For me, as a feminist artist, ‘Only Women Bleed’ as a term is a fascinating trope, stereotype, something layered in complexities that needs to be unpicked beyond the assumptions of gender roles and heteronormativity, and it is a romanticisation of romantic pain. ‘Only Women Bleed’ comes from the title of a song. The version I knew first is a sublime one by Etta James from her lovely Deep In The Night album. I was quite shocked when decades after first hearing this song I found out that it was originally by Alice Cooper. That puts another – equally interesting – slant on the song, its lyrics (about an abusive relationship) and the ideas behind the title and the term. When I consider ‘Only Women Bleed’ now, I think of it as a trope; the wider context of the romantic pain song genre.
I love romantic pain songs and I am a great big fan of some of the women who sing them. Hear me: I am not condoning romanticisation of abusive relationships. I will deconstruct the social constructions of gender and I will fight damaging gendered stereotyping and assumptions to my death. I believe in the strength and vulnerabilities of people of all genders. But I am also fascinated by, and a little bit in love with, the idea of the tragic woman chanteuse, singing out her pain, her loss, her sad lot as a lady who loves. The experience of listening to and occasionally singing along with those songs is profound. Sometimes there’s a tinge of irony; and with that, I’m partially taking the piss out of my own wallowing in romantic pain. Sometimes it’s very purely feeling the much-needed catharsis of that pain. Sometimes it’s about appreciating the splendour of a bloody good song sung by a genius of the genre.
My ‘Only Women Bleed’ project is equally a celebration of these songs and singers, an examination of why so many of us are drawn to them, and a scrutiny and critique of the assumptions behind such a term and the idea of women as ‘tragic victims’ in matters of love.
‘For The Love Of Judy’ originated as part of the larger ‘Only Women Bleed’ project; but ‘OWB’ itself was directly inspired by Judy. In 2009 I had gone to the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (now Flare) at the BFI, beside myself that they had a Judy strand as part of the wider programme. There were screenings and there was a discussion called ‘We Love Judy Garland’. As I love Judy Garland, I couldn’t wait to be in a room of queers talking about our love of Judy.
It was fabulous, darlings, as you can imagine. It began with a Judy medley sung by the London Gay Men’s Chorus, there were clips and there were talks by two of the festival programmers: Brian Robinson and Emma Smart (whose brainchild it was). We were invited to ‘bring along your own memories of Judy to share’. And the audience sure did. A queer woman shared how she’d once had a neighbour say to her gay male flatmate ‘oh we hear your music all the time, Barbra, Judy…’ Those were her records. Stereotype busted wide open. A gentleman told us that the event was extra special for him because he’d actually been in the audience in the very same screening room – NFT1 – where Judy had been up on the stage 40 years earlier in 1969, sharing her anecdotes and enchanting a packed cinema. She was playing Talk Of The Town later that evening and invited everyone to join her. A panicked someone with her protested that the gig was already sold out and couldn’t possibly accommodate her hundreds of guests. Oh it was a delightful time, he said. Imagine! I’ve never been able to be in that cinema screening room since and not think of Judy on that stage in her pink, white and black mod dress-coat.
Then someone else stood up and said, ‘We fans, we love Judy. And we are so sick and tired of this portrayal of her as tragic and sad. We love the young Judy, the happy Judy’. There were a few murmurs and it was difficult to tell if they were all in agreement or if – like me – there were others in that audience who weren’t quite happy with this one person speaking for each and every one of us.
I most certainly was thinking to myself ‘don’t speak for me, mate’. No one said anything though (including me). I didn’t know about the good fans/bad fans thing at this point. But it struck me so profoundly that I have been thinking about it ever since. In the moment he said that sentence, speaking for all Judy fans, it made me consider the fact that I do, actually, think of Judy in terms of the tragic and sad. I don’t want to say it’s what I ‘like’ about her per se, it’s not the be all and end all, but it’s definitely part of what attracts me to her.
I thought about the other women I love – Marilyn, Patsy, Callas, Piaf, Janis, Billie… and on and on. All ‘tragic’ women. So what is that about?
When I was a kid I became obsessed with a book called A Star Is Torn. It’s actually the book of a show by the performance artist Robyn Archer. It is all about female stars – mainly singers – whose legacies are profound and who had had tragic lives. I devoured the book. As well as the many performers who I was already a huge fan of, I was introduced to women new to me and who are more obscure than the usual suspects, women like torch singer Helen Morgan and music hall superstar Marie Lloyd. Archer went ‘up to date’ (for then) to Karen Carpenter, perhaps the only one of these women who’d died in my lifetime and within my consciousness of what the circumstances of her death meant. I love Karen too.
