So I love Johnny Cash. Adore. Love his music. Love the old outlaw Cash, love the gospel singin’, 12-steppin’ Cash, love the American Recordings comeback cover Cash. Love the mythology. Love the “Man in Black”. Love the recovery story, love the faith.
Love the “Redemption Song”, both metaphorically and literally (the song of that name, which he covered as a duet with Joe Strummer).
But watching a documentary called “The Gospel Music of Johnny Cash” yesterday, I wondered–what’s June’s story, faith-wise? I can think, off the top of my head, of about a dozen major male singers who have dealt very publicly with recovery from addiction and/or alcoholism, and who are held up as great and powerful stories of faith and grace. And, you know–yay. Love it. Go faith and grace. But then that gender-analysis brain of mine kicks in and leads me to two major questions.
The first is the one I mention above and in the title. In the mythology of Johnny Cash (and especially in the movie “Walk the Line”) June Carter is held up as the saviour-woman, the beauty for whom Johnny decided he would commit to living better, the light through which he finally saw the joy that might actually be available to him. Her troubles are defined in terms of struggles caused by him, and the narrative requires that she was a good Christian woman from the beginning, never discussing any personal struggles with faith or with commitment to God, even as Johnny himself had slips and periods of “has-been” status. He got better, and her life was fine.
This is the narrative because Johnny’s story is what matters, and Johnny’s the one who needed to be saved, but of course it doesn’t actually work that way. As is covered in “Walk the Line”, June’s the one who wrote the song “Ring of Fire”, and she wrote it to express the pain and turmoil she felt falling in love with this man who was so clearly destructive. She’s being constructed (narratively speaking) as something of a victim, and certainly as a woman of great strength and virtue. But it takes some serious damage to genuinely fall in love with someone in the state Cash was in, and it does a lot more later on to live with someone like that through all his ups and downs and relapses. She’s got a story of her own, and it’s a story of redemption and forgiveness and grace and gratitude and what the hell she felt like after that whole “Ring of Fire” thing. She’s not just a vehicle for faith and grace, she’s someone who had to experience it in her own right. But culturally, we don’t give that to women like her. She’s just the vessel, Johnny’s the story, Johnny’s the one who had to be lifted up, brought out of the darkness, led out of the cave.
This is an objectifying narrative. “Objectifying” not because she’s been overtly sexualized or because we see too much skin, in that classically reductive way of understanding objectification, but because she’s been stripped of subjectivity, of a role as the lead character in her own story, affected by all elements of the human condition and requiring exactly the same amount of grace and forgiveness that was needed by her much more famous and much more dramatic husband. “Objectifying” because the image of June as the patient, suffering bearer of salvation is an image that puts her outside of humanity and outside of the need for grace. She becomes someone no one can relate to, someone who doesn’t really need help of her own, someone who hasn’t really had any experiences at all that are worth talking about–she’s just something there to admire and to exalt.
I want to hear June’s story, and I want to hear it now.
The other thing that strikes me when I think about narratives like Johnny’s is that I can’t really think of any female versions of that tale, which is certainly not because there’s a lack of female alcoholics or drug addicts out there in need of salvation or who have experienced recovery. I think immediately of someone like Lindsay Lohan, who is apparently going into and out of rehab and recovery and all of that. But she’s being met with scorn, mockery, cynicism, doubt and constant scrutiny. Is this because we’re in a different media age? Maybe partially, though the extent to which these women are followed is unquestionably greater than their celebrity male counterparts. In these narratives, it’s also only the failures by the women that are seen as noteworthy. Lindsay Lohan’s attempt to get clean and sober is worthy of scorn and ridicule, Johnny Cash’s is a noble statement of faith and is part of what has turned him into an icon. Lindsay’s is not a story of recovery, it’s the downward spiral that matters. Maybe she’s a bad example because she’s young and doesn’t seem to have actually managed to have much success at recovery just yet, but I also have to question just how much of an impact it may have to see a media that is titillated, excited and intrigued by your failure on getting a sense of hope that there’s something of much greater worth on the other side of the decision.
So I want to see that story, too. I want to hear about a female icon who has been rescued and revitalized and recovered from whatever form of hopelessness it was that plagued her. I want to hear about how she desperately needed that amazing grace, that forgiveness, and about how grateful she is that she wasn’t beyond redemption. I want to hear about her humanity. If I’m making the order, though, I would really prefer for this not to be a Mary Magdalene story, because that version…well, it kinda misses the point, really. Hope that’s not too much to ask.