For J. I think you would have loved these five posts perhaps more than anyone. I wish you could have read them.
I’ve mentioned in passing before that I had intentions to write a feminist analysis of the culture treatment of and perception towards Yoko Ono. Desiring to make sure that I’m not retreading on well-covered ground, I did a quick search. And to both my dismay (because it ought to be covered) and relief (because it means I still get to do it), I found only one real substantive conversation on Yoko Ono as a feminist issue. Now, I know, that’s a big call to make. Yoko Ono is a well-known feminist — but a feminist issue? I’d say yes, even if a peripheral, somewhat outdated one. In addition to interesting me on a personal level, I think that the treatment of Yoko Ono is still relevant to our understanding of art, relationships and a woman’s place in society.
Yoko Ono’s name is tossed around as an insult, sometimes “jokingly,” sometimes really and truly hatefully. Any woman who dates a male band member and expects to be treated like a person, or any woman who is seen to in some way cause a change in a male artist of any kind, is particularly at risk of being called “Yoko.” To a lesser extent, so is any woman who expects to be given equal consideration as her partner and her partner’s friends friends. Why is it an insult, exactly? Well, because “everyone” hates Yoko Ono. She’s a mentally unbalanced, scheming, money-grubbing, castrating bitch. Oh, and she broke up the Beatles. Or so they say.
I’m deeply embarrassed to admit that as a teenager, I, too, used to greatly resent Yoko Ono. Virtually every Beatles fan I know has at some point hated or at least disliked Yoko, though unfortunately too many still do. It’s almost a rite of passage. The moment you realize the true genius of the Beatles — of course, I’m speaking as someone who was not alive at the time of their popularity as a contemporary band — you start to mourn the fact that they ever broke up. Why would they do such a thing? The moment you ask such a question, Yoko’s name will invariably come up thanks to some uniformed soul. And how could you not hate the person responsible for putting an end to the greatest band of all time, and for supposedly ruining one of the greatest musical geniuses to ever live?
What changed my mind on the issue was simple education. If you actually take the time to read Beatles history, you’ll see pretty clearly that the cracks in the band were showing for some time before John Lennon even met Yoko. John was growing away from the Beatles musically, struggling with drug addiction and with the insecurity he seemed to feel in varying degrees throughout most of his life, and was therefore lashing out and pulling away from the group. Paul McCartney was making a power grab for control of the band, one that he was winning and John felt powerless to stop — and while John had a tendency to be nasty to the people closest to him, Paul had a tendency to be extremely condescending and controlling. George Harrison was resentful of John and (especially) Paul’s refusal to take his songwriting and musicianship seriously — even though despite being neither the greatest songwriter or vocalist in the group, he was absolutely fucking brilliant. Ringo Starr never had a serious problem with any of the other Beatles, but was feeling incredibly marginalized within the band and distraught over the disharmony.
The other thing that changed my mind was John himself, and his persistent, repeated earnestness in professing that he wanted out of the Beatles long before Yoko and she only gave him the strength to do it; not to mention his proclamations of happiness and rightful insistence that anyone who hated Yoko and didn’t respect their relationship certainly didn’t love him or have his best interests at heart.
And realizing that Yoko wasn’t to blame for the Beatles breakup makes you ask a question. Why does the myth persist?
I had come to believe that most Beatles historians and true, educated fans had wised up enough to see the Yoko charade for what it is. So imagine my disappointment when proven wrong. Earlier this year, I finished Bob Spitz’s biography The Beatles, which is arguably the most comprehensive Beatles biography in existence. The book starts out amazingly, but about halfway through inexplicably begins to decline rapidly in the number of details provided once the Beatles become famous. That was annoying. But far more so was the unabashed, unapologetic and shameful smearing of Yoko Ono — made even worse by its presentation as fact when so clearly Spitz’s personal opinion. And this opinion is indicative, I think, of the opinion of most Yoko haters. (I’m far too lazy to cite page references for everything, but throughout this series anecdotes can be traced to Spitz’s book, you can rest assured that I double-checked that of which I was unsure, and I will otherwise note when information came from elsewhere.)
