Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar in 2009 by Terwilliger911 on Wikimedia Commons — CC BY 2.0
’80s feminist power icon Pat Benatar fought real misogyny but never whined
Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar in 2009 by Terwilliger911 on Wikimedia Commons — CC BY 2.0“Railing against the constraints of male-dominated rock, Pat Benatar sings her lungs out with the kind of sentiments that the rock boize might address if only they had the balls.” — Tim Holmes, Rolling Stone magazine
I have fallen back in love with Pat Benatar again, after a thirty-year hiatus. Recently I explored why some women are still afraid of their own power and included Benatar’s 1983 video Love Is A Battlefield. My favourite part is where she and the other taxi dancers stand up to the sleazy lecherous club owner and she throws a drink in his face, then shoulder-shimmies the other dancers out of the club and into the morning dawn.
Abuse ends when *women* decide it ends.
I Googled on Benatar and found she’d written a memoir. Between A Heart and a Rock Place. I downloaded it onto my Kobo.
Pat Benatar wasn’t my idol, she was my role model as I entered college. Crimes of Passion, her second album, was at the top of the charts birthing one hit single after another.
I loved her hard-rockin’ sound but even more, her hard-hitting message. The pixie-cutted spitfire with the defiant jaw took no shit from no man as she belted out Hit Me With Your Best Shot, You Better Run, and Treat Me Right. She got downright stalkerish on dudes with I’m Gonna Follow You and she defended abused children in her deeply moving Hell Is For Children (a song I can’t even listen to anymore).
Ironically, many of the men we excoriate today for abusiveness were children in the time period during which Pat recorded the song (1980).
Child Abuse: Where Abusers & Victims Learn Their Craft Why do we still not understand this? Heartbreaker remains my favorite song. I’ve sung it more than once in karaoke bars. I Need A Lover spoke to the need for a partner without a lot of drama. No You Don’t was my friend Theresa’s favorite Benatar song. If it came up on my tape as we drove to a party or nightclub she’d insist I crank it to full volume, and maybe rewind it so we could belt it out again at the top of our lungs.
Every young ’80s chick wanted to be Pat Benatar. Two friends were in bands, doing her songs. I wanted to become her, and I did. Not the rock goddess but strong, powerful, and take-no-shit.
Benatar’s songs often featured unhappy love affairs or men who didn’t treat her right. For the most part, the themes were fictional because she doesn’t appear to have had wide romantic and sexual experience. She married her high school sweetheart at 19 and it ended in divorce seven years later, around the time she met lifelong love Neil Giraldo who became her creative partner, boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, husband, and, if anyone can ever truly be defined as such, her soulmate.
I lost touch with Benatar in the late ’80s when I began belly dancing and listened obsessively to Middle Eastern music, then turned to Paganism and hunted for Pagan rock bands in the early days of the dial-up Internet, when the Web was called the WorldWide Wait.
I rediscovered Benatar in the ’90s when I frequented music stores and discovered what she’d been up to while I was away. She’d put out several new albums and I snapped them up, but I found myself a little bored now. The whole man-done-me-wrong thing had begun to wear a little thin considering she’d been happily married to the same man for close to twenty years, an epoch in the entertainment world.
In retrospect, her garden-variety fake ‘man problems’ seem kind of cute today. They were the same perfectly normal human romantic troubles I had with men, flakiness and ego and a wandering eye or unequal levels of interest. Benatar never sang about abused women or narcissists or psycho exes. Her own life, as she described on an early Howard Stern show, was so personally drama-free that when he asked his next guest, Robin Leach, host of the then-popular TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous whether he should feature Benatar, Leach quipped, “She just spent twenty minutes telling you how boring she is. Why would I do that?”
Apart from a split with Giraldo early in their relationship thanks to their insane work life, aggressively pushed by their record label, Benatar lived a life both ridiculously fantabulous while remaining herself remarkably grounded.
For one thing, she stayed away from drugs, and it sounds like the band did too. She never had an alcohol problem. Because she’s been married for most of her adult life except for maybe a 45-minute break between husbands, she had to have made up all those unhappy love affairs, or drew from her friends bitching about theirs.
She didn’t even try to steal Giraldo away from his then-current girlfriend, actress Linda Blair, when he first met the pixie-cutted future rock goddess and encountered instant mutual chemistry. She didn’t want to be the kind of woman who would go after another woman’s man. That was also quite remarkable for an era in which women had less power than today and were far more conditioned to compete for men.
Benatar grew up in a working class extended Long Island family. She learned to take care of herself and developed ‘emotional armor’ when her mother was driven into the workforce by necessity. She seems both to have been born with a sense of equality few other little girls had in the 1950s as well as a mother who taught her to be strong, like my mother did. Benatar loved and was attracted to boys even when she was very young and wanted to play with and be around them.
