So, we are a women’s blog composed mostly of folks who self-identify as “feminists” and we haven’t mentioned Ani DiFranco even once.  It is now time.  Really, Holy Week is one of the better times of the year, I thought, to contemplate Ani as an artist—particularly as we remember the gruesome suffering of Jesus on the cross.

Ani DiFranco has been often referred to as a “feminist icon”—not only for her the content of her music but also because of the way that she has consistently resisted the efforts of mainstream commercial music and produced her own music. 

I started listening to her in earnest in the first year of graduate school—a time in my life when I was looking for words to express my own emerging realizations of the everyday realities of oppression and growing commitment to resistance.  While jogging through the streets of Boston, her lyrics to “Adam and Eve” (1996) literally stopped me in my tracks.  The first verse illustrates the sheer power of the whole song:

Tonight you stooped to my level.  I am your mangy little whore.  You are trying to find your underwear and then your socks and then the door.  You’re trying to find a reason why you have to leave.  I know it is because you think you’re Adam and you think I’m Eve.

It was a “Killing Me Softly” kind of moment—I literally felt a momentary fear that she was reading my journal.  And, then after some reflection I realized this must be the experience of so many because this is exactly how symbolic figures like Eve work—they shape our imaginations, our social interactions, our sexual politics.  It is surely an understatement to say that in the Christian tradition, the figure of Eve has negatively impacted our expectations of women and how they are to feel in relationship to men (especially emotions of guilt and shame).[1]  Listening to music like Ani’s can help to give language to the sexual violence that happens every day—the sexual violence that is sometimes feels too ambiguous, too messy for the victim to put into a clear and socially-accepted narrative of rape.  These are often not the kinds of situation where a stranger tackles you in an alley and forces himself upon you.  Sexual violence often occurs in a kind of a situation in which an encounter perhaps at first and without much reflection appears to be the meeting of two equals, but really is the re-enactment of violent history of shame and blame of women by men for being dangerous and evil seductresses.

Sexual violence often occurs in a kind of a situation in which one person has been told (and maybe even convinced) that she “owes” sexual favors to another because of what he has done for her.  Ani tells a story like this in her song “Gratitude” (1991):

Thank you for letting me stay here.  Thank you for taking me in. Thank you for the beer and the food.  Thank you for loaning me bus fare. Thank you for showing me around. That was a very kind thing to do.  Thank you for the use of the clean towel.  Thank you for half of your bed. We can sleep here like brother and sister, you said.  But you changed the rules in an hour or two and i don’t know what you and your sisters do, but please don’t, please stop.  This is not my obligation.  What does my body have to do with my gratitude?

Sexual violence often occurs in context in which two persons are engaged in a long-term committed relationship and the victim may not even recognize the violence she undergoes.  I’m thinking here of Ani’s “Out of Range” (1994) and “Fixing Her Hair” (1992):

Boys get locked up in some prison, girls get locked up in some house and it don’t matter if it’s a warden or a lover or a spouse.  You just can’t talk to ’em, you just can’t reason, you just can’t leave, and you just can’t please ’em. – Out of Range

She has a way to rationalize.  She says he don’t mean what he do.  She tells me he called to apologize.  He says he loves her.  He says he’s changing and he can keep her warm and so she sits there like America suffering through slow reform.  But she’ll never get back the time and the years sneak by one by one. She is still playing the martyr.  I am still praying for revolution.  And she still doesn’t have what she deserves, but she wakes up smiling every day.   She never really expected more.  That’s just not the way we are raised. – Fixing Her Hair

Sexual violence often inspires feelings of powerlessness (“I’m no heroine.  I still answer to the other half of the race…. I don’t have the power.  We just don’t run this place.” – I’m No Heroine, 1992) and irreparability (“My cunt is built like a wound that won’t heal.  Now you don’t have to ask because you know how I feel.”[2] – Out of Habit, 1990).   It is the kind of experience which strips you of feelings of agency– you feel you cannot change, you cannot help but participate in it, and you cannot resist.

Ani DiFranco’s music is disturbing.  One could even call it sickening.  And, this is right and good.

When artists put into words these less dominant narratives of violence we are able to rehearse alternatives forms of remembering— forms of remembering which defy language as defined exclusively by the powerful, which resist a culture of secrecy and silence which is so vital to the perpetuation of sexual violence), and which inspire imaginative ways of moving forward into the future.

The passion narratives, at their best, can function in a similar way.  We gather together to rehearse these narratives especially at this time of year and the repeated enactments make it so that these stories become familiar to us.  They become our own stories.  Yet, familiarity is a tricky and subtle concept here.   Violence is familiar and ordinary because it is all around us.  The suffering that Jesus encountered on the cross is unexceptional when viewed in terms of common human experience.  There have been countless others who have experienced similar and perhaps more extreme forms of physical and spiritual anguish.  But, it should still strike us, in another way, as unfamiliar.  This is to say that it should continue to make us uncomfortable, upset, and angry.  It should still move us as that which ought never to have been.

[1] As a tangential note– Just the year previously I had completed my undergraduate senior thesis on a biblical exegesis of Gn 3:16, subtitled “Is it really all her fault?” so I knew that the answer didn’t have to be “yes”.  In fact, in the Jewish tradition that hadn’t been the assumption at all, and it is only when Christians adopted this text part of their own sacred scriptures had an understanding of Eve (precisely as female) as especially culpable become one option among others.  Yet, it has remained a symbolically powerful interpretive option such that I remember thinking as a child that no one in their right mind should ever name her child Eve.  I had known a number of people named Adam and never thought twice about it, but as soon as Eve Whitman was introduced in season 3 of (my favorite show at the time) Dawson’s Creek it was clear both to me and everyone else who was watching it how the storyline would proceed—she was a “sexy” and reckless woman who would get relatively innocent and sweet Dawson into trouble at every turn.

[2] “Cunt” is not a word that I would otherwise condone or repeat in my own writing.  It is a violent and ugly word used to make a woman’s body seem disgusting when it is not.  But, I think that Ani DiFranco here is intentionally recalling this use of the word in order to say that she feels like she has been violated in way that cannot healed over.  I also think that by saying this out loud it is a kind of conscious attempt at resistance and healing in itself.  When the audience hoots and hollers after she sings this verse on a live track, I think this is because they are aware of these two levels of utterance.

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