Thursday, May 29, 2008

Kurt Cobain's Interrogation of Hegemonic Masculinity


I am taking a course about construction of celebrity in America this quarter and one of the things we were assigned to read was Kurt Cobain's Journals. I had never really thought about Kurt in an academic way but I felt as though I had an intimate relationship with his music in high school. Reading his writing and listening to his music in the context of this course really made me think about the way that he did gender or rather the way that he queered gender and pop music. It is a topic I didn't even realize I was interested in until this course. I wrote a paper about these things and my professor suggested that I think about this as a topic for my thesis especially considering there is so little work to this effect out there. It would be very cutting edge. Or something. Anyway, I thought I'd put the ideas out there and see what others think. Here is a chunk of the paper:

“Yeah, all Isms (sic) feed off one another but at the top of the food chain is still the white, corporate, macho, strong ox male. Not redeemable as far as I’m concerned. I mean, classism is determined by sexism because the male decides whether all other isms still exists (sic). Its up to men. I’m just saying that people can’t deny any ism or think that some are more or less subordinate except for sexism… I still think that in order to expand on all other isms, sexism has to be blown wide open…but there are thousands of green minds, young gullable (sic) 15 year old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment” (Cobain, 117).


I am not sure if I started listening to Nirvana when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school but it was somewhere in there. 1999 and 2000 proved to be formative years for me as I had just entered the public school system from a very sheltered home and tiny Catholic school. My body was changing, my friends were changing, I discovered feminism and my relationship with my parents transformed. It seemed that overnight I had gone from their overachieving perfect daughter to an angsty and rebellious teenager. Kurt Cobain’s angst-filled voice, nihilistic lyrics, and grungy guitar appealed to me immediately. To make it even better his appearance and lyrics made my parents and teachers writhe. When I listened to Nirvana in high school it was a purely pleasurable experience. I would drive around my small town with my friends with Nevermind cranked all the way up on the stereo. I had posters of Cobain all over my locker and my bedroom. I thought he was so dreamy…

When I saw that we were studying Nirvana for class this week, I pulled out all of my old albums and listened to them all again. I even found my old posters! Reading Nirvana in a critical academic environment felt like a kind of violation. Listening to this music has been so intensely personal and intimately tied to my budding high school sexuality. Experiencing that music again after so long brought out many of those emotions. I feel that it is important to foreground my own personal experience with Nirvana before attempting an analysis of their work. I am a particular person with a particular experience in a particular time and space.

One thing I certainly never noticed as a teenager that I noticed immediately as a graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies is that Kurt Cobain had a knack for challenging notions of hegemonic gender. His performance of gender is at least non-normative but I would argue that it is also queer. Cobain’s body was small and not hegemonicly masculine. His ripped up old clothes and occasional ironic cross-dressing posed a challenge to the authoritative heteropatriarchy that rules American culture.



Through his angst-filled, corporeal and occasionally disgusting lyrics and non-normative attire he queered gender and popular music. In his Journals and lyrics, Cobain seems to have an obsession with the physical body and with the disgusting, the unpleasant and the painful. Particularly he writes about gastrointestinal functions and dysfunctions. I remember being very troubled by the lyrics to “Heart Shaped Box.”

“Meat-eating orchids forgive no-one just yet
cut myself on angel hair and babies breath
broken hymen of your highness I’m left black
throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.”

Meat, being a representation of a dead body is juxtaposed with the very genteel and feminine images of orchids, angel’s and babies breath (being both a flower and symbol of femininity and a representation of innocence and beginnings of life). Cobain weaves high culture, transcendental religious spirits (as opposed to bodies) traditional beauty and femininity with the so-called low brow culture, the profane, the guttural, the corporeal. In connecting these seemingly opposite things he poses a challenge to Victorian social order that values masculinity, rationality, objectivity and denial of the body over femininity and being present in one’s body with all of its grossness and potential for failure.

26 comments:

FeministGal said...

This is really interesting, i never ever would have thought of Kurt Cobain in an academic, and feminist, way. But the "Isms" quote you used, totally feminist. That makes me love him even more than i did in high school... never thought that was possible ;)

Jay Andrew Allen said...

Great thoughts. As a guy (and now, dad) who grew up not fitting our culture's mold of masculinity, it was great to read that Cobain quote about how sexism hurts ALL of us. It doesn't merely denigrate women; it compels men to behave in traditional "manly" ways - and to feel worthless if they can't manage it.

