Deconstructing: Dead Girlfriends, Mansplaining, And When Being An Ally Goes Wrong
Former Elite Gymnastics member James Brooks released a new four-track EP this week called Stop Pretending under the moniker Dead Girlfriends. Its concluding cut, “On Fraternity,” is a sweetly menacing song about sexual assault. The song itself, without its divisive lyrics, is something else. It screeches with feedback in places, its synths twinkle and build into an emotions-driven cushion padding Brooks’s heartbroken vocals. It’s painful and beautiful; its only problem lies within its lyrics. Since its release, Brooks has noted that there are no gender pronouns in the song, but its initial presentation felt like it was meant to explain to women the political reason there are certain physical discomforts that come from, essentially, being a woman in public. Here are some of those lyrics:
The way your heart speeds up/ when you notice someone/ walking behind you/ Well, that’s why/ The way they’re all watching/ for your guard to drop/ at the end of the night now/ Well, that’s why … The way they act like/ even bringing it up/ means you’re the one with the problem/ Well, that’s why
What Brooks is describing is in line with three primary instances of fear in many women’s lives: the mystery of who is near you in public; the notion that male friends may take advantage of you; and that you’ll have to garner the blame for your own trauma. When he sings, “Well, that’s why,” the “that” refers to rape culture, which suggests that women are unaware of the reasons that the taboo of talking about sexual assault and the looming fear of potential physical threat can exist in our lives. This is “mansplaining” (when a man, intentionally or otherwise, uses a condescending tone to explain something to a woman that she already knows) at its most egregious and it’s primarily because it is very clear that Brooks does not mean to do it. He is open as an ally, staunch about his feminism, and, thus, with this song Brooks has seemingly crafted the gender edition of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s unfortunate collaboration “Accidental Racist.”
With “Accidental Racist,” the country star and rap icon intended to brew up a conversation about the structures of race perception. Paisley sings about not knowing how to reconcile his fandom of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Southern pride by beseeching his black Starbucks barista not to judge the Confederate flag on his shirt, while LL offers, “If you don’t judge my du-rag/ I won’t judge your red flag.” The implementation of stereotypes instead of experience turned it from its intended conversation-starting, unity-bringing origin place into a murky water no one really wanted to tread. And, in its own way, “On Fraternity” feels the same way — a song to act as a guide to understand where uncomfortable feelings come from and generate discussion from there. Most of the coverage of Stop Pretending lacked commentary on the meat of the music, focusing more on the name change from Elite Gymnastics to Dead Girlfriends, padding the posts with Brooks’s long explanation for such a gruesome appellation.
“Dead Girlfriends” is also Brooks’s Tumblr username, which is where he initially suggested he might be releasing new music under that moniker, unless other inspiration struck, in response to something in his ask box. It’s an appropriate name for Brooks, who is an avid Tumblr user, posting sensitive screeds about sexism and the music industry, among other things. On it, he wrote, “this tumblr always felt like an outlet that was wholly mine and a safe place to just kind of talk about personal stuff and be myself and the art that i make now is kind of an extension of that so it feels like a name i feel comfortable putting on stuff.” He proceeded to explain that he liked the name because it sounded dangerous to parents (“no shots but no ones’ parents would ever get offended by teenagers saying that they liked to listen to ‘beach fossils’ or ‘animal collective’ you know?”) and said that its genesis was rooted in a quote from the feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin:
“We have been asked, by many people in the societies in which we live, to accept that we women are making progress. You see, because you see our presence in these places that we weren’t before. And those of us who are berated for being radical have said: that is not the way we measure progress. You see, we count the dead bodies. We count the numbers of rapes. We count the women who are being battered. We keep track of the children who are being raped by their fathers. And when *those* numbers start to change in a way that is meaningful, we will then talk to you about whether or not we can measure progress.”
