struggled harder than his siblings to try to maintain his faith. He truly tried to believe in the doctrines for most of his life, even when he was sometimes confused by them, and this struggle did bleed into his lyrics. The break, therefore, must have felt like a tremendous weight being lifted and, as some have attested, the impact was evident in his personal life as well, allowing him to have a new openness about his own sexuality that had before been mostly denied or repressed. Not surprisingly, this also carried over into his songwriting, and perhaps plays a huge part in why Dangerous became his sexiest and most adult album to date.

Willa: Yes, though even in his later songs, it stays complicated. For example, “Dangerous” is not the free-wheeling “Little Red Corvette,” as you mentioned earlier.

Raven: Speaking of Prince, it seems to me one of those great ironies of pop music is that, just as Prince was becoming more religious and evangelical in his songs (reflecting his own, personal spirituality) Michael’s trajectory was going the opposite direction – becoming funkier, dirtier, and a “bad boy” who could – on occasion at least – sing the praises of a dirty vixen as well as the next guy.

While tracks like “In the Closet” do seem to continue his typical femme fatale trope (though in subtly different ways), other tracks like “She Drives Me Wild” present a protagonist who shows no shame in lusting after a woman who is presented as pure sex. And one of my all-time favorite tracks from the Dangerous sessions – an outtake that didn’t make the album – is a song called “She Got It.”

Most people who hear this track recognize immediately that it has a very distinct, Prince-like sound (perhaps this was Michael attempting to out-Prince Prince!) but whatever the case, I think it does represent an important progression for Michael personally. The girl is clearly one of his typical femme fatales in many respects …

Willa: Yes. For example, like so many of his femme fatales, she craves with fame. As he sings, “She wants to be a movie star / She’d sell on TV.” And there’s still some internal conflict. For example, the title tells us “She’s Got It,” but the chorus undercuts that by repeatedly telling us, “She don’t like it / And the boy don’t want it.”

Raven: But here the subject matter is dealt with in a humorous, light fashion (reminiscent of a group of guys getting together to joke about groupies) and the protagonist clearly enjoys enumerating her assets without shame or guilt.

Willa: That’s true.

Raven: This girl clearly isn’t a romantic ideal; she isn’t even particularly a sexual ideal (the description makes her seem almost like a pig-ish caricature) but she’s clearly a good-time gal who has the protagonist sprung, even when he feebly protests “she’s too much for me.”

I call this a progression even though I know some fans might look at a song like “She Got It” and call it it a kind of regression. For example, some might argue that Michael’s vision on songs like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” was much more artistically mature than what we get here, with a song like “She Got It,” and I certainly wouldn’t argue that point. But I think it’s an interesting artistic progression for Michael in that he seems to finally feel comfortable, flirty, and free enough to allow himself to write and perform these kinds of songs – again, without the need to insert a moral compass or to turn them into a cautionary tale. However, that didn’t mean he was finished with writing cautionary tales – far from it, in fact, as “Blood on the Dance Floor” would prove.

Willa: Or “Heartbreaker,” or “Black Widow” from the Cascio tracks, if you believe those songs are his, or numerous other songs. This is a figure that runs the entire length of his career, and thank you so much, Raven, for joining me to talk about this complicated, intriguing, but difficult to interpret character!

Raven: Thank you, Willa! Always a pleasure to be a part of Dancing with the Elephant.

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on June 11, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 53 Comments.

  1. really loved this post, especially when you compare him with other artist it allows us to check his ability (fun fact – i never knew who prince was or elvis Presley was before checking mj) but i kind of disagree with the fact that jackson’s view changed dramatically as he got older , DSTYGE , P.Y.T,TWYMMF, all of these song’s were on the same album as dirty diana and billie jean, similarly she drives me wild is probably a more reworked version of P.Y.T , but the same conflict between these ‘groupies’ emerge in the title track ‘dangerous’ on which in similar pattern he seems to explore the same theme , but in a more mature way than before ( i felt he was too wimpy in dirty diana and too much in denial) hence i think dangerous is a superior and mature song than dirty diana.in dangerous he admits that he is attracted he know’s both his state of mind and is trying to figure out her’s (another fun fact, in my country mj is more known for the dangerous song and dance routine than thriller, or billie jean)

    i think you should do a post on BOTDF , i think that album is superior than thriller (if u take out BJ from thriller), your post on morphine was probably one of your best

  2. I agree with you about Dangerous. I think one major difference is that in Dangerous, he (as the male protagonist) seems more willing to take the blame upon himself, whereas in Dirty Diana he makes himself more of the victim.

    I did think about P.Y.T and The Way You Make Me Feel as Willa and I were discussing these songs but the reason I ultimately decided not to touch on them is because I don’t really consider those to be among the femme fatale songs. If you just listen to the tracks (the video for TWYMMF aside) they are simply light hearted romance songs where the male is the aggressor and seducer in the traditional sense. I did mention DSTYGE as an early exception. But overall I tried to make the distinction between what I consider “femme fatale/sex songs” as opposed to romantic songs or ones where the protagonist is pursuing his feminine ideal (as Willa refers to her, “My baby”). Sometimes it’s admittedly hard to make that distinction. But a track like She Got It seems much more explicitly about sex than romance. In the video for TWYMMF he definitely used a kind of femme fatale in Tatiana’s character yet we see HIM as the one who aggressively pursues her, so I’m not quite sure how we might categorize that one as far as femme fatal songs or videos. I tend to think of the songs where he is pursued/seduced to fall more into that category, but I would love to hear what others think about that.

    I had hoped to get more into a discussion of Blood On The Dance Floor but the post was already quite long. Perhaps that can be an idea for a future discussion.

    • if one listsns to BOTD , it is actually BJ 10x the paranoia , but what I found interesting is that both dangerous and BOTD begins with him almost whispering he is clearly not singing all parts in both these songs, bith are in NJS (both were conceived in dangerous sessions)

      My conclusion is that susie might be the unnamed woman from dangerous
      I sort of consider TWYMMF as bubble gum pop.
      About that she got it song , I don’t really think it belongs with femme fatale songs

      • Hi kittuandme. I agree that “Blood on the Dance Floor” is much darker than “Billie Jean,” and that actually makes a lot of sense – especially if we see these “dangerous” women as representing the seductive allure of fame.

        In 1983, when “Billie Jean” came out, Michael Jackson certainly had ambivalent feelings about his fame, and we see that in the lyrics of “Billie Jean.” But by 1997, when “Blood on the Dance Floor” came out, he’d seen just how brutal and threatening fame could be. A lot of critics really were out to stab him with their steely knives – just like Susie stabs the protagonist.

        I also think it’s significant that “Blood on the Dance Floor” includes the line “I’m going down, baby.” According to Randy Taraborrelli and others, the very last words Evan Chandler ever said to Michael Jackson were, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down!” That’s so chilling to me, and it suggests that one way to interpret this song is as expressing his feelings about fame after the allegations came out, and the press and the public really started attacking him – just like Susie attacks him.

  3. Thanks for another thoughtful post! I always look forward to reading “Dancing with the Elephant.” I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how, as you point out so well in this post, he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles. (It was perhaps a willful misunderstanding of this aspect of Michael’s art that precipitated, at least in part, the controversy over the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.”)

    This past fall I taught a full semester college-level course on Michael Jackson (“Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text”) and one of the things the class found most surprising (but initially most difficult to do) was close-reading his lyrics and following the shifting perspectives. The complexities and the rapid shifts are really fascinating.

