The content we consume normalizes values and beliefs in our brains in ways we don't even know, whether good or bad. Thank Goddess I didn't listen much to Whitney Houston.
Treat me right Treat me right Open your eyes Maybe you'll see the light Ooh-ooh Treat me right!
Pat Benatar, Treat Me Right, from Crimes of Passion, 1980
My friend Diane and I were in love with Pat Benatar. Her second album, Crimes of Passion, contained several songs permeating FM radio overplay, Sony Walkmans and mall background music - Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Treat Me Right and You Better Run. She was a hard rocker chick with a take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners attitude whose vocal persona demanded better treatment from men. Perhaps Benatar was drawing on her recent divorce from by then ex-husband Nick Benatar, whose name she kept because, I’m guessing, it was a way better rocker name than her own, Andrzejewski.
She married her guitarist, Nick Giraldo, in 1982, to whom she’s still married today. I don’t know from where she got all the relationship sturm und drang material since her autobiography didn’t indicate a long romantic history before or between marriages. Maybe she had a lot of romantically dissatisifed girlfriends.
In college I listened to and sang along with Benatar incessantly in the car as I commuted to school. I knew all the words and I completely dug her power-chick attitude. I didn’t know much about boys, men, or dating, since I’d been an adolescent wallflower, but Benatar’s treat-me-right message intertwined with the lessons my mother taught me about domestic abuse: I decide whether I will allow myself to be abused or not.
Domestic violence, at least as portrayed on TV, didn’t look like much fun, so I decided against it, and Pat Benatar’s music reinforced Mom as I danced in nightclubs and sang along.
They drilled it into my brain: Abuse was a choice, whether we realized it or not.
I’m 60 years old and to this day have yet to be hit or otherwise abused by a partner.
Diane didn’t absorb the same message, and chose a different path.
This is your brain on music
“What was I listening to in college?” I thought as I listened to a podcast by Dina McMillan, my favorite anti-abuse advocate. I recently found her series named after her TEDx Talk, Unmasking The Abuser.
On Episode 23, Protecting Your New Superpower, she speaks of her interview on the podcast Triggernometry, in which the host spoke of his love of gangster rap. McMillan informed him how important it was to protect his brain from toxic influences. How gangster rap glorified misogyny and violence and she explained how listening to such content normalizes its values - even if you’re not prone to violence and misogyny.
I remembered my most formative college years as my brain ripped through the plethora of ‘80s songs and full-stopped at Pat Benatar. Well of course, I thought. Although Benatar’s music never addressed physical abuse apart from her PSA anti-child abuse anthem Hell Is For Children, the rest of her albums repeated and reinforced well into her middle age a personally powerful shape up or ship out message for relationships.
In fact, by about the seventh or eighth album, I began to think, “Patty, isn’t it about time you abandoned the bad-boyfriend narrative? You’ve been happily married for thirty years!”
I then remembered Whitney Houston, the entrancing drop-dead gorgeous woman with the incredible voice. Sometimes she aggravated me with toxic messages, particularly the execrable I’m Saving All My Love For You, about a woman crying that her married lover didn’t spend enough time with her.
I hated that song. I didn’t like people who deceived and hurt others with extramarital love affairs, regardless of who was married or not. At 23, I recognized the glorification of an unhealthy dynamic every woman would be better off without. I felt little sympathy for the song’s character. Frankly, I wanted to slap some sense into her. Houston’s mother didn’t like the song either.
Houston also recorded countless songs lamenting the loss of a love the persona couldn’t get over, and I didn’t like the message that it was okay to stay at home sobbing into your pillow because someone didn’t love you, or loved you no longer. We’ve all been through that but we didn’t influence millions of teenage girls and young women with our glorified pain.
On the other hand, I could easily get behind How Will I Know If He