Where is Aretha when you need her?

Aretha-Franklin-9301157-5-402So you go to a spin class in your progressive neighborhood, in your progressive city, at your progressive women’s gym—one that has as its stated mission to “empower women to be strong, both physically and mentally.”

You have never been all that keen on spin class—indeed, truth be told, you’d admit to having Facebook opined that “there are two kinds of people: Those who like spin class and those who do not like spin class.” Still, you are there. You get your bike set up, and soon class begins.

You are not crazy about the music (you are someone who joined this gym in part because it plays classical music in the locker room and also for the reasons described by Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams in a piece that, curiously enough, appeared just last month). But hey, it is spin class. You aren’t here for entertainment. You’re here because you’re feeling stressed and aerobic exercise improves your mood. That is until you hear the lyrics, when your mood takes a decided nosedive.

Shake that ass for me, shake that ass for me . . .

Seriously? This is the music of choice for empowered women? You try to ignore the words. You manage . . . for a while.

If good girls get down on the floor

Tell me, how low will a bad girl go?

She’ll probably pick it up, drop it down real slow

Either that or she’s upside down on the pole . . . .

And that’s when you get off your bike, collect your things, and leave.

* * * *

My friend Lynne Marie Wanamaker—a fitness trainer and anti-violence educator—wasn’t a bit surprised by my experience. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her to weigh in:

“We live in a rape culture and even the most progressive people don’t see it. I am told all the time that certain things are not a problem or are not a problem here. (i.e, teen dating violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia–I could go on and on.) It’s a QED of denial: We are a progressive community of good people on the side of good, therefore that isn’t happening. Even if it is. I have decided to call this ‘Progressive Self Congratulatory Disorder.’”

It feels important to say that my own reaction was in no way self-consciously political—it was immediate and visceral.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from being a political correctness queen. My concerns lie in the realm of human experience, not in abstract theory.

I’m also a woman who, in retrospect, spent way too much of my youth thinking about what men think of me—a willing if clueless collaborator on the larger social project of turning women into objects. Messages like the ones I heard in spin class? For decades, I absorbed them without thinking. The results were not good. (A fascinating side note: Research has shown that women who see themselves as objects are less able to count their own heartbeats—a finding that further underscores how music that objectifies women is fundamentally at odds with the goal of empowering women to inhabit their own bodies, “to be strong, both physically and mentally,” in the words of my gym’s purported mission.)

Finally: You know what? I simply couldn’t care less how low a bad girl can go—I’m way more interested in hearing about how far a smart one can. In my era, there was music that was energizing and enlivening without turning women into disposable body parts—think Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha. I assume—at least I profoundly hope—it still exists today. Next time I’m in spin class, I’d really like to hear it.

* * * *

Note:  In a subsequent email exchange, a Healthworks spokeswoman wrote that instructors, who choose their own music, are expected to play “clean versions” of the songs they select and to “use good judgment in choosing music that would not be considered distasteful or offensive” and that they would follow up with the instructor who taught the class I attended. I wrote back: “With all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are providing adequate guidelines here.” I did not receive a response.

© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Where is Aretha when you need her?

  1. Hi, Amy — I’m one of those people who does like spin class, but I wrote out a complaint form in Healthworks years ago about the instructor’s playing Eminem. This was at the height of the press about his abusive treatment of his ex-wife and his misogynistic lyrics. Even though the lyrics of the song played in class were not necessarily offensive, I just didn’t want to be thinking about this guy while getting my cardio. My complaint was anonymous, but the club clearly spoke to the instructor — in a subsequent class, she made a comment about some people not liking Eminem so she couldn’t play his music (with an eyeroll — why are some people so sensitive — and a sympathetic murmur from the class). Give me some New Order and The Cure any day and just call me old! Love reading your stuff. Best,
    Marilynn

  2. Excellent points, Amy. It isn’t even especially about progressives, if anyone, needing to push back on such things. It’s about trying to make sure you don’t hurt others. Objectification inflicts harm. It may sound quaint but it’s also just not polite. Politeness and etiquette aren’t about which fork, they are at their core the codification of a desire not to make things more difficult for others. As adults we have a particular obligation, in a culture which seeks to cede control and direction in social matters to youth.
    I am also fortunate to live in one of the most progressive communities in the US, the “Berkeley of the Midwest” if you will. Our kids went to a school, and a school system, which is truly diverse and yet…not integrated. We are farther along than most but we still have work to do. Moreover, in the “People’s Republic of Oak Park” our own high school was the focus of a national scandal because one of the students published The List, an explicit ranking of female students, with their names, that was widely distributed and humiliating to many. Fortunately, the push-back from parents sent an unambiguous message, and reports from kids at the school since are that a cultural shift has occurred.
    We must be…polite, and the music Amy cites clearly was not. We must also be thoughtful in response – yeah, I’m veering way into Old Fogey turf at this point but deal with it. It is possible for music to get you moving without dragging you down to the gutter. I defy you, for example, to listen to Thriller without at least tapping your feet. I know that Amy and I were never able to sit still to it when we were in Counterpoints.

  3. Yes. I recently abandoned the local gym, though arguably the best deal in town, because I cannot tolerate the music, either content or volume. This is not a question of taste. The not-so-subliminal messages are impossible to ignore.

  4. You don’t even have to reach back to Aretha, Bruce, and the Talking Heads (though I’m a big fan of them all). There is plenty of current mainstream pop music that is fun to workout to and doesn’t objectify women or contribute to the rape culture. I just got out of a great spin class 15 minutes ago that made me feel very sweaty, but not dirty.

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