“Gunpowder and Lead:” Portrayals of Domestic Violence in Country Music

I'm goin' home, gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
If he wants a fight well now he's got one
And he ain't seen me crazy yet
He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll
Don't that sound like a real man
I'm going to show him what a little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead

gunpowder-and-leadFor the past month, bleak displays of domestic violence — Ray Rice and wife Janay Palmer, Sarah Hyland and ex-boyfriend Matthew Prokop (amongst others) — have been making the rounds again.

And they have followed a predictable, cyclical pattern.  News anchors and audiences alike have been exhibiting their share of socially-appropriate shock and disgust — which quickly fades away until the next version of the story hits the airwaves.

The hash-tag campaigns #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft attempted to, (a), give a voice to abuse survivors, as well as to (b), educate the general public on the complexities of relationships plagued by domestic violence. Ergo, that the reality is never just as simple as mainstream media coverage would have one believe.WHYISTAYED-facebook

“You think he’s changing, weeks pass, his anger lies coiled like a snake in the grass.” — “Rosie Strike Back,” Rosanne Cash

Now, the addict of Today’s Country 99.5 that I am, these thoughts were percolating in my mind whilst I drove to and from work to the sounds of Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” (yes, they still play that song, and yes, it’s still just as catchy as it was in 1999).

And, though I had listened to both songs dozens of times, it had never struck me how their messages of strength/empowerment in the face of abuse could be misconstrued.

The female protagonists of songs like those above, as well as other country hits like “Independence Day” by Martina McBride and “The Stairs” by Reba McEntire, have been able to rise above their violent circumstances and ‘break the cycle’ — even at times striking back, blow for blow.

Well word gets around in a small, small town, 
They said he was a dangerous man.
Mama was proud and she stood her ground,
But she knew she was on the losin’ end. 
Some folks whispered and some folks talked, 
But everybody looked the other way,
And when time ran out there was no one about 
On Independence Day.

Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong,
But maybe it’s the only way. 
Talk about your revolution, 
It’s Independence Day.

In her article for the June 2004 edition of the Oregon Law Review, entitled “Greatest Hits: Domestic Violence in American Country Music,” Sheila Simon traces the evolution of the legal responses to domestic violence and the development of the ‘battered woman’s defense:’ which extends the boundaries of what constitutes an act of self-defense — leaving actions like those described in “Goodbye Earl” and “Independence Day” (a murder and a murder/arson respectively) conceivably excused under such a type of legal defense.

“Country songs can be expected to show us not where we’re going, or even where we are now, but where we have been.” — Sheila Simon

Simon likewise asserts that country music, as a genre, has always been a few steps behind mainstream cultural norms — largely due to its predominantly rural, conservative audience.  As Simon points out, even during the 1960s, when America as a whole was undergoing a seismic shift in its gender politics, songs like Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit, “Stand By Your Man” were still being released . . . with lyrics like these:

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,
Giving all your love to just one man. You’ll have bad times,
And he’ll have good times,
Doing things that you don’t understand.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, that country songs began to assert a strong anti-domestic violence message.  And, even at that, the message was mixed.  Though the ‘act of leaving’ was clearly portrayed as the multifaceted problem that it is, violent self-defense is disturbingly rendered as (a), the only viable escape from an abusive relationship, and (b), how a ‘real’ woman deals with the situation.  The implicit message being, ‘women who stay are weak, and women who leave are strong.’ray-rice-Janay-Palmer-beating-ftr

A dangerous mindset to perpetuate when ignorance of how these ‘non-textbook’ abuse situations can play out easily leads to victim-blaming and reluctance to adequately punish the perpetrator — as we saw in the NFL’s handling (as well as public perception) of the case of Janay and Ray Rice.

And, though I’m never one to disparage a good female power ballad (if only for their karaoke potential alone!), I fear that many more subtle expressions of female power are, sadly, being overlooked.


If you or someone you love is in crisis, the Feminist Majority Foundation’s domestic violence resource page linked here has a number of local and national helplines to assist you.

 

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