    Your comments on the various pieces in Dancing the Dream also made me remember that along with the contraries in the written pieces themselves (public fame vs. private spirit, etc.), the photographs included in the book also manifest one of the main contraries you mentioned in that some show Michael in private, reflective moments (out in nature, for instance, or in his dance studio) while others are clearly part of highly staged promotional photo shoots or performances. So we can see the private man and the public, “constructed” performance image both circulating in the pages of the book. I think that these two aspects of Michael are always in dynamic relation to one another, as your post makes clear, and it is perhaps, as you suggest, that very dialectic that gives Michael’s work such extraordinary power. We can see the same intriguing dichotomy in the story about Michael finishing up his incredibly energetic tour performances and then resting backstage, drinking water and reading Indian poet Tagore!

    Thanks again for another great discussion.

    • “I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how … he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles.”

      Hi Marie. I agree, and think one of the ways critics really misread him sometimes is when they assume that all the different “voices” we hear in a Michael Jackson song are him, personally. That is far from the case – in fact, sometimes he’ll play the role of multiple characters, as you say, with some of those characters in conflict with each other. (The song “Money” immediately springs to mind. When he sings the words, “If you show me the cash then I will take it / If you tell me to cry then I will fake it / If you give me a hand then I will shake it / You will do anything for money” he’s obviously speaking as a rather corrupt character, or series of characters – not himself.)

      How interesting that you explored all this in your Michael Jackson class! I wish I could have sat in on your discussions …

      That’s also interesting about the photos in Dancing the Dream reflecting the public/private dichotomy we see in the text. I’ll have to look through again with that in mind. The conflict between public and private does seem to be a very important and recurring theme for him.

    • Your course sounds fascinating! Having the luxury to teach Michael for an entire semester would be a heavenly gig for me! It seems that more and more college courses are being taught on various aspects of Michael, from his music to economic courses on his business ventures.

  4. I love the idea that Michael might have been talking about fame in these femme fatale songs, it really does seem to fit. At the same time, I have to say he also had a rather large history of abuse and betrayal by the people around him growing up, and I tend to believe that some of his exploration of these themes might have come from that need to understand and transform those experiences…

    At any rate, I certainly appreciate all of his self-reflection in so many of these songs, in contrast to other performers who didn’t bother.

    Thanks for shedding more light on all this!

  5. I’m so glad that I wasn’t the only one who saw what the Purple One and the Gloved One was doing. Anywa I believe I was listening to Dangerous and it clicked….he’s always dogging out My Baby! I mean everytime some other hussy comes out of the woodwork offering him irresistible nectar of what she may be representing (I think they represent some different things) he goes running. Sure he thinks about it, he’s tempted, and he hurts My Baby…

    But I always asked why does My Baby stay with him? No matter the protagonist personality , they all have this weak spot for whatever it is behind their red doors….I always wondered more about My Baby. ….

    And those Prince references made my day! As a huge Prince and MJ fan I tend to stay very far away when their names are mentioned from the opposite fan base. But I will say I never believed in a rivalry, they just took it and ran with it hence the subtle shady references they make to each other in interviews and even music. They were probably snickering at people who believed it lol.

    And yes I thought I was the only one noticing Michael’s sexual liberation. LIke is it me or does Dangerous have no love making songs? That man (excuse my vulgarity ) was talking about fucking. I honestly can’t think off the top of my head if he even had love making songs in the 90s….

    Anywho I talk a lot for my first comment but great job as always

    • Yes, Melba, those were my thoughts exactly! I remember a very amusing (but quite accurate!) comment I read once on a fan forum about the “Blood on the Dancefloor” video. They said, “This video was Michael screaming “I Want SEX!” (note: Not romance, not love, not flirting but SEX). However, it sets up an interesting duality between the visual imagery of the video (which is sizzling sex) and the lyrics, which emerge as another cautionary tale.

      About Prince: After this discussion, I went back and dug out my DVD of Purple Rain, which I hadn’t watched in a long, long time (probably ten years at least). Re-watching it confirmed what Willa and I were discussing about the “Darling Nikki” performance. Prince’s character was purposely trying to humiliate Appollonia because she had gone to work for his rival, Morris Day, and Prince’s character “The Kid” assumed she was sleeping with him as well. If the story is true that Michael walked out on Purple Rain, it’s a tragedy because by doing so, he would have missed out on a very important element of the character’s arc. The character reacts with violence because he has grown up with violence, seeing how his father treats his mother. It is the classic case of family violence perpetuating violence; how that cycle continues because children learn from the example their parents set. The character has to go through his own spiritual healing in order to come to terms with why he does the things he does. So even though Prince’s character loses a lot of our sympathy when he hits Appollonia, it is realistic in the sense of portraying how the chain of familial violence operates. The character’s triumph in the end is learning to rise above the cycle by learning the power of love and forgiveness. The final, triumphant performance of the song “Purple Rain” is intended as a way to encapsulate the character’s full arc and how he has gone through his dark night to emerge at a place of spiritual healing.

  6. What a great post on a fascinating subject–Michael’s femme fatales. So many interesting points raised, but one thing that strikes me, in terms of the black and white palette of his costumes, is his costume in Ghosts. Michael’s white ruffled shirt and black pants is echoed, or repeated, in the black and white checkerboard squares on the floor. This checkerboard pattern also appears on the album cover of Blood on the Dance Floor, and has interesting links to Masonic iconography and artists such as Escher. However, what is striking to me here, especially because we are in the time of his death on June 25th, is that in Ghosts he performed his death on this floor. “You want me to go? All right, I’ll go.” The powerful image of Michael in his black and white clothing lying dead on the checkerboard floor seems as though, and forgive the dramatic statement here–he was crucified on the cross of black or white. Yes, he does resurrect himself–reappearing in Ghosts bigger than ever–but the image of him lying dead on that floor gives me chills.

  7. “I also think it’s significant that “Blood on the Dance Floor” includes the line “I’m going down, baby.” 

    In BOTDF, I don’t think he sings “I’m going down”. I hear it’s “It’s going down, baby!”, which is black American slang for something serious is about to happen, like a fight. It’s amusing to read white male interpretations of this song, where they twist themselves into knots trying to recast the obvious sexual allusions in the lyrics. (Here’s a hint, fellas, “seven inches in” might not refer to a knife.)

    Michael and others have often said that all you need to know about him was in his songs. I believe that BOTDF is autobiographical. I know most fans think it’s far-fetched and out of character, but I think that some time in his life, Michael fell for a woman he believed to be sweet and kind, and equally taken with him, and that this woman quickly became pregnant, and revealed a not so sweet nature. She used sex to conquer him. She was in control the whole time, not him, and he “just can’t take it”.

    I realize that this is not the usual interpretation – one writer said the song was about the dangers of HIV-AIDS – but it’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

  8. Irene Tandberg

    Hello! I really hope you read this, because I wasn`t sure if you would see it if I just posted among the comments on previous posts. First I would like to say that I think I have read every post and I learn so much! A lot is much more useful information than I get in school and I love reading them.

    Yesterday I reread the post where you interview the author of “The Messenger King” article, and at the end you talked about siezing the moment when an opportunity arises to release more of these articles. Today I saw the video of Caitlyn Jenner making a speech about the importance of accepting transegendered people. Or rather “people outside the norm of everyday people” in general. Though I do believe that he (or she) has a lot of fair and good points, I believe that the massive acceptance of him is quite hypocritical with regards to Michael Jackson, who also was “outside of the norm” (though, in another way). And Diane Sawyer and her “total acceptance” of Caitlyn just makes me plain angry. My point is I wondered if this might be another window of opportunity to write a citizen journalist article about Michael? Without being disrespectful towards Caitlyn. Including in the article how Michael was lynched for being different and how poeple like Diana Sawyer mocked him openly. Also including why Michael was more of a threat and more rebellious since he was more “neither, nor” than “either,or”. Just totally lay it out and reveal how hypocritical this whole situation with Caitlyn Jenner is. That is, at least, how I think it is.