What are the charges that he lays out against Yoko Ono? A short list: she was pushy, controlling, got John addicted to heroin, was rude to the Beatles, stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong, constantly showed up uninvited, was a horrible artist who cared more about self-publicity than quality, she connived to get together with John for his money, encouraged him to leave the Beatles because she saw them as competition, and all around used him. And from the way he tells it, yup, she sure helped to break up the Beatles.
Spitz also felt the need to rudely, pointlessly and judgmentally bring up the fact that Yoko, by her own admission, had undergone numerous illegal abortions. She referred to her as “Oriental” (in fact, not being a rug, she’s Japanese) and “exotic.” John himself (in Lennon Remembers, All We Are Saying and elsewhere) often argued that the Yoko hatred had a racial element in addition to the misogynistic one, and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that he was right. Spitz called her “adolescent,” “self-indulgent” and immature. He heavily implies that Yoko is a monstrous, evil, ball-busting bitch for even asking John how he would feel if made to change his name upon marriage, and lightly mocked as cheap publicly John’s genuinely touching, not to mention bravely political, decision to change his middle name to “Ono,” so that they could officially be the Ono Lennons. Though Paul’s once-girlfriend Dot’s miscarriage — of a pregnancy that Paul was miserable about — was referred to as a “tragedy,” one of Yoko’s miscarriages — of a pregnancy that she and John both desperately wanted — is mentioned in passing, literally as a single clause to a single sentence, only in the sense of upstaging other Beatles news. When she has another miscarriage that nearly kills her, she still gets no sympathy.
Spitz has more astonishing double-standards. Earlier in the book, Spitz — very rightfully, I might add — chastised the Beatles, particularly John and Paul, for their horrendous, disrespectful and misogynistic treatment of women. John and Paul treated their respective girlfriends from before the Beatles broke, Cynthia (later his wife) and Dot, like crap. They literally weren’t “allowed” to partake in conversations when out together, let alone publicly disagree with their boyfriends. Paul refused to see Dot for weeks after she got a haircut he didn’t like. They were never even remotely faithful (though the same applied to both George and Ringo as well), sleeping with groupies, prostitutes, and even contracting STDs while in these relationships.
Later, Spitz notes an apparent competition among Beatles’ wives (at this point Cynthia Lennon, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starr) over who could be the most submissive, doting doormat of a spouse — from Cynthia being not allowed to make a single peep until John woke up in mid-afternoon, to Maureen staying up until all hours of the morning to serve Ringo a hot meal whenever he decided to stroll in. They were never consulted on business decisions; the idea of seeking their opinions at all was generally unthinkable. And there are even numerous stories where a Beatle wandered off at a party without saying a word, leaving his wife/girlfriend to find her own way home, or on supposedly better nights leaving her to wait in the backseat of a limo for hours on end. Seemingly, apologies were never issued.
This servitude, along with tolerating the drug use, and the ways in which they were often completely ignored and constantly cheated on, were referred to by Spitz as “the rules.” But rather than calling out the Beatles for being chauvinist pigs, he presents the women repeatedly as wonderfully forgiving, selfless and demurely accepting of the “rules,” rather than abused and mistreated. And in then introducing Yoko by saying that “after ten years, the rules were about to change,” it’s heavily implied that breaking the rules was indeed an offense worthy of scorn. You see, it was wrong for the Beatles to treat their wives and girlfriends like subhuman shit — that is, until one of them had the audacity to demand respect, and even worse, actually got it.
So who is the main purveyor of the Yoko myths? Can we pin it on historians like Bob Spitz? Certainly, they hold part of the blame and need to be called out on it. But no, I blame someone else entirely for the bulk of the treatment and misogynistic cultural perceptions of Yoko Ono, as did John. In the first/next part of this series, they are the people who I’m going to discuss. And their names are Paul, George and Ringo.