That quote gives way to support that this is music about women, but due to some backlash, Brooks has, again, used his Tumblr to suggest that these narratives are not strictly relegated to women:
my intent when i was writing the lyrics was not to speak to any specifically female experiences about anything, and i mean i’m sort of starting to veer too closely to the zone of “stuff i am probably not willing to go into depth about in the context of a tumblr debate post”, but women aren’t the only people in the world who get raped, you know?
When he, in the same post as the Dworkin quote, had said earlier:
theoretically when people would ask me what the name means which is the first thing everyone in every interview ever would ask me when i was doing elite gymnastics i will say “it’s how andrea dworkin measures how much progress women have made in society – by counting the number of dead girlfriends”
that explanation will probably make most people feel even more unpleasant than the name but that’s how living in the patriarchy makes me feel every day
This is where the use of pronouns might have been helpful for Brooks. Without them, it suggests that “living in the patriarchy” is his own burden to bear and that women need to be told how to understand their oppression. If, without pronouns, it’s was supposed to address only men, it suggests that women don’t listen to music or interview musicians. I am certain he did not intend either of those things, but as an ally, it would behoove Brooks to be clearer with language and to be more mindful of trigger words. Saying that the “explanation will probably make most people feel even more unpleasant than the name” shows a dearth of understanding that a name like “Dead Girlfriends” can serve as an awful reminder to anyone who has lost a friend or family member to sexual, domestic, or other gender-driven violence or someone who has been assaulted or raped herself. But the name is meant to cause discomfort — not just in people oblivious to patriarchal peril, but — as referenced in an aforementioned quote — to parents.
There was a larger explanation about the tameness of band names like Beach Fossils and Animal Collective in regard to an episode of Roseanne and the band name Hole:
i kind of like that it is sort of an unpleasant name, i remember watching this episode of roseanne where darlene was having some friends over and dan the dad was DJing some classic rock and darlene’s ornery goth friends were like “this music sucks! play some hole!” and dan was like “WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE YOUNG LADY”
I’d like to remind Brooks that another mostly-women band from the ’90s, Bikini Kill, was also referenced on that show. In episode 7 from season 8, Roseanne and her sister Jackie pick up a hitchhiker who tells them about riot grrl and has them play a cassette tape of “Don’t Need You” in the car. In another set of lyrics from “On Fraternity,” Brooks sings, “who cares if it’s right/ as long as it’s punk?/ so if someone gets hurt/ and then the cops come/ then no one talks,” referencing, again, the inability to acknowledge or talk about sexual assault, even if it’s right in front of your face. But what Brooks is forgetting is that this movement already exists in riot grrl, a significant tenet of which stated that men were not needed to tell women’s narratives. At the end of “Don’t Need You,” Bikini Kill lead singer and riot grrl torchbearer Kathleen Hanna sings, “Does it scare you/ that we don’t need you?” And while this is not in reference to allies, it should serve as a reminder that women are fine to tell their stories on their own.
Since the initial draft of this piece was written, Brooks has posted another Tumblr explanation about how he believe he’s being wrongfully perceived and, seemingly, digging a bigger hole for himself. He writes:
when i said “that’s how living in the patriarchy makes me feel every day” i was kidding, it was meant to be a self-deprecating joke at the expense of the two paragraphs i’d just spent laying out a ridiculous and dramatic explanation for my intention to use a really ridiculous and dramatic name for my new music project
i mean the patriarchy totally sucks, but i can see how some people saw that quote and assumed that i am totally humorless and in denial about the fact that i benefit from the patriarchy no matter how many mean things i say about it on the internet, which is the exact opposite of what i originally meant to express
One of the most significant parts of being a good ally is knowing when to be quiet and listen. Brooks’s bouquet of explanations and continuous back-peddling are only hindering his very important stance. His inability to just acknowledge the criticism and appreciate it as a male feminism are likely a function of a lack of understanding of his male privilege. If he can’t see why people are upset about this project, “well, that’s why.”