    I really wanted to ask somebody about this, and you were the first that came to my mind. I would really like to hear your thoughts about this, to know if I just overreacted or if anyone agrees with me.

    If you read this, thank you so much, and I really hope you respond.

    Regards, Irene Tandberg.

  9. I have never thought about She Got It in that way. Lyrically, I always thought it was more of a Superfly Sister kind of song. Dirty lyrics (lol) though at the same time upholding pure morals about sex and the importance of sex. Like he says in S.S:
    ~Push it in, stick it out, that ain´t what it´s all about ~
    In S.G.I I always thought he describes a situation where two main characters (a boy and a girl) are confused about what they really want in a relationship. (This boy and girl representing a certain kind of boys and girls, maybe a ghetto type?)
    First Michael starts out by describing what kind of girl it is. Then he starts singing “and the girl don´t like it, and the boy don´t want it” thereby describing how the girl really doesn´ t want to wear those clothes and act like that, but she thinks it is what boys want from her in order to be “desired”. Further he also says how boys really actully don´t want “it” and that they feel pressured by society to want that type of girl. They have both learned from society that this is what they should want and how they should act. Michael ´s calling the bluff by saying those two simple sentences, and reinforcing it by saying “Too much for me, now”.
    At least that´s the way I have understood it.

    About that Two Birds poem I have always thought that he was paying homage to God and that the invisible friend was God. God is the silent love that never interferes and watches from afar. It would explain the angel in the photograph.

    • “About that Two Birds poem I have always thought that he was paying homage to God and that the invisible friend was God. God is the silent love that never interferes and watches from afar. It would explain the angel in the photograph.”

      Interesting! Thanks for sharing this interpretation, Irene. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

  10. I can highly recommend this interview with Jennifer Batten (by C. Thomson):

    It’s interesting that her iconic hairstyle was MJ’s idea – it shows just how visual (and hands-on) he was: He knew that decades into the future, people would be looking at photos of him singing with Batten’s white hair in the background – a perfect way to contrast and highlight his own black tresses.

    • Thanks so much for posting this, Bjorn. I thought I’d read everything—but thankfully there are more gems to be discovered!

    • Hi Bjørn. Thanks for sharing this. I was really struck by this quote:

      He was very much hands on and he was an extremely hard worker. … I would say that’s the number one thing I learned from him: the value of rehearsing that much and that intensely, because by the time we hit the stage everybody was relaxed.

      That ties in with what I’ve read about his dancing and recording as well. For example, many people have said that he would practice a dance step over and over and over again until it was second nature, so when he did it on stage he was no longer thinking about the technical aspects of how to do the step, but rather could focus his attention on artistic expression.

      Bruce Swedien and others have made similar comments about how he would prepare for recording sessions. Often, singers come in and simply read the lyrics as they record, but he didn’t. He would practice and practice until he had memorized the lyrics and they were second nature to him. Then he could focus on expression – and would often dance during sessions, or record in the dark, so he could fully express everything he was feeling.

      That level of dedication is remarkable – and it shows.

  11. Respectfully, I think that trying to contrast and compare Diane Sawyer’s treatment of Michael Jackson with Caitlyn Jenner is not a good idea. The whole Caitlyn thing was a package deal. It’s been reported that Jenner’s team demanded that she receive the Arthur Ashe Award, or else Sawyer wouldn’t get her exclusive interview. All of it was timed to coincide with the Vanity Fair cover, and the premier of The Cait Show, a reality show about Jenner’s new life. Even the supposedly universal praise for Caitlyn Jenner has been manipulated.

    Comparing Michael to a transgender individual simply reinforces the notion that he was some kind of sexual oddity, and that he tried to transform himself into a white man. It will only serve to energize the haters.

    (By the way, although I’m sure no offense was meant, to describe a young man or woman as “a ghetto type” can be construed as racist.)

  12. Nina Fonoroff

    It’s quite obvious that the Vanity Fair cover story was timed to coincide with the show’s premiere; no surprise there, VC. It’s not at all uncommon for the corporate media (in which a magazine and a television network where a particular star appears are owned by the same parent company) to make these synergistic deals.

    My viewpoint on this, Irene, kittuandme, and Eleanor, should come as no surprise to those who have encountered me elsewhere in the online MJ world, where I’ve been quite vocal about transgender rights and LGBTQ matters more generally.

    For one thing, Sawyer’s interview with Michael and Lisa took place in 1995, as opposed to 2015. Cultural attitudes have undoubtedly shifted in this twenty-year period. Moreover, we know that Michael was ahead of his time in numerous ways; and a number of queer youth have declared that, growing up as teenagers in the 80s and 90s, his presence in the world as a beloved pop star actually emboldened them to embrace and manifest their particular forms of gay/queer identity in ways that were vitally important to them.

    So I’d suggest that without Michael Jackson (and others who *appeared* to challenge norms of gender and sexuality), it might have taken someone like Caitlyn Jenner—not to mention *thousands* of lesser-known LGBTQ young people—much longer to gain acceptance in our still largely binaristic and heteronormative culture.

    Finally, the meme you display above, kittuandme, expresses a sentiment that I feel is inimical to any kind of enlightened discussion about gender identities, Caitlyn’s (“hers,” not “his”), being only the most high-profile example at the moment. This sentiment does no service either to Michael himself, or to the estimated 700,000 people in the U.S. alone who claim trans identities, who want to be known by the name and pronoun of THEIR OWN choosing, and who do not themselves want to be known as “some kind of sexual oddity,” and VC would put it.

    These people have already waged a long and hard struggle, for many decades, to gain some measure of acceptance in our society. Some people, out of ignorance, may be inclined to diss their legitimate claims to respect…. all in the name of “defending” Michael Jackson. I’m having none of it.

  13. VC and Nina — No disrespect meant to either transgender people or MJ. But, the cultural reaction — the adulation of one, vs the vilification of the other — is fascinating, even given the passage of time; and the presence of Diane Sawyer…. hard not to compare and contrast. Lots to be learned here.

    The enormous difference between MJ and B/CJ is that MJ was trying to broaden and redefine the masculine, while CJ is re-inforcing a very narrow and damaging construct of the feminine. Jenner is actually playing right into a patriarchal culture’s dream of the feminine — totally artificial, made from Adam’s rib, or Bruce’s — hair, make-up, boob job, glamorous clothes — and a capitalistic culture’s dream of the feminine, which is achieved by spending $$$$$.

    So BJ was for many years the cultural idea of manhood and now he wants to perform the cultural ideal of womanhood. In her 60’s no less. A sex object???? Couldn’t he have performed womanhood differently??? Why do so many transwomen go the glamour route??? I guess practically speaking make-up is a requirement. Otherwise they would look like men.

    MJ, on the other hand was really, deeply challenging the cultural construct of the masculine and proving it was viable, proving that he was more sexually appealing to many women than the macho construct. And our culture, patriarchal to the core, does not want anyone challenging its version of masculinity, because it is the key to being fully human.

    My beef with transwomen is that they claim to be women. And I’ve had it with men defining me. BJ’s version of womanhood in CJ degrades me as a woman. According to her standards, I am not a woman (I wear little make-up and have not had breast augmentation surgery), nor are most female humans. Also, transwomen who claim that they are women and that female reproductive organs have nothing to do with being a woman erode women’s collective power, as women, and our ability to bring about policy changes that affect women’s reproductive health, maternal welfare, and economic parity. I am fine with CJ being a transwoman. I am not fine with CJ claiming that to all intents and purposes she is a woman.