So when I was considering the ‘We Love Judy Garland’ experience and what the man had said about ‘tragic Judy’, I thought about this book (and the show it was based on). And I thought about the fact that he (and the ‘good fans’) may well not like that part but a hell of a lot of people do because there’s a whole industry around it. Blockbuster biographies usually dwell on the seamier sides of their subjects. There are whole books about dead stars. And that got me to thinking, what happens when it’s a male star who is the tragic one? I came to the conclusion, just from my stored knowledge and own fandom – that the tragic men are often portrayed as either tragic anti-heroes and/or feminized/queered. Women are victims. Brave, crying and singing through their pain, yes, but victims nonetheless. A woman ODing is seen as a pathetic inevitability, an extension of her wider victimhood. A man ODing is an extension of the rock n roll myth, it’s the inevitability of his excess. The feminized men are often portrayed as too sensitive, too emotional. Women are as well, but it is seen as an overspill of their feminine emotions. Men aren’t supposed to be so emotional, so feeling, so raw, so weak. Men are sensitive because of the burden of their talent. Women are sensitive because they’re women.
Those were my first thoughts. And my initial idea of what to do with this was academic because I was in the middle of doing my PhD at the time and my world was academia. I was going to concentrate on the women, but throw in observations about the men too. I would shake the academic world up a bit by presenting it at conferences as an academic paper – with song! And I would call my performance ‘Only Women Bleed’.
I never got around to doing this, alas. I was concentrating on my actual thesis which wasn’t anything to do with that (I was looking at the fat body in celebrity gossip). So I decided that ‘Only Women Bleed’ was to be my post-PhD research but at the end of my PhD I’d had enough of academia. I flirted with the idea of doing ‘OWB’ as a cabaret show instead but that stayed just an idea and fell by the wayside. Life moved on, stuff happened and I found myself thinking about Judy.
A couple of significant things brought Judy central to my creative life again. I met the sublime artist Donald Urquhart and we got to talking about Judy. I told him the story of the ‘we don’t like tragic Judy, we only like happy Judy’ incident. He’d had a similar experience and we had a good old natter about the visceral joy of loving the mess of the tragic star. I said I’d thought about doing something with it. A performance or – I thought for the first time – a film. He said, ‘do it’. The seed was planted. He introduced me to his wonderful friend Jane, another queer woman who adores Judy. The seed began to take root.
Through particular circumstances I happened to be working with Emma Smart at the BFI. After talking for a bit I suddenly remembered that she’d been behind ‘We Love Judy Garland’ and my heart sang. Another queer woman who loves Judy to share the joy with. I found myself saying ‘I’m making a film about queer love of Judy’. And that’s when I decided, ‘I’m doing this. It starts now’.
It mutated into the multimedia project. I’m an artist, a filmmaker, I love performing, I’m a writer. It all made sense. But I still think about it in the wider context, I’m still obsessed with the idea of ‘Only Women Bleed’. And so concurrently with ‘FTLOJ’, I am revisiting the bigger project of the tragic female star.
I’m creating a load of art around it (as part of my bigger Pantone Postcards art project). I’ve made a Spotify playlist based on the women and the songs that are a strong inspiration for, and part of, the ‘Only Women Bleed’ project. I add to it all the time and play it constantly. If you’re interested in listening and following, it’s here. I will be doing that ‘OWB’ cabaret show and am formulating its structure and content.
What gets to my core about ‘Only Women Bleed’ is that although there’s obvious downsides to the idea of the tragic female victim, these women are pretty fucking badass, despite all the shit they went through. There is a power there. And it’s messy. But why are we drawn to them? What do we get out of it? Catharsis? Empathy? Thank fuck it’s not me? I think it’s a lot more to do with the first two and a lot less of the latter. Yes, of course there’s shadenfreude and vicarious thrills. That’s why gossip thrives. But why the love, the adoration, the fandom? Why the enduring appeal that spans decades and generations? That’s an emotional connection, not glorying in someone else’s misery. And that’s what I’m interested in. Yes, the expression of that connection can be campy and funny and may seem to those who don’t get it as disrespectful. But if we’re actually camping up our own pain, our own tragedies and our own power through the crap we survive, don’t tell us that we can’t explore and celebrate it.
