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.

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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.

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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.