    Just to clarify, I am in no way hostile to transgender rights — except where they trample on mine. And, as a woman who cares about women’s rights and women’s well being, I am offended by Jenner’s very aggressive approach.

  14. Nina Fonoroff and Eleanor Bowman, you are making my point better than I did. Diane Sawyer allowed herself to be part of a corporate deal – the packaging and selling of Caitlyn Jenner as some sort of cultural hero. But her interview with Michael Jackson and his wife was a corporate attack. There is little similarity between the two events.

    I used the term “sexual oddity” to refer to the energetic efforts of haters and fans alike to recast Michael as asexual, “pre-sexual”, a married virgin, etc. I wasn’t referring to Jenner, but in truth, one could reasonably conclude that a man, an Olympic champion no less, who decides that he’s actually a woman, and starts wearing makeup and designer dresses at 65, leaving three ex-wives and ten children in his wake, is very odd indeed.

  15. Eleanor and VC: There are many resources available right now that are helping people to better understand the intricacies of transgender identity, and why—to name one of many misunderstandings that need to be addressed—trans women ARE women (though not in the same sense as as cisgender women, assigned a “female” gender at birth, are).

    The essential point that needs to be understood is that neither Caitlyn Jenner, nor Laverne Cox, nor Chas Bono—to name only a few of the most prominent trans people—are “faking it.” On the contrary: Jenner, Cox, and Bono WERE “faking it” at a previous point in their lives before they came out, when they were trying to fit within the conventional narrative: the story of binary (and immutable) gender and sex. But it’s even worse than that, when it comes to widespread public denial of the experience of transgender people.

    As cisgender women, for instance, we have had every tradition, custom, and law on “our” side. Given the hostility and violence that’s frequently heaped upon those who may not visibly conform to a gender normative appearance, it’s no wonder that some trans people have chosen to “femme” or “butch” their appearance. But there’s also a *tremendous* variety of appearances among trans people, from those who “pass” nearly seamlessly, and others who (by choice or happenstance) are clearly marked by a more fluid or complex appearance (relative to what most people in our society are used to).

    The New York Times has been publishing a series of photographs, videos, and testimonials of trans people of various ages, races, and occupational and class backgrounds. I suggest looking at this:


    For more information in general about trans issues, this site is helpful:


    • Nina wrote —

      “The essential point that needs to be understood is that neither Caitlyn Jenner, nor Laverne Cox, nor Chas Bono—to name only a few of the most prominent trans people—are “faking it.”

      No one claimed that any of the people you have named are “faking it.”

      And —

      “Finally, the meme you display above, kittuandme, expresses a sentiment that I feel is inimical to any kind of enlightened discussion about gender identities,”

      I don’t think the “meme” kittuandme posted, which was really interesting and have passed on to several people, expresses any sentiment related to a discussion of gender identities, inimical or otherwise. It is about the unfair and unjust treatment of Michael Jackson,and the complete moral and ethical bankruptcy of the media, especially the fawning Diane Sawyer.

      And —

      “Moreover, we know that … a number of queer youth have declared that…his presence in the world as a beloved pop star actually emboldened them to embrace and manifest their particular forms of gay/queer identity in ways that were vitally important to them.”

      Although MJ had compassion for anyone who is unjustly maligned, I don’t believe he ever saw himself as the poster boy for the LGBT community, and I think it is a misreading of him to suggest that. He had much bigger fish to fry.

      And —

      “As cisgender women, for instance, we have had every tradition, custom, and law on “our” side. Given the hostility and violence that’s frequently heaped….”

      As a woman, I don’t know what on earth you are talking about. And women, as far too many of us know, are no strangers to hostility and violence.

      Finally, I really didn’t think any of the comments made about Jenner or the MJ/Jenner photo, were in any way directed at or making light of transgender people.

      However, ever since I first read an article in The New Yorker last year about the demands transwomen are making on women, based on their claim that they are women, I am becoming more and more irritated and less and less sympathetic. Then there was Elinor Burkett’s article in the NYT about a month ago, which dealt with the same subject. It appears that some transwomen are demanding that all mention of female reproductive organs be removed from the definition of woman — a linguistic hysterectomy. They want to be the new standard for womanhood. I look on this as bullying. And i see Jenner in his Versace gown as chief bully. if Jenner is the new standard for what it means to be a woman, I’m not sure where that leaves me. As if women didn’t have enough to deal with…Why transwomen are launching these attacks on women, I have no idea. It is not going to help their cause to have women turn against them.

  16. Really interesting and important discussion, you all. Thanks for raising this issue, Irene, and thank you for sharing those links, Nina. I haven’t read everything there, but was touched by Beck Fineman’s story. And I thought this recent documentary on Frontline was well done and thought provoking: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/growing-up-trans.

    VC, you’re right that there are some important differences and complexities that are being overlooked when comparing media responses to Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Jackson, especially given the long history of white culture “feminizing” black men. Comparing a white transgendered person to a black man who always identified himself as male and heterosexual is problematic at best.

    However, I do think there are some interesting things to be learned by comparing the media response to each, precisely because they are so different. As you said so well, Eleanor:

    The enormous difference between MJ and B/CJ is that MJ was trying to broaden and redefine the masculine, while CJ is re-inforcing a very narrow and damaging construct of the feminine. Jenner is actually playing right into a patriarchal culture’s dream of the feminine …

    MJ, on the other hand was really, deeply challenging the cultural construct of the masculine and proving it was viable, proving that he was more sexually appealing to many women than the macho construct. And our culture, patriarchal to the core, does not want anyone challenging its version of masculinity …

    I don’t agree with everything you said, but I do agree with this. In some ways, Caitlyn Jenner is actually reifying traditional gender roles, going from a stereotypical definition of masculine to a very stereotypical image of feminine. (And Nina, your point that this is not true of all transgender people is well taken. This is simply how one individual, Caitlyn Jenner, is expressing her gender identity.)

    However, Michael Jackson challenged traditional gender roles at a fundamental level, which was very threatening to many, as you say, Eleanor. And I think that difference – that Michael Jackson was challenging traditional notions of masculine and feminine while Caitlyn Jenner, ironically, is reinforcing them – does play a part in how each of them was treated by the mainstream media.

  17. Nina —

    Jenner has been hanging out with the Kardashians too long.

  18. I would hazard a guess that while most people would never physically harm a transgender person, they are also not all that interested in them either. And yet, for reasons unknown, we are being inundated with media stories about them, even though they are only about.03% of the population. Women in particular are being urged, admonished, even required to accommodate these delusional men. Some feminists have called it a men’s rights movement, and that’s sure what it looks like. There has never been a time when, as women, “we have had every tradition, custom, and law on “our” side.” In the US today, we aren’t there yet. For most of recorded history, man has been the default human, while women have been treated as property, with few rights at all. I really believe that the trans movement is being encouraged because people like Caitlyn embarrass men, so much so that they want them out of the male category altogether.

    Caitlyn Jenner is not a woman and never will be one, and if we’re being honest, nobody really believes Bruce is now magically a woman because he uses a woman’s name. How many women would be comfortable sharing a shower with her – considering that she retains ‘her’ male genitalia? Michael was a genius musician, not a self-absorbed narcissist, which I believe Jenner is. Michael didn’t consent to the Sawyer interview to talk about gender norms. He was about his art, not his makeup and wardrobe. It’s insulting to compare him to someone like the former Bruce Jenner.

  19. VC, you’re right to point out that (cisgender) women have not had “every law, every custom, every tradition” on our side. So my claim doesn’t hold water, especially given the historical experiences of of black, Native, Latina, Asian, and other nonwhite women. Thanks for pointing this out. I should have known better.

