Gender Policing “This Woman’s Work”

From the opening notes this song fucking kills me every time.

I was already familiar with the original version when I first heard Maxwell’s cover, and that version kills me, too. I don’t find one version better than the other, but I do have to say that Maxwell’s version does resonate with me as a man in a way that Kate Bush’s doesn’t.

My wife prefers Kate Bush’s version, which she had heard for years before the Maxwell version and we have talked more than once about how a man can be singing about “This Woman’s Work,” but for me that is what makes it so powerful. Leaving aside the literal interpretations of the song arising from the film it first appeared in, She’s Having a Baby (1988), if we see the “woman’s work” in question as the work of keeping a relationship together, the emotional labor heteronormative gender roles and definitions of masculine behavior traditionally ascribe to women, as opposed to detached and taciturn men, then Maxwell’s plea becomes all the more poignant. When he refers to standing outside, I take it to mean standing outside the place where he can legitimately feel and express love and loss.

The very act of singing what he is singing is the woman’s work he sings about. It is not meant to denigrate that work—just the opposite—the song chafes at the confines of gender boundaries and seeks to re-purpose the dismissive phrase “women’s work” by expressing a desire to be able to access it. To me the song bolsters its sense of love lost with the pain of policed gender.

This is not to say that Kate Bush’s version is not equally as powerful. I can understand how the song’s appropriation by a man might seem to diminish the very real ways in gender policing around women’s emotions not only devalues them, but also potentially undermines any kind of work, emotional or otherwise, that women perform as based in that devalued emotional sphere. This is old news. Nothing new to anyone who pays attention. But just because Ms. Bush is expressing something we should all already be aware of doesn’t make it any less powerful. In fact, since she is couching it in terms of gender, her own plea suggests the damage of traditional allocation of emotional work as it applies to romantic relationships does to everyone regardless of gender, expressing the potential for a form of emotional solitude even within the context of a relationship—an emotional solitude reinforced by patriarchal notions about the ways men and women express their feelings about each other and about their union.

And all of this analysis totally ignores how the song can also highlight the ambivalence to homosexual relationships present in most popular love songs (something I wrote about in regards to Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” for Stone Canoe in 2013), but at some level this song is queering heterosexual love, which is something I think most heterosexual relationships can benefit from. In fact, I am fairly certain that queer relationships don’t need normalizing to reach equality, rather (so-called) straight relationships need to be queered.

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