Sure it was a publicity stunt. When Courtney Love gave David Letterman a peek, and later did the same and more for some guy outside Wendy’s, she certainly had the sales of her latest album in mind. But I’m willing to cut Courtney a lot of slack. No woman in music today gets closer to Janis Joplin when it comes to channeling the primal.
Though she was much too shy to show her breasts, Janis definitely let it all hang out. She was one of the great hunger artists of the ’60s. In performance, she tore her insides out and offered them up to her audience in the (usually vain) hope of pleasing and attracting men. I don’t surmise this from a rockumentary. I got about as close to Janis as a rock writer could, and in those days you could get pretty close. I saw her neediness and confusion, and I watched as she was allowed to slip away. Her death from an overdose was a major reason why I stopped writing about music in the early ’70s—but that’s another piece.
When I watch Courtney, I see the same failure to distinguish between persona and self, the same refusal to draw a boundary between expressiveness and excess, the same insistence on showing pain that made rock music in the ’60s so intense. Of course, Janis wasn’t gratuitously violent, if only because she didn’t have the ego strength to project her anguish onto anyone but herself. Nor was she capable of the sleazy stylizations that Courtney can’t resist. Janis was too badly damaged to be a narcissist—and the industrial tropes of rock were nowhere near as binding as they are today. Janis grew up in an era when there were young ladies and sluts like her, but by the time Courtney came along, bad girls were invited to kick out the jams. Watching her flail about, I can see the world my generation created, for better or worse.
I’ll leave it for dude nation to rate Courtney’s rack. Instead, I want to focus on breast baring as an act of power. It has a rich history in Western culture, one that merits mentioning at a time when female flashing has become a line of demarcation in the culture wars.
I’m not thinking of those naked majas and nurturing Madonnas that grace the realm of art. When you enter a museum, bare boobs are all around you. This hallowed setting sanctions the root reverie of heterosexuality that involves possession, domestication, and control of the female body. That’s why the male nude is usually standing while the female nude is passively posed. But there’s another, more active role for women in art. By the time Eugène Delacroix got around to painting Liberty Leading the People in 1830, the bare-breasted woman warrior was a signature of civic strength. Blame it on the Romans and their goddess Justicia (a/k/a Dike, if you want to get Greek about it). Her nude figure stands in the lobby of the Justice Department. When John Ashcroft had it draped so he could hold his press conferences in decency, he attested to the enduring power of women who expose themselves—and the anxiety they provoke in the religious right.
You don’t have to tell that to Karen Finley, the performance artist who poured chocolate over her naked body and stuffed food up her butt while incanting a poetry of pain and rage. Perhaps you remember how the pussy-chasing gents of Congress reacted to this gesture in the ’80s. I still vividly recall the first time I saw Finley perform, and the reaction of men in the audience. This was a club crowd, and they threw lit matches at her. It was a supreme gesture of male terror and revulsion. So it isn’t just the right that fears a naked woman what won’t lie still.
Because female exhibitionism carries this aura of violation, it unleashes all the demons of gender. That’s why breast baring has been utilized by generations of rebellious American women. Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, was the Karen Finley of her time, never more so than when she let her drape drop before a stunned audience. So, in a sense, was Sojourner Truth, the freed slave who became a powerful preacher—and one of the first activists to link the oppression of slaves and women. She was so imposing that she was often accused of being a man. In order to stop such slander, she exposed her breasts before a crowd in Indiana. It was one of the most important moments in American history, though you’ll never see it on a commemorative stamp.
Flash forward to the Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson stepped into the sexual maelstrom by allowing Justin Timberlake to rip her possibly pre-torn top. Consider the penalty the partners in this faux apache dance incurred and you’ll see the meaning of breast baring in a conservative time. Janet is cast in the slut role and punished accordingly, while Justin sails along on the unspoken assumption that boys will be boys where the bodice is concerned. In this rapine charade, Justin butches up his icon, and a wan apology is all the shame his sin requires. But the bad girl can’t say she’s sorry. She must suffer the contempt of those who relish watching her disgrace in slo-mo on every channel. I can only wonder why the boom landed on Janet while Britney can flog the scarlet letter.
Thank God, for Courtney’s sake, that she is white. She can play the wild woman without frightening the horses. What’s more, she chose to grin and bare it at an hour when all good children are asleep, having whacked off in their beds. The mic-stand mayhem that followed was the ideal addendum to this piece of performance art, and the climax came when she emerged from jail to the timeless glare of the cameras. It was a perfect tabloid moment.
If you step back a bit from this vaudeville, it’s hard to ignore the evidence that Courtney is a woman in crisis. She faces drug possession charges. Her daughter has been removed from her custody. The 10th anniversary of her husband’s suicide is coming up. Sure she markets her madness, but the primal currents that course through her act are real. That’s what makes her a hunger artist. And she doesn’t just put her personal pain in your face. In the tradition of Joplin and Finley, her art answers Sojourner Truth’s fearsome, if rhetorical, question: Ain’t I a woman?
But Courtney’s ‘tude also evokes a much less salutary tradition. Entertainers like her are often rewarded for being out of control, and the reinforcement accelerates their downward spiral. That’s what happened to Janis, and for that matter, Judy Garland. Baring the breast can represent a rebellion against this sacrificial rite. It’s a gesture of agency. Check out the manual of psychological disorders and you’ll see that exhibitionism is regarded as a quintessentially male pathology. When women do it, they lay claim to the phallus.
There’s something about a rampageous woman flashing men that resonates with power. You expect guys to rear back in horror, as they did before Sojourner Truth, or to throw lit matches, as they did at Finley. That was then and this is now. David Letterman was anything but fazed by Courtney’s desk dance. In his insouciance, you can glimpse the liberal man’s defense against the phallic potential of women. Don’t try to repress it—that’s for Republicans.Just sit back and enjoy the show.
If I have to choose between The Stepford Wives and MTV Spring Break, I’ll definitely opt for the latter. But at least conservatives take sexual transgression seriously. The liberal solution is to tame it by trivializing it. That way, male distance is maintained. The classic gesture of female incursion is neutralized. And ultimately the joke is on desire.