The music world was rocked recently by another tragic story of a life extinguished too soon. Tributes have been pouring in after the death of hip hop star Mac Miller with everyone from Childish Gambino to Travis Barker expressing their condolences and sharing their tributes. But there has also been another sentiment that has been spreading across social media which is a lot more malevolent in tone- vitriol directed towards Mac Miller’s ex-partner Ariana Grande. Grande is no stranger to being held responsible for the self-destruction exhibited by Miller. She was criticised for ending the relationship, with many people claiming that this was somehow reckless behaviour on her part due to the demons that so obviously plagued him. I saw many tweets at that time stating that as Miller had dedicated a ‘whole album’ to the No Tears Left to Cry singer (something disputed by her), she was some kind of callous b*tch for not remaining in a relationship that she demonstrably did not want to be in. This row has been reignited this week following his passing. Now, firstly I would like to say that the loss of any life at that age is a very sorry event and issues around addiction and male mental health are crying out for acknowledgement; understanding and compassion. However, what I do not think is helpful is holding women responsible for the choices that men make. The fact that Grande has felt it necessary on numerous occasions to try and defend herself against these misguided accusations is ridiculous. This is not a criticism of Miller himself by any stretch- but it is a message to those who think it appropriate to bring Ariana Grande into any comment upon his death.
Unfortunately this is not an uncommon phenomenon across music and the media. Throughout pop culture and wider society, women’s lives are inextricably linked with the destiny of the men around them. Women are trained to be responsible for the feelings of men, therefore a good woman will be happy for her needs to be a secondary consideration- it’s for the good of the marriage, the family, the community. Because of that responsibility, we are inevitably blamed when things go wrong. A saintly, self-sacrificing woman is seen as the strength and support that can help men achieve great things (without really enjoying any of the glory). But a woman who exhibits any form of autonomy or agency suddenly becomes a duplicitous, selfish harlot with the blame for any male failures and misdeeds laid solely at her feet. Eve. Delilah. Cleopatra…Ancient stories are full to bursting with this narrative. And so it continues to this day- the context is different but the dynamic is the same.
You don’t have to look too hard to find some more modern examples. Yoko Ono- a successful Japanese artist- has seen her name become a synonym in popular culture for someone who breaks apart male bonds from the inside. To this day, many blame her for the breakup of the Beatles and the subsequent creative and political path trod by her partner John Lennon. Lennon’s legacy is that of a talented songwriter and political activist and all the negative aspects of his behaviour have had the blame tossed somewhere else- namely at Ono.
Nancy Spungen is now universally maligned and dismissed as a junkie groupie who set about destroying the life on an innocent young musician- Sid Vicious. She introduced him to drugs; she dragged him away from the Sex Pistols; she gradually stole him away completely to the dark side with no thought for his wellbeing or future. His part in the former is absent. Even the fact that she was the one who ended up dying in a pool of blood on the floor of a seedy hotel in New York at the age of 20 having been MURDERED does not seem to elicit any sympathy. Vicious also passed very soon after Spungen from a drug overdose and is forever etched in the minds of the public as the real victim in this story. There are parallels between this and the fate of Kurt Cobain. His wife Courtney Love was a powerful and talented musician in her own right but her life story will be forever defined by the death of her husband. Love was demonised and ridiculed for the very same vulnerabilities she had in common with Cobain and yet he was regarded with sympathy and admiration. She has spent the last 20+ years under the cloud of suspicion that she was responsible for his death either directly or indirectly.
This same dynamic is played out in much more sinister and tasteless terms when the media report crime. Domestic homicides (cold-blooded murder to the rest of us) are often reported in such a way as to insidiously introduce the idea that perhaps the prior behaviour of the victim (normally female) may just have had something to do with it. Reporters do not explicitly state this- but the inclusion of certain information in coverage of these events does seem to suggest that there is a conscious or unconscious feeling that good men can be pushed to commit heinous acts against those they profess to love if women overstep certain marks. In UK tabloid headlines, the perpetrators are described as “spurned lovers” or “jilted lovers”. Speculations about affairs are shoe-horned into the reporting. Some articles go on to describe the ‘heartbreak’ following a separation and angst about ‘losing’ children as some kind of understandable justification. Aspersions on infidelity; impending divorce; child contact issues etc.- all possibly provocations that leave women dead and defence lawyers claiming a ‘temporary loss of control’ on the part of their client.
The message that these narratives express- from Eve, to Spungen, to the 2 women a week killed by a current of former partner- is that women’s decision making needs to always make room for the feelings and existential wellbeing of men who are reduced to nothing more than ticking time bombs. There’s nothing we are not responsible for- male suicides have been linked to the feminist movement as we have created a ‘hostile environment for masculinity’. The allure of our vaginas has broken up your favourite bands. Our selfish desires to control our own sexual and romantic destinies have challenged the very fabric of family and society. And this is precisely the reason we must challenge this notion everywhere we see it, even at the risk of being accused of being insensitive. Because goodness knows what we will be accused of next.