Cortney said...

Right on! Sexism and rigid gender roles hurt everyone. Kurt was quite an innovator!

kat said...

It would be really interesting to read Nirvana lyrics critically. I'm a musician, and always identified way more with Cobain the musician, rather than Cobain the lyricist. Even though grunge rock is hardly a complex genre, Cobain was actually a musical genius.
Some of the lyrics have always made me a tad uncomfortable, but I'm really interested in re-reading them more academically.

kat said...

Also, I think I was in 6th or 7th grade when Kurt Cobain wore a pink frilly dress to the Headbangers Ball. My friends and I were hooked from that moment.

Cortney said...

His lyrics made me uncomfortable when I was in high school and I think that they still do now because, as you said, they are complex and there is no easy interpretation. I could see some of them as a depiction of a phobia of women particularly of women's biology but I could also see them as being revolutionary and challenging to those same phobias. If I were to take on this topic I'd have to apply a post-structural feminist analysis.

It would be a lot of fun to analyze these lyrics particularly in their present context.

Amelia said...

Okay...I found this blog as feministgal's place and I really really reaaaallly want to read this post as soon as I finish packing up and getting back home for the summer. I will be e-mailing myself a link to this post.

Amelia said...

Wow. I am really intrigued by these ideas. It's interesting that I always sensed something about Kurt Cobain, something along the lines of what you have written here. I guess that's why I never really felt uncomfortable listening to Nirvana - I knew there was a reason why the lyrics and music didn't bother me. I guess this is why.

Also, I just packed up my favorite Kurt Cobain shirt: It has a picture of him wearing a floral dress, dark eyeliner, and smoking a cigarette.

This is really fascinating. I would love to take a course about the construction of celebrity. Sounds very interesting.

Daisy said...

An interesting read, thanks.

Renee said...

"His performance of gender is at least non-normative but I would argue that it is also queer."

Is it really fair to define it that way considering that it is within the confines of celebrity. When one must continuously push in order to be recognized how authentic is the journey? I don't believe that all of his action was motivated from within. In a different environment would he really have "become" this. Is our queer understanding of Kurt who he really was or what was projected to achieve maximum fame? If it is the latter than he is more of an exploiter than one who transcends. I will however say that I still listen to Nirvana...

Cortney said...

That is a really interesting angle, Renee. I hadn't thought it through that far but I suppose that would be a radical feminist or structural approach. Rather than fucking the system he might have actually been playing into it in order to succeed within the boundaries set up by capitalism. That is something I'd really like to flesh out in the paper. Maybe I could present both perspectives.... Thanks!

Renee said...

He actually reminds me of Madonna. Though many of things she did were extremely progressive they were purposefully done to titillate, excite rather than being a statement of self. Just the pursuit of celebrity alone make it necessary to concede certain norms otherwise there is no distinction between the celebrity and the average person.

I tend to find a body more interesting outside of conventional culture. For instance walking by a youth shelter one can watch counter culture authentically. Yes I know I am doing this with a voyeuristic lens. In my seeking my search the body becomes reified. In fact the act of searching maintains the normal/counter culture binary, each dependent on each other for definition...sorry going on way to long...maybe I should write a blog post and figure it out there.

Pop Feminist said...

Great post! You might be interested in something I wrote on Kurt and Courtney-- I take a totally different approach, but I dig your take.

http://popfeminist.blogspot.com/2008/07/kurt-courtney.html

rayvan fox said...

this is fascinating. ive been wanting to write a thesis on kurts gender identity and his queering affect on pop culture. my theory is that he actually identified more as a female than a male. lots of his lyrics make a lot of sense if seen thru that lens. check my last two posts on my blog, and if you wanna talk about this more, id love to read the rest of your thesis (or what you have of it so far...) rayvanfox.blogspot.com

Irene said...

Great job interpreting those 4 lines by cobain; you should seriously consider writing more about those lyrics (and perhaps compare them with those by other bands of that period... perhaps courtney love? i read the whole woman by greer just a couple of weeks ago and she wasn't amused by her im-one-of-the-boys attitude, reversed sexism, etc).

anyway great job; i'll keep an eye on your blog :)

Jen said...

Great post! It helped me with my lecture on challenging hegemonic masculinity. Thanks.

Cortney said...