    It’s also probably true that most people would never physically harm a transgender person. Nevertheless, transgender people as a whole are subjected to disproportionate levels of violence in our society—and *especially* trans women of color, as this writer in Ebony magazine (along with many, many others) have pointed out:

    Black Trans Women: In the Crosshairs
    Don Terry, May 20, 2015


    Indeed, a lot has been written since the Vanity Fair cover story appeared about the many layers of Caitlyn Jenner’s privilege; mainly having to do with race and class, and the protections that her longstanding fame has afforded her. One of the most vehement challenges to her popularity (that I’ve encountered) can be found in a video recorded by this woman, Tammy Peay:

    “Sermon on the Mount: Tammy Peay on Queerantagonism and Caitlyn Jenner”

    • Nina Fonoroff – I am a bit weary of all this talk about transgenders. They’re like Donald Trump – they suck all of the oxygen out of the room. But I need to respond to that video you posted. As a black woman, I no more identify with Ms. Peay, and her way of expressing herself, than I do with Taylor Swift. I’m sure she reflects an authentic point of view, but no black family of my acquaintance has ever disowned or abandoned a child because of their sexuality or gender expression. I do agree with her on one point – black people need to stop caping for the likes of right wing multi-millionaires like Caitlin Jenner.

      Real, actual black women are killed and brutalized at a far greater rate than transgenders. I think that attempts to get us to celebrate their supposed “beauty and sexiness” are ludicrous. To my eye, most transgender ‘women’ look like clowns, Caitlin and Laverne included. The fawning over them is disgusting, because it’s dishonest. A sixty-five year old woman displaying knobby knees and stringy thighs in a mini-skirt would be savaged by the media and public alike. But no one does that to Jenner, because nobody really thinks that Caitlin is actually a woman.

  20. VC: Before the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair appeared in early June, you (or someone whose racial and gender politics very nearly matches yours) had expressed some views that I hope you’ve since modified, at least somewhat.

    Specifically, you (or this other person) stated that white media outlets like Time and Allure had featured prominent black trans women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock in order to position them as sideshow freaks; essentially, they were there to function as freakish spectacles, exhibited for the delectation of a (mostly hostile and contemptuous) white audience. You also implied that these magazines, and the cable TV channels that had granted Cox and Mock some public attention, would never *dare* to put a WHITE transwoman on the cover of, say, Vogue, since that would be “an insult to white women.” On the other hand, there was no “downside”—-to according black transwomen a good deal of public attention.

    These statements were of course based on your assumption that the great majority of Americans (of all races) share your negative view of trans people. I hope that the “rise” of Caitlyn Jenner, in Vanity Fair, has shown you otherwise.

    Because in fact—as I predicted—the Caitlyn Jenner thing has caused a lot of black commentators to call for a more INCLUSIVE vision of transwomen’s beauty and sexiness, as Lesli Ann Lewis writes in Ebony magazine:


    “You Ain’t the ONLY Woman:
The White Cis Grasp on Womanhood Is Failing”
    “As transwomen and women of color (and trans women of color) continue to change the face of feminism, certain women are having a hard time living outside the center of attention”

    Lewis writes:

    “Before Laverne Cox draped her gorgeous brown legs over a lucky sheet in a nude shoot for Allure, before “feminist” writer Megan Murphy gagged on all that Black girl magic and condemned our praise of Cox’s beauty as “anti-revolutionary,” Sojourner Truth asked White suffragists, “ain’t I a woman?”

    “Her words still hang over us and as feminism is firmly part of the national discussion, people ask, what is feminism, who is a feminist and who gets to be ‘good’ (or bad) for the movement. As trans women and trans awareness begin to take center stage, these questions become more persistent as the face of womanhood and feminism begins to diversify.”

    • Nina quoted —

      “Before Laverne Cox draped her gorgeous brown legs over a lucky sheet in a nude shoot for Allure, before “feminist” writer Megan Murphy gagged on all that Black girl magic and condemned our praise of Cox’s beauty as “anti-revolutionary,” Sojourner Truth asked White suffragists, “ain’t I a woman?”

      “Her words still hang over us…”

      I only wish they did. And it is a desecration of everything that Sojourner Truth stood for for her words to be used in this context!

      First of all, Sojourner Truth grew up speaking Dutch as a slave, not in the south, but in New York. So, she didn’t speak in southern black dialect and never said, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

      “The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a variation of the original speech re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect; whereas Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language.”

      Secondly, she devoted her life to equality for blacks and women’s rights, not transwomen’s rights. I find nowhere that she worked for transwomen’s rights.

      Thirdly, “In 1858, someone interrupted a speech and accused her of being a man; Truth opened her blouse and revealed her breasts.” Sojourner truth identified womanhood with biological femaleness, correctly. So, Sojourner Truth would find it really strange that transwomen want female reproductive organs (women’s reproductive role extends beyond birth to lactation) to be removed as identifying characteristics of women. And I doubt that she would view breast implants as making someone female; she would see them as bags of silicone or saline. Which they are.

    • The words of a real black feminist, lover of MJ, and great poet

      We had him,
      Dr Maya Angelou’s poem for Michael Jackson
      Tuesday, July 07, 2009 – 23:06, by Khaya Dlanga

      Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing
      Now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind
      Without notice, our dear love can escape our doting embrace
      Sing our songs among the stars and and walk our dances across the face of the moon
      In the instant we learn that Michael is gone we know nothing
      No clocks can tell our time and no oceans can rush our tides
      With the abrupt absence of our treasure
      Though we are many, each of us is achingly alone
      Piercingly alone
      Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us and we did have him
      He came to us from the Creator, trailing creativity in abundance
      Despite the anguish of life he was sheathed in mother love and family love and survived and did not more than that
      He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style
      We had him
      Whether we knew who he was or did not know, he was our’s and we were his
      We had him
      Beautiful, delighting our eyes
      He raked his hat slant over his brow and took a pose on his toes for all of us and we laughed and stomped our feet for him
      We were enchanted with his passion because he held nothing
      He gave us all he had been given
      Today in Tokyo, beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana’s Blackstar Square, in Johannesburg, in Pittsburgh, in Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham England, we are missing Michael Jackson
      But we do know that we had him
      And we are the world.

      Phenomenal Woman

      Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
      I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
      But when I start to tell them,
      They think I’m telling lies.
      I say,
      It’s in the reach of my arms,
      The span of my hips,
      The stride of my step,
      The curl of my lips.
      I’m a woman
      Phenomenal woman,
      That’s me.

      I walk into a room
      Just as cool as you please,
      And to a man,
      The fellows stand or
      Fall down on their knees.
      Then they swarm around me,
      A hive of honey bees.
      I say,
      It’s the fire in my eyes,
      And the flash of my teeth,
      The swing in my waist,
      And the joy in my feet.
      I’m a woman

      Phenomenal woman,
      That’s me.

      Men themselves have wondered
      What they see in me.
      They try so much
      But they can’t touch
      My inner mystery.
      When I try to show them,
      They say they still can’t see.
      I say,
      It’s in the arch of my back,
      The sun of my smile,
      The ride of my breasts,
      The grace of my style.
      I’m a woman
      Phenomenal woman,
      That’s me.

      Now you understand
      Just why my head’s not bowed.
      I don’t shout or jump about
      Or have to talk real loud.
      When you see me passing,
      It ought to make you proud.
      I say,
      It’s in the click of my heels,
      The bend of my hair,
      the palm of my hand,
      The need for my care.
      ’Cause I’m a woman
      Phenomenal woman,
      That’s me.
      Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

      Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)

      Still I Rise
      You may write me down in history
      With your bitter, twisted lies,
      You may tread me in the very dirt
      But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

      Does my sassiness upset you?
      Why are you beset with gloom?
      ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
      Pumping in my living room.