They gave her ‘the business’ for being a giiiiiiirl including mashing earthworms against her legs, but she handled it with stoicism and in her memoir she doesn’t excoriate them for their early misogyny. She was, in fact, eventually accepted as one of them and it engendered in her a toughness which served her well when she one day dealt with hardcore lechery and misogyny in the music business.
“I dressed the way I did because I liked it, not because I thought men liked it. That was the point. I was much more interested in showing how strong-minded I was. It was all about not taking crap from anyone for a reason.”
There’s no shred of victimhood mentality anywhere in Benatar’s memoir.
She certainly encountered plenty of misogyny. She describes an early songwriter who chased her around a piano and program directors who patted their laps and said she could sit right here, honey. The record exec who leaned forward as they discussed her next video and leered, “So what are ya gonna wear?” The radio deejays who tried to extract sex from her for the promise of more airplay. Payola lived into the ’80s, apparently, but was less evidential than bags of cocaine in the ‘50s.
The worst misogyny was the heartless, soulless executives who insisted on a work schedule she described as ‘indentured servitude’ and who went bugspit crazy when she tried to have anything resembling a life outside of the recording studio or tour. They opposed her relationship with Giraldo from the beginning, fearing he’d become a Yoko Ono who’d split up the band. They fought recognizing Giraldo for any contribution and worked to split the couple apart. Which they did, and then went insane when Benatar and Giraldo eventually not just got back together, but married. Then, when Benatar got pregnant during the creation of the Tropico album, they went bugspit insane again, insisting she cover up her pregnancy and not be photographed with a belly as it would ruin her sex bomb appeal in their primitive 1950s-era brains.
Then the Napster meteor struck the dinosaurs in the ’90s, a game-changing moment in music history. An illegal file-sharing application sent music labels into apoplexy as they watched their music download for free.
Fans, already being gouged on artificially inflated CD prices years after the technology newness no longer justified it (a practice the Clinton administration ended), assumed their icons were already making plenty of money but artists disabused them of that, with a few brave souls like Courtney Love speaking out against how little they made and what record companies did to make stars look rich while they soaked them.
Benatar and Giraldo jumped on digital music as readily as they’d once accepted the offer to do a trial video for a then-new MTV in 1982 (The You Better Run video was the second ever to air, making Benatar the first female artist to appear on it). Instead of seeing file sharing as a threat to their income, they envisioned the opportunity to jettison their dinosaurs and go indy.
Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I’ve been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see.
“I can’t imagine a guy ever abusing you,” my college-age brother said to me long ago. “I think you’d rip his balls off!”
He was right. That’s what Pat Benatar would do, assuming anyone had been suicidal enough to take a whack at her.
I don’t take shit from partners and I would never allow abuse. Not everyone understands it’s a choice, however unconscious, but Pat Benatar, along with my strong feminist-in-denial mother, taught me to take no shit, ever, from any man.
“When you’re a doormat,” my mother used to say, “it’s because you agree to be.”
The sooner we learn how to take care of ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, or to glare at the lecher who thought the music video was all about whatever we were going to wear (“Clothes,” I would have answered), the better we’ll take care of ourselves as well as each other.
Cultivating a personal power mentality is a huge step toward true independence. We can only fight genuine misogyny when we recognize it, and a victim mentality leaves women tilting at windmills and unable to see the difference, for example, between a man like Joe Biden and the morally degenerate misogynist she just voted for.
Pat Benatar got victimized sometimes, just like we all do. By record companies and lecherous associates, although not by her male bandmates who were all close friends. Her drummer and his wife became her daughters’ godparents.
It’s easier to be victimized when you’re young and inexperienced and trying to balance standing up for yourself with going and getting along. It’s why predatory men prefer younger women. They’re easier to impress, manipulate, pressure and coerce. They’re more eager to please and blame themselves when something goes wrong. Some women never learn, others strengthen and grow.
Pat Benatar was a proto-feminist who didn’t talk the gender theory academic jargonbabble talk, she walked the walk. She’s lived her life as authentically as she could with the man she’ll be with until death.
That’s how I remember a lot of us in the ’80s, wild, outrageous, and take-no-shit. Feminism lost its labia along the way, with many giving away their personal power and authenticity. But as dark as the world seems in 2020, though, I see glimmers that Benatar’s old spirit is on the rise again, in personally powerful women like Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Kamala Harris is already causing tiny little testicles to retreat into man-boy abdomens every time she turns that District Attorney glare in one’s direction.
The time has come to take back our power, stop being victims and like Pat Benatar, resolve to Take No Shit.
“Luck has little to do with [Benatar’s] position as the apotheosis of Eighties American womanhood — she got here through experience.” — Tim Holmes, Rolling Stone magazine
The girls who aren’t ready can stay behind. It’s their choice.