Marriage based on romantic love is a relatively new concept. Even today in some cultures, marriage is purely transactional, arranged by the parents and consummated with the passing of money, goods, and other valuables. At one time, the point of marriage was about producing heirs, as procreation out of wedlock simply was not tolerated. And woe betide the daughters of this world because they were seen as little more than a burden, until some rich family took a shine to her, that is.
That level of degradation is hard to handle for us in modern western culture, but we’re hardly civilized. There’s still an air of ownership that creeps out even in the context of romantic relationships, where getting the attentions of the hot girl or the hot guy is prized above all, and a degree of ownership is still expressed. Most club bangers revolve around this notion of showing off your partner, and watching with delight as all the others in the room with they were with her, but she’s yours. This inevitably leads to the breakup song, where the partner has either cheated, or departed after emotional suffocation, or has merely grown distant because one or the other feels they were only collateral.
In the early-1960’s singer Jimmy Soul had a solution. His biggest hit, “If You Wanna Be Happy” is a jaunty pop-soul number with a nasty streak to it. What Soul callously advocates is, “If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. So from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.” Well, that’s going on top of the anniversary cake right now, isn’t it?
The implication is that a pretty woman will always be suspect because everyone wants to steal her away, take her to bed, and/or dominate her. You will never get a moment’s peace because you’re terrified your hottie will be debriefing someone else’s private files. Better to find a horrible looking girl because she will be so grateful to you for not relegating her to loneliness, she’ll do whatever you want. You know, like a packmule.
The listener will almost always get sucked into the song accidentally, for while it possesses some very odious fart-whiffs of misogyny, it is finger-popping fun. That’s probably the worst angle to it, in that it frankly dares you not to sing along, even as you’re recounting a strata of dehumanization that is uncomfortable in the least. You’ll want to rail against Jimmy Soul for being such an a-hole…only he’s not entirely at fault.
The calypso singer Roaring Lion brought the song “Ugly Woman” forward much earlier, in the 1930’s, and “If You Wanna Be Happy” is based on that track. In and around these time frames, Harry Belafonte performed the song. The finger-pointing is getting complicated.
I’ve been told by people that I shouldn’t be so negative about the tune. It is only a song. Aren’t there more important things to be outraged about? They are right — in part — about that. My outrage should be reserved for something more substantive than a pop tune from the past century that makes human value judgments on personal appearances alone. Only…we are seeing this in our politics right now, being played out to adoring crowds.
At last night’s Republican presidential debate, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina had the opportunity respond to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s insult in a Rolling Stone article, essentially discrediting Fiorina’s credibility for being a president because, “…look at that face.” In one of the few humbling moments for Trump, Fiorina managed to back him into a rhetorical corner, just as other contenders on the stage were either flailing at Trump trying to lock in a punch, or kneeling to kiss his butt.
This kind of opinion, voiced by Trump as a matter of general conversation that a woman is only of value if she’s sexy enough to share his bed and obedient enough to not counter-attack, is highly problematic because it is so entrenched in the culture. And what constitutes beauty is so narrowly defined, it’s cartoonish. Young girls starve themselves and vomit up their meals to maintain a visible rib cage for their “bikini bod” and hate themselves for not having “appropriate thigh gap.” You could be a CEO of a major international corporation, be in charge of multiple millions of dollars, be in charge of a country even, but if you aren’t “bangable,” you’re not “valuable.”
The assertions of Roaring Lion and Jimmy Soul are toxic, even if the song components around their statements are fun. What’s more toxic is that, fifty-plus years on, the beliefs in those purportedly harmless songs are going relatively unchallenged, and are even celebrated as “refreshingly blunt talk” from a person who could be poised to run the country. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but what we’re hearing from our supposed future leaders lately can truly be defined as “ugly.”