      Just like moons and like suns,
      With the certainty of tides,
      Just like hopes springing high,
      Still I’ll rise.

      Did you want to see me broken?
      Bowed head and lowered eyes?
      Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
      Weakened by my soulful cries.

      Does my haughtiness offend you?
      Don’t you take it awful hard
      ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
      Diggin’ in my own back yard.

      You may shoot me with your words,
      You may cut me with your eyes,
      You may kill me with your hatefulness,
      But still, like air, I’ll rise.

      Does my sexiness upset you?
      Does it come as a surprise
      That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
      At the meeting of my thighs?

      Out of the huts of history’s shame
      I rise
      Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
      I rise
      I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
      Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
      Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
      I rise
      Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
      I rise
      Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
      I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
      I rise
      I rise
      I rise.

      Maya Angelou :

  21. ^^^^Touching upon these questions, Eleanor, ^^^ I’m sure you know that these debates—-about the ways trans women do or do *not* propagate patriarchal culture, and who gets to be included (or excluded)—have been going on in feminist circles literally for decades.

    Maybe Caitlyn Jenner has been hanging out with the Kardashians for too long, as you say. In any case, across your writing on women and transwomen, nowhere do I see any evidence that you are concerned about the lived, subjective experience of transpeople themselves. I may be missing something—if so, I apologize in advance. But nowhere in your writing—quite apart from the question of Caitlyn Jenner—have I read any acknowledgement the very real (and disturbing) instances of discrimination and violence that transwomen and transmen have faced down. It seems that any discussion of this matter really ought to include SOME consideration of these issues, regardless of the many ways we may compare/contrast Jenner to Michael Jackson, as models or figureheads for the ways we wish to conceptualize our own relationship with gender and womanhood.

    For me, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. It’s here that things get very basic indeed: when a whole group of people’s lives are being threatened, and when they face hostility and antagonism in the form of job discrimination, housing discrimination, unequal protection under the law, etc., it puts a whole different complexion on the discussion of Caitlyn Jenner and what she may (or may not) represent.

    And when many young trans people are being thrown out on the street by their very families, when queer youth are committing suicide at rates that are vastly higher than their straight/cisgender counterparts, then it casts your statement——“I am in no way hostile to transgender rights — except where they trample on mine”—–in a very, very different light, I believe.

    I had written an even longer response to this interesting exchange yesterday, which included more about the many, many ways Michael Jackson has brought up—-for so many of us—our deepest and most personal beliefs and emotions about these (intersecting) issues of race and gender. (I’ve written about this elsewhere: for now, I think I’ll save it for another time.)

    Just a few additional thoughts here, and I hope to make these as brief as I possibly can (lol!)

    I very much hope that one day we may have an honest and NUANCED conversation about the many ways racial AND gender discrimination decisively contributed to Michael Jackson’s punishment by the media and the legal system—-a conversation where we may avoid the trap of having to pit his sufferings against the sufferings of ANY marginalized group that right now (and into the indefinite future) is STILL in the throes of a long, hard struggle against injustice and oppression.

    My view is this: whatever *defense* of Michael Jackson anyone wishes to mount, on whatever basis, should never, EVER be stated in a way that comes at the expense, or out of the hide, of another person (or group of people) who have endured discrimination on account of racism, sexism, homo- or transphobia, or a raft of other “isms” and “phobias” that continue to plague our society.

    Plenty of criticism can be (and has been) leveled at Caitlyn Jenner, as my posts above ought to show. But I’d like to suggest that before anyone disseminates that meme that Irene posted above (and that Eleanor seconded), please consider all the ways that transpeople who may look up to Jenner would feel about her—and, by implication, themselves—being misgendered. (In other words: the graphic refers to Caitlyn Jenner as “him,” even when Jenner has EXPLICITLY stated what name and pronoun she prefers.) This is just a *fundamental* matter of treating people with basic respect and dignity.

    Also, please consider the fact that people like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock are providing a sense of hope and possibility for many, many young transpeople—-across race and class—-to see something beyond the entrapment and despair some may presently feel. JUST AS Michael Jackson and his brothers, in the 1970s, provided a similar sense of hope and possibility for so many black Americans who lived during that period.

    As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche noted:
    “We always have a choice: we can limit our perception so that we close off vastness, or we can allow vastness to touch us.”

  22. Nina wrote — ” nowhere do I see any evidence that you are concerned about the lived, subjective experience of transpeople themselves. I may be missing something—if so, I apologize in advance. But nowhere in your writing—quite apart from the question of Caitlyn Jenner—have I read any acknowledgement the very real (and disturbing) instances of discrimination and violence that transwomen and transmen have faced down. It seems that any discussion of this matter really ought to include SOME consideration of these issues, regardless of the many ways we may compare/contrast Jenner to Michael Jackson, as models or figureheads for the ways we wish to conceptualize our own relationship with gender and womanhood.”

    No, Nina, you are not missing anything. I don’t write about trans issues. I don’t know anything about them. I am not familiar with the instances of discrimination and violence experienced by trans people. LGBT issues are not my issues. I have plenty of my own. I get drawn into these discussion because I strongly disagree with you and others when you suggest that MJ had some sort of LGBT agenda. Also, Jenner really ticked me off. And, you may think he is doing a lot of good; but I think he is doing a lot of harm. And, just because he wants to be called she, doesn’t mean that I am going to do it. Why do I owe him respect when he is showing women no respect?

  23. I am not surprised at the media and Sawyer adulation of Caitlan, especially when juxtaposed to the media treatment of Chelsea Manning, now in a federal prison. When I see Chelsea on the cover of VF and admired on TV, I will believe all this hype and bogus self-congratulation about how society has changed for the better regarding gender stereotypes and really basic humanity. I have infinitely more respect for what Chelsea did to break open military secrets regarding torture in Iraq and US war crimes than I ever will have for Caitlan. The adulation of and the alleged heroism and suffering of Caitlan is entirely political precisely because it fits the dominant ideology promoted by corporate power. Diane Sawyer, as a mouthpiece for the power brokers who try to enforce their ideology and basically brainwash us, logically attacked (on multiple occasions) Michael, who deeply threatened that “reality” and tried to change it, and it is equally logical that she eulogized someone who not only embraces the worldview of the power elite but at the same times spreads the fiction that we as a society have changed for the better. Women worldwide and in USA are in very bad shape on many levels, and in this country after 45 presidents and 200 years, we have enormous resistance to a woman as commander in chief. The horrible world of sex slavery and the degradation of women in general was well understood by Michael as we see in a number of songs, such as Slave to the Rhythm.

  24. Nina Fonoroff – I think we are getting beyond the scope of this discussion about Michael Jackson. But as a black woman, I find the adulation given to Laverne Cox, at the expense of black women insulting. As for that sad, sick opinion piece on Ebony.com, if Cox co-opts Sojourner Truth and asks, “Ain’t I a woman?”, my answer to her is, “No, sweetie, you ain’t. And you never will be.”

    Perhaps you are unaware that while Cox is everywhere in the media, lauded for her supposed beauty, Serena Williams gets dragged as “masculine”, “too muscular”, “looks like a man”, and even “really is a man”, every time she whips some European’s tail, from racist, sore loser coaches and fans, up to the head of the Russian Tennis Federation and the New York Times.