Thanks a lot Irene and Jen. I have decided to make this the topic of my thesis. I'll be sure to post more when I finish. It is always great to hear that others are interrogating masculinity and incorporating that discussion into feminist pedagogy.

chris_r said...

You're all worshiping a man who blew his own brains out before he was 30. Put that into account before you blindly follow his lead.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your thesis and original statements.

Nirvana and Kurt got me hooked on feminist theory back in JR high. I realized it wasn't just something for my mom back in the 1970's. It was something for my generation to care about too.

It stinks that he's not given the credit which he deserves for having encouraged so many my..etc generation to self-identify as feminists.

Cortney said...

Thanks Anonymous! I wonder what exactly it was about him and/or his music that felt feminist to you? I am especially interested in the impact that Toby Vail of Bikini Kill had on Cobain. She introduced him to a lot of feminist concepts but after they broke up he started rejecting some of her feminist ideals and you can definitely hear it in his music. I'd love to hear more about your experience!

Anonymous said...

Agree with everyone here that this was a really interesting post.

When I was in middle school and Nirvana was at its peak, I felt a special connection to Nirvana and grunge/alternative rock in general because the style was surprisingly gender neutral. I was (and am) a Muslim girl who couldn't wear the "girl styles" of spaghetti strap tops and little shorts that my peers wore, so I was afraid I would always be out of style...but then grunge came in, and I could wear baggy jeans and wrinkled plaid shirts and they were modest AND cool and EVERYONE, male and female, could dress like that without being told they weren't being "masculine" enough or "feminine" enough or "pretty/sexy/adult" enough. You were just GRUNGE. And that was awesome.

Time to listen to Nirvana again.
-MaggieDanger

Tim said...

I enjoyed reading your blog post on dominant masculinity and Kurt Cobain, which is surprising, considering Feminism is really my area of interest.
I've reckon Cobain was, and this sounds trite, an ordinary guy in extraodinary circumstances. It's interesting the points you make about Cobain challenging dominant masculinity, but he also reinforced the dominant masculinity in many ways. His music and voice and his 'fuck you attitude..), and may be I'm wrong, sounded angry and aggressive at times, which is a feeling that men can freely express. It seems to be a masculine quality. This idea comes from Connell in her stuff on masculinities. He seemed to be independent in many ways (in his moral code, the way he dressed, etc), which traditionally is viewed as a masculine quality...

Jenny Longshot said...

maybe his celebrity status allowed him to identify as queer. he was on the cover of the advocate, after all. perhaps if he had remained in obscurity he would have felt more pressure to adhere to more traditional gender roles, but on a broader stage, he felt freedom to be who he actually was, and draw attention to issues he felt were important. being gay in the 90's was just as had, if not harder, than it is today - and as he spoke out against rape and intolerance in the middle of an aids epidemic much of middle america felt was fueled by the gay community, he encourage other people to do the same. opportunity knocks.

Amanda R said...

i remember him saying in school he was friends with more girls and that he identified with and related the gays more. i think he was entertained by the jocks thinking he was gay. i think it's actually in his journals that i got that from, come to think of it.

George J said...

Wow this is really intresting, thanks a bunch. I'm doing a course called "communications and culture" and i have to make a video about Kurt Cobain and the cultural boundarys and ideas of ideology etc etc that kurt has challeneged- your post is great and has given me much food for thought. Thanks again.

prunedance said...

Hey there, I loved your post, and would love to read the rest of your paper:) I have also just finished my degree in women's/gender studies and am a raging nirvana fan. I think that whilst celebrity clearly was bad for Kurt Cobain himself, it was (and is)a great platform from which to circulate models of values and ideology that are helpful (rather than antagonistic) to feminism and to humanity in general. If kids are still looking up to someone who says the kind of things like the 'isms' quote used, my faith in humanity is not quite extinguished!!
A lot of kids have difficulty fitting into the moulds that get carved out for them when they enter highschool, and I realise that this has way more to do with gender/class/race roles being fake constructions that do not come naturally to us than having 'problems'. Kurt knew this; which was evident in both his interviews and lyrics. I think this is why so many people are able to connect so intimately with Nirvana's music; it so poingniantly captures that disconent that we all feel which results from an incongruency between socially constructed gender roles (and identities in general), our (non-)performance of them, and our own realities and desires. what a rant lol, but i wish i could be in your class- it sounds awesome^^