Feminist Songs…: Day 13, I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check

Our post today comes to us from Kate Norlock, a feminist and philosophy professor at Trent University in Canada, where she holds the Kenneth Mark Drain Endowed Chair in Ethics. Kate is the author of Forgiveness from a Feminist Perspective She responded to my call for feminist songs by nominating singer-songwriter Dar Williams‘ “When I Was A Boy.”  I yield the floor to Kate to say a bit more about the song itself.

–Alison Reiheld, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at SIUE

Dar Williams is a pop-folk singer who was especially popular with LGBT audiences in the 1990s. (Since another song of hers is “You’re Aging Well,” I want to emphasize that she has produced many albums and is still working today!)

dar williams

Her song “When I Was a Boy” was an influential hit from her debut album, The Honesty Room (1993: Razor & Tie). Today it’s considered her signature song.

No quick sketch can do justice to the reasons so many of us are moved by this song, but I can safely state the main reason it makes many listeners and readers cry. The verses build to a first-person account of the harms to women and men of a sexist and masculinist culture.

The music is twinkly and nostalgic, especially at first, and it is easy to think at first that perhaps it’s just a song about wanting to be a kid again. But the effect is not of wanting to go backward. The overall effect of the song is to feel what we have lost in the course of becoming the sorts of men and women that we are as adults in gender-oppressive contexts. Those new to this song will find that it is not a universal story. It’s in first-person for a reason, and it is just one way of describing what it is like to be shaped into one’s gender role.

Most lovably, it is also a tacit nod to the multiplicity of personal identity, to the feeling that each of us has, or at least begins life with, a variety of masculine and feminine feelings and activities. The song is one of resistance to a simple account of what it means to be a boy or be a girl, anticipatory (for an early-1990s song) of better cultural attention to gender-transgressive experience. It’s mournful by the end. If sexism and masculinism shapes all of us, then we should regret what we lose. It hurts to hear. And yet for some reason, I always play it twice.

LYRICS

I won’t forget when Peter Pan
Came to my house, took my hand
I said, “I was a boy”
I’m glad he didn’t check

I learned to fly, I learned to fight
I lived a whole life in one night
We saved each others lives
Out on the pirates’ deck

And I remember that night
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me
It’s not safe, someone should help me

I need to find a nice man to walk me home
When I was a boy
I scared the pants off of my mom
Climbed what I could climb upon

And I don’t know how I survived
I guess I knew the tricks that all boys knew
And you can walk me home
But I was a boy, too

I was a kid that you would like
Just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah
I never cared who saw

My neighbor come outside
To say, “Get your shirt, ”
I said “No way, it’s the last time
I’m not breaking any law”

And now I’m in this clothing store
And the signs say less is more
More that’s tight means more to see
More for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

When I was a boy, see that picture? That was me
Grass-stained shirt and dusty knees
And I know things have gotta change
They got pills to sell, they’ve got implants to put in

They’ve got implants to remove
But I am not forgetting
That I was a boy too

And like the woods where I would creep
It’s a secret I can keep
Except when I’m tired
‘Cept when I’m being caught off guard

And I’ve had a lonesome awful day
The conversation finds its way
To catching fire-flies
Out in the backyard

And I so tell the man I’m with
About the other life I lived
And I say now you’re top gun
I have lost and you have won
And he says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see

When I was a girl, my mom
And I we always talked
And I picked flowers
Everywhere that I walked

And I could always cry
Now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too
And you were just like me
And I was just like you”

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1 Comment

Filed under Feminist Songs, Masculinity, Uncategorized

One response to “Feminist Songs…: Day 13, I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check

  1. Pingback: Masculinity Studies: What Is It, and Why Would a Feminist Care? | SIUE Women's Studies Program

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