    Of course if Laverne Cox actually was a black woman, nobody would call her “beautiful”, because she isn’t. Not remotely. Her ascendance is a white media ploy to denigrate African American women, just as the “trans tipping point” is a ploy to destabilize feminism in general.

    As for Caitlin Jenner, there were a couple of moments during that Diane Sawyer interview that were very revealing. One was when he boasted that in all of the years the Kardashians have been on the air, he had the REAL story. The other was when he shaded Sawyer for wearing a white shirt and black slacks, tragically plain compared to the fabulous little numbers in his closet. (He was “he” during the interview.) It was pure narcissism, Bitchy Queen 101. Now he spends his nights cavorting in gay bars with his new friends, while his youngest child is barely hanging on, and he’s done nothing to acknowledge the woman whose traffic death he caused. Not a very good role model for anyone.

    I agree with Eleanor Bowman. Why should trans’women’ demand respect from women, when they don’t give it to women? They have nothing to do with Michael, and I don’t like to see them get so much attention here.

    • I agree with you completely, Indigenous! “The horrible world of sex slavery and the degradation of women in general was well understood by Michael as we see in a number of songs, such as Slave to the Rhythm.”

      And, he addressed the fact that poverty is a women’s issue in in Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ —

      With great irony he speaks in the voice of the white patriarchal culture that condemns women for being women, and, in doing so, points out the predicament women find themselves in for the crime of reproducing in a culture that punishes women, especially poor women, for having babies — if you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby…

      Would it were so simple. But with trans people trying to deny women access to birth control, especially poor women… But, again, why should women be denied the freedom to reproduce, at least once. Reproductive rights should go both ways. No other animal species punishes its females in this way… All other species assist females when reproduction falls largely on the female. They would die out if they didn’t.

      If You Cant Feed Your Baby (Yeah, Yeah)
      Then Don’t Have A Baby (Yeah, Yeah)
      And Don’t Think Maybe (Yeah, Yeah)
      If You Can’t Feed Your Baby (Yeah, Yeah)
      You’ll Be Always Tryin’
      To Stop That Child From Cryin’
      Hustlin’, Stealin’, Lyin’
      Now Baby’s Slowly Dyin’

      Is the baby who is slowly dying’ “my baby” — the good woman who is on the receiving end of so much grief dealt out to women?

      Here are a few facts about women in poverty in the US.

      “Poverty is a women’s issue; female-headed families are more likely to be poor.

      In 2012, … For women aged 18 to 64, the poverty rate was 15.4%, compared to 11.9% for men of the same age range. At 11%, the poverty rate for women aged 65 and older is almost double that of men aged 65 and older—6.6%.

      Families headed by a single adult are more likely to be headed by women, and these female-headed households are at a greater risk of poverty. Almost 31% of households headed by a single woman were living below the poverty line..

      “children made up a disquieting 34.6% of Americans in poverty…”


      And then there’s Keep Your Head Up…

      She’s looking for a job and a finer place to stay,
      She’s looking for the hope in the empty promises
      She’s working two jobs, keeping alive,
      She works in a restaurant night and day,
      She waits her life away,
      She wipes her tears away.
      She cries inside everytime she feels this way
      And she’s dyin’ inside everytime her baby cries

      And it’s interesting that, in the same song, he draws a parallel between the plight of women and the plight of nature —

      Killing up the life in the birds and the trees,
      And we’re suckin’ up the air in the Earth from under me (it’s never too late)
      I can’t even breathe (just lean on me),
      I can’t even see!
      Keep your head up, don’t give up, today!
      How long can we wait?
      I wish that love would come today!
      All you need is love,
      I tell you I know it’s coming soon
      And all you need is just a moment, won’t it do
      Keep your head up!

  25. Hi everyone. I’ve been thinking about this debate quite a bit, and before I start I should probably say up front that one of my cousins is transgender. And while it’s true it’s fairly rare, as you pointed out, VC, (either because it is rare genetically, or because it’s still shameful enough that those dealing with it tend to hide it) so is vitiligo, or lupus, or suffering an accident that burns your scalp. If it affects you, the fact that it’s rare isn’t much comfort. My cousin was a successful surgeon, athletic, popular, and deeply unhappy, and it wasn’t until he was approaching retirement age that he was finally able to be true to his, or rather her, inner sense of who she is, and she seems much more content than she ever was before. And my predominantly conservative family has been surprisingly supportive, in part because everyone knows how unhappy s/he was before.

    So, in part because of my background, I feel a lot of sympathy toward transgendered people. At the same time, I don’t see much connection to Michael Jackson. In fact, I think they’re opposites in many ways. My own personal view is that while “male” and “female” are biological truths (though there are hermaphrodite and XYY people), our notions of “masculine” and “feminine” are largely a myth – a cultural construct. And while many transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner seem to buy into and reinforce that myth, Michael Jackson fought against it. I think that’s one reason media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner has tended to be positive, and coverage of Michael Jackson tended to be negative.

    So this is a bit off on a tangent, but I recently stumbled across this really fun TED talk about “insects’ kinky sex lives” by a scientist named Marlene Zuk. But Zuk’s real point is that if we take a close look at the natural world, it can challenge our ideas about what’s “natural” – specifically, our ideas about gender roles. She has some important and fascinating things to say about our biased perceptions of how the genders should act and express themselves. As she says,

    what I love most about insects is what they can tell us about our own behavior. … The wild variety that we see makes us challenge some of our own assumptions about what it means to be male and female. … [They] break a lot of the rules we humans have about the sex roles.

    Here’s the link:

    • Fun and interesting clip. Interesting that the audience is largely female and that the men seem to be uncomfortable, while the women are really enjoying themselves. The reason is that much of the point of this talk is feminist — showing the dangers of using the male model as the species model — and showing that females of other species often have behaviors that our patriarchal culture has defined as only male.

      A couple of other points —

      Even tho’, as the speaker points out, the two sexes can manifest themselves in a variety of interesting ways, all these manifestations of both male and female have but one purpose, reproduction. For, in nature, which is where we are, males and females exist for one purpose only to reproduce. Sadly, the trans movement is taking that option away from children who transition before puberty. And adult transpeople who go through the surgical procedures to remove their sexuality also lose the power to reproduce. Nowhere in nature, does natural selection select against reproduction. And no where in nature does nature select for behaviors that stand in the way of reproduction and the care of young. Quite the opposite.

      Also, the speaker points out the dangers of conducting scientific tests for medicines and procedures, etc. that are to be used on both sexes on men only, because drugs often behave differently depending on the sex of the person taking them. So, if Jenner identifes as a woman and has drugs tested on “her” and then based on the test, these drugs are used on me, I could die — just as my own mother almost did because the medicine she was taking had only been tested on men.

  26. “If we take a close look at the natural world, it can challenge our ideas about what’s “natural” – specifically, our ideas about gender roles.”

    I agree with this so much, Willa. Thanks for making this important point. As we become increasigly separated from the natural worrld and the experience of nature, we lose so much in terms of knowledge, sensitivity, and even, according to recent studies, brain development. Michael was aware of the way animals do not have the same rigid sex and gender roles we humans impose on ourselves and each other.

    Here is quote from “Honoring Child Spirit”–his conversations with Boteach:

    “There will be a leaf on the ground and I will pick it up and study it. I am fascinated by it. Or you look at a bug real hard and you start thinking about everything, like how its tiny heart and brain are and whether they think the way we do. I want to know all those things. I wish I could understand more things. I wish I had time to research and learn and grow and ask, because I am so curious about the universe. It amazes me about certain things and animals and you find out stuff like how a seahorse gives birth to a baby, the male gives birth. Or how certain South American frogs can change sexes, like if he’s a man, he changes into a woman I find that, like, odd and weird and unbelievable. I love stuff like that.” (from chapter on “Curiosity”).

