The pop blues singer/icon Janis Joplin died in 1970 at the age of 27. But in the thoughtful, evocative new PBS American Masters documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue filmmaker Amy Berg shows us how in 1962 she dared to challenge the racist and sexual stereotypes in small town America and how dearly an emotional price she paid. Sadly, it’s a price that is still paid in some form by many outspoken women of all ages in today’s world – be it Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, or your Mom, sister or friend whenever they fight for equal pay or dare to call out intractable members of the white male heterosexual power structure in the worlds in which they travel.
But back to Janis, who I refer to by first name since I feel like I knew her – even though I didn’t. That’s what happens when you grow up incessantly listening to someone’s music and somehow believe that in many an odd song they were – and to this day are – somehow speaking directly to you.
Among the most upsetting remembrances from Janis’ many friends and family members was right after she left her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas – a place where as a non-traditional female she was bullied relentlessly all though high school for, among other things, supporting integration in the early 1960s and wearing loafers without socks. This was no small feat in Port Arthur, which sported a very active branch of the Ku Klux Klan, among whose members were the families of the very males she saw daily in high school. (Note: One assumes these males also expected the girls to wear heels, or at the very least some form of foot undergarment with their other shoes).
Still, it would only get worse when she moved to Austin, Texas – where she discovered she could really sing and became enmeshed in the blossoming local folk music scene. As was her way, Janis immediately stood out from the crowd. She could not only use big words like indignation but she could sing like the very popular Black blues singer Odetta – whose voice she could mimic perfectly according to one of her best friends at the time.
In any event, after gaining a bit of a following in Austin as both a solo singer and member of a local blues band called the Waller Creek Boys, the guys at the nearby universities somehow began to resent her wanton ways. So being that each year their local fraternities had a tradition of nominating various males they didn’t like as the town’s ugliest man and plastering the winner’s picture on the front page of their local paper, The University News, it came to be that on Sept. 5, 1962 nineteen year old Janis Joplin picked up the paper that morning and found a prominent photo of herself for all the town and beyond to read and see with this exact bold-faced banner headline printed above the fold:
JANIS WINS UGLIEST MAN!!
It crushed her, her band mate and friend at the time, Powell St. John recalls, unsuccessfully attempting to hold back his tears some 50 plus years later. Saddest thing I ever saw. To that point, I’d never seen Janis cry. Janis had a tough exterior. But it really got her. Got her bad. I said, ‘Janis, they don’t mean anything to you. They’re not even in your class.’
Her younger sister, Laura Joplin explains it another way.
It became increasingly hard for her to fit into a group of angry, angry men who liked to pick on her…So where does she go? What does she do?
What she did was go to California. Where in just five years she becomes an international superstar. And in five years more dies of a drug overdose – most likely, surmises the documentary, precipitated by loneliness and a profound lack of self-esteem and hurt she carried around with her during the less than three decades in which she lived.
Thankfully times have changed somewhat. But not fully. And certainly not nearly enough. And in the case of some men – many of who have recently become emboldened by a throwback wave of sexism and racism they disparage as political correctness– not at all.
Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential candidate, is being routinely attacked and mocked each day by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump as an unbelievably mean, nasty enabler of her philandering husband Bill Clinton. Mr. Trump routinely covers his ears and mocks the sound level and tone of her voice and several months ago derided her for taking too long to go to the bathroom on a commercial break at one of the televised Democratic debates. Lest one think Mr. Trump is the only straight white guy who disdains Mrs. Clinton’s manner, both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough several months ago separately took Mrs. Clinton to task for being too loud or too shrill.
As opposed to whom – Mr. Trump?
In a steaming retort this week to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (Note: Yes, she’s part Native American) criticisms, Mr. Trump for the umpteenth time publicly smeared her with the snide ethnic slur of Pocahontas, this time in a national news conference right after he secured enough pledged delegates to become the Republican presidential nominee. Imagine snidely referring to the only Black female senator we have EVER had – Carole Moseley Braun in the 1990s – by saying, oh who, Harriet Tubman? Or perhaps stating, Right, I assume you’re talking about Mammy? Or maybe referring to a Jewish female senator like Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein as, who, Queen Esther? How about calling some Latina American politician Eva Peron? Well, he did just call New Mexico’s Republican Governor Susana Martinez, a Hispanic woman, slow.
I loathe writing about Donald Trump. I want to make that very clear. He’s truly a boil on the ass of the United States. An infected, puss-filled scourge of narcissistic infection bent on destroying everything in his path that can’t be used to feed his minuscule ego. Minuscule, as in tiny? Yes.
Only people who are deeply insecure and feel extremely small way down inside feel the need to consistently pump themselves up by hurling massively nasty, racist, sexist, bullying insults at others when challenged. But there’s just something a little different when he goes after strong women who publicly challenge him on the issues of the day. Rosie O’Donnell was a fat, disgusting pig. Fox news commentator Megyn Kelly was described by a euphemism for her menstrual cycle – blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her…wherever. Republican challenger Carly Fiorina – no idol of mine – was put down by casually asking us to imagine having to look at that face everyday.
Lena Dunham, the multi-hyphenate Emmy award-winning creator, writer, director and star of Girls has undergone similar public indignation. Read the comments on her, as I have, via any reputable online news source. Fat, cow, disgusting pig, only begin to tell the tale. But is that to be expected with online comments? How about the question The Wrap TV critic Tim Molloy asked her two years ago? I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show? And your character is often nude for no reason…” Would they ask this of the more shapely female actresses on, say, Game Of Thrones?
As for Ms. Dunham, it was interesting to note on the finale of Girls this season that she chose to have her character backtrack in her career development through the season but emotionally mature in expected ways by its end. When her best friend hooked up more than casually with her ex-boyfriend, who she still probably loves, her character noted she wanted to boil a rabbit in a pot or stab them both in the heart. But instead she acted out inappropriately with those around her, controlled her rage and hurt feelings towards her besties and eventually left them a fruit basket by their door as a peace offering. She figured out a way to move on in her own inimitable way – not through power grabbing or insults but simply through self- actualization.
This is perhaps a 21st century version of what it means to be a woman/human these days and perhaps it’s progress. Now only if some of our more moronic males would follow suit. Mr. Trump can lead them in this direction. But he most certainly won’t.
Which means that in the name of all the females in our lives – not to mention everyone else – we’ll have to do it for him. By increasingly making him and his kind irrelevant.