Although not unknown to heterosexuals, this kind of pain and the adulation and admiration of those who sing about it is, for me, particularly queer. Partly this is because many of these singers are camp divas, appreciated and celebrated by gays across the decades. People of all genders and sexualities can get this. An irony of ‘Only Women Bleed’ is, of course, that not only women bleed. Everyone bleeds when it comes to love.
The lyrics of ‘Only Women Bleed’ are a heteronormative gender stereotyping nightmare. I’m sure that Mr Alice Cooper meant the double meaning of ‘Only Women Bleed’; it evokes menstruation (and was banned by radio until it was renamed just ‘Only Women’). The bleeding of the lyric is of course horrifically as a result of violence but in the wider context, the bleeding in the song and generally in the trope of ‘Only Women Bleed’ is that of the heart. And just as women in the song are born to suffer at the hands of men, blokes are born to dole it out by implication. But us queers know only too goddamn well that such heartbreak is not exclusive to heteronormativity. I think of this kind of uber-hetero stereotyping as akin to some drag cabaret. And I’d like to make it clear in terms of gender and queerness that I’m thinking here of a particular kind of drag, like that from the Torch Song Trilogy era. There’s a heightened-through-campness, multi-textual context about a gay man performing a woman’s love for, and loss of, a man. Related to this, I want to throw something else into the complex-queer pot. Even though I’m bi, very often when I listen to a song where it’s a woman singing about a man, I am thinking of it as if listening from a gay man’s point of view. Just thought I’d put that out there cuz it further complicates all of this, and I think it does so in a good way. I’m not transporting a pat stereotype of women onto a pat stereotype of a feminized gay man here – I’m thinking about how we as queer people take culture that is presented as heteronormative, and queer it for our own experience, needs and pleasure.
All of these complexities exist for me in my fascination, love, pleasure, and identification with ‘Tragic Judy’. As much as she herself professed to hate it, a lot of the time she played up to the idea of the tragic and sad Judy. Think of the bazillion times she sang ‘Over The Rainbow’ with tears streaming down her face. Think of the album Alone which is all sad songs, including ‘I’ve Got A Right To Sing The Blues’ in which the chorus acts as the sea calling Judy to her watery suicide! Talk about Judy really being Norman Maine and not so much Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born! On that note, ASIB and I Could Go On Singing are two of my favourite Judy films and two of the best-loved of her movies amongst Judy fans. And think about them – they are absolutely women-as-victim-of-tragic-love films. At the end of both of them, Judy’s characters stand on a stage, triumphant against her tragic loss of love, her lonely lot in life. But really, consider these characters and their stories. We, as the audience are left to consider what might become of them after the credits. Will song save our ladies? Is showbiz enough? We’ve been taught that the lot of the Only Women Bleed singer is to eternally suffer and sing it out. She may have her song, but she’ll never have the love for long… That in itself sets the perpetual motion of torch song in full swing ad infinitum.
In considering the women I love who fall into the ‘Only Women Bleed’ category, I am repeatedly struck by a moment of creative and performative beauty that happened between two of them. When Garland died, Janis Joplin dedicated her rendition of ‘Little Girl Blue’ to Judy. Although it often surprises people when I tell them that Joplin was a Garland fan, their cosmic connections hadn’t gone unnoticed at the time: Janis was labelled as ‘The Judy Garland of Rock’.
Both these women belted out their pain; it was just in different musical genres. I also note: both were queer women and are queer icons. Judy had recorded ‘Little Girl Blue’ on her aforementioned album ‘Alone’.
What makes this an amazing song for both Judy and Janis to have sung is that in their renditions it becomes about identification and empathy and solidarity. They recognise the pain of Little Girl Blue because she is like them. She is them. This identification gives an incredible power to the subject and singer of the song. Sometimes the romantic pain song is all about a wallowing, self-defeating, resigned, victim of love and life’s tragedy. Garland and Joplin’s ‘Little Girl Blue’ is an acknowledgement that this is how it feels, this is what it is like and in singing it, Judy and Janis are telling Little Girl Blue that she is not alone. And they understand: they know. The version of ‘Little Girl Blue’ that Janis sang on The Tom Jones Show is, for me, the most beautiful, haunting, soul-wrenching and profound of all. When Janis sings ‘And I know just how you feel’, we have no doubt whatsoever that she did.
– Corinna Tomrley