  27. People are not frogs.

    While I can have sympathy for someone so miserable in their natural body that they undergo extensive surgery and years of cross sex hormones to make it more to their liking, I won’t participate in their delusion just because it makes them feel better. When they impinge on women’s spaces, or are used to diminish women, it’s game over for me. Transgenders are mentally ill in my opinion, just like anorexics. It doesn’t mean they are bad people (although some very bad people claim to be transgender when they’re caught). But all this attention and accommodation given to this tiny percentage of the population makes no sense. It’s not the same as vitiligo or lupus, or any other physical disease.

    When it comes to “transgender children”, it’s mostly their abusive parents with the mental illness. You cannot turn a boy into a girl, or a man into a woman, period. Individuals, like Willa’s cousin, are free to live as they choose. That doesn’t mean that women should call vaginas “front holes”, or not talk about menstruation or childbirth because it makes men in dresses feel sad. Yet increasingly, this is what we are bring asked to do. This is madness. When trans advocates try to conflate Michael with this nonsense, it is silly. When writers try to conflate black women with trans women, as in that Ebony piece, and a recent article in Playboy(!), it is a profound insult. I am not here for that.

  28. I am with VC on this.

    “Individuals, like Willa’s cousin, are free to live as they choose. That doesn’t mean that women should call vaginas “front holes”, or not talk about menstruation or childbirth because it makes men in dresses feel sad. Yet increasingly, this is what we are bring asked to do. This is madness. When trans advocates try to conflate Michael with this nonsense, it is silly. When writers try to conflate black women with trans women, as in that Ebony piece, and a recent article in Playboy(!), it is a profound insult.”

    To see details of how trans people are attacking women, I have provided the following excerpts from The New Yorker and the NYT.

    The nature of these attacks proves that these people are in no way women!

    From the New Yorker –http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2

    “Abusive posts proliferated on Twitter and, especially, Tumblr. One read, “/kill/terfs 2K14.” [(TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist, in other words, women who claim the right to be called women.] ”Another suggested, “how about ‘slowly and horrendously murder terfs in saw-like torture machines and contraptions’ 2K14.” A young blogger holding a knife posted a selfie with the caption “Fetch me a terf.”

    [Transgender] protesters committed acts of vandalism—stealing electrical cables, cutting water pipes, keying cars in the parking lot, and spray-painting a six-foot penis, and the words “Real Women Have Dicks,”.

    A …petition signed by transgender people … criticizes the hashtag #StandWithTexasWomen, which ricocheted around Twitter during State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in her state, and the phrase “Trust Women,” which was the slogan of George Tiller, the doctor and abortion provider who was murdered in Wichita in 2009.

    “If you’re identifying with women, shouldn’t you be empathizing with women?”

    From The New York Times –http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/opinion/sunday/what-makes-a-woman.html?_r=0

    “an abortion-rights advocate, sent out a tweet about a benefit for Texas abortion funding called “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas.” Suddenly, she was swamped by criticism for using the word “vagina.” Michelle Goldberg reported in The Nation. “So you’re really committed to doubling down on using a term [vagina] that you’ve been told many times is exclusionary & harmful?”

    “At Mount Holyoke College, a self-described liberal arts college for women, canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s iconic feminist play “The Vagina Monologues” because it offered an “extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman:

    “The word “vagina” is exclusionary and offers an extremely narrow perspective on womanhood, so the 3.5 billion of us who have vaginas, along with the trans people who want them, should describe ours with the politically correct terminology trans activists are pushing on us: “front hole” or “internal genitalia”?

    “Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue,” wrote Emmett Stoffer, one of many self-described transgender persons to blog on the topic. It is “a uterus owner’s issue.”

    “Accordingly, abortion rights groups are under pressure to modify their mission statements to omit the word woman, as Katha Pollitt recently reported in The Nation. Those who have given in, like the New York Abortion Access Fund, now offer their services to “people” and to “callers.” Fund Texas Women, which covers the travel and hotel expenses of abortion seekers with no nearby clinic, recently changed its name to Fund Texas Choice.

    “The most theory-bound of the trans activists say that there are no paradoxes here, and that anyone who believes there are is clinging to a binary view of gender that’s hopelessly antiquated. Yet Ms. Jenner and Ms. Manning, to mention just two, expect to be called women even as the abortion providers are being told that using that term is discriminatory.

    “So are those who have transitioned from men the only “legitimate” women left?

    Apparently that is the direction we are headed. Not being happy with stealing almost everything else from us, men, now masquerading as women, want to steal our identity and obliterate us altogether. What on earth have women done to deserve these ongoing assaults?

    • Hi Eleanor. I really feel that much of this media attention is painting the situation with too broad of a brush. I suspect most transgender people would disagree with the statement that “Abortion rights and reproductive justice is not a women’s issue” (my cousin certainly would – she’s a doctor) and they certainly don’t send tweets encouraging the murder and torture of “terfs.”

      You can find extremists in any group, and there is a long tradition of large groups being discredited by focusing on the excesses of a few individuals. Just think of how Michael Jackson’s fans have been portrayed. (Here’s a fairly benign example from Slate‘s dispatches during the trial. I’ve read far worse.) There are millions of fans around the world with many different perspectives and ideologies, and characterizing all fans based on one or two extreme examples is unfair. I think that is happening with transgender people as well.

    • Thanks for this info, Eleanor. Lots of hate projected here against women. Scary stuff. Re Michael’s sympathy and concern for women and girls, he sings about incest and child prostitution in DYKWYCA and HT, although in the latter the lyric that she is ‘only 15’ is excised. It’s obvious that society prefers to ignore the dire needs of women while patronizing them with papered-over claims that all is well. It is not. ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ so here–have a cigarette. Crimes against women worldwide are just business as usual to the undiscerning. Michael saw through it and, as with the plight of children, called our attention to the painful oppression and inequality women and girls are forced to live with, something Caitlyn Jenner knows nothing about.

  29. P.S. Just to be clear–I did not intend to suggest or imply with the quote from “Honoring Child Spirit” that Michael was in favor of the trans movement. My take on what he is quoted as saying is that he was aware that in the natural world (meaning a world where nonhuman beings live naturally, that is, without human interventions re medicines, surgery, etc) that the rigid gender stereotypes that we humans hold and propagate are more fluid than we imagine.

  30. Well, bringing this conversation to the original topic, I think Michael chose not to show the face of the woman in “Dirty Diana”, because he wanted her to be representative of all the groupies that he and his brothers encountered. He didn’t want the story of the song to be about just this one woman, but all those like her.

    He said in interviews that “Dirty Diana” was one of his favorite songs and that it is what he and his brothers experienced their whole lives. He said there were all kinds of women claiming that one of the brothers was the father of their baby, which harkens back to, “Billie Jean”.

    I’m sure many will remember the story of the groupie, or perhaps just a naive fan who came to have sex with his brother. Michael was just a child, but he warned her not to do it, that she was just being used. She did anyway, and after having sex was sent on her way in tears, Michael followed her and asked her why she did it, and he felt so bad for her.This may be the reason why he was conflicted about these women who were willing to be used just to be close to a person who was famous.

    I’ve wondered about the line when speaking to his “baby”, “Unlock the door, because I forgot the key.” Does anyone see some significance in this, or is it just a throw-away line?

  31. Great post. Can you all also do an analysis on MJ’ poem “The Elusive Shadow” from his “Dancing the Dream” book?

    In the last section of the poem he says “Imagined sorrows of a thousand lies”, I want to know what he meant by that. Please respond to this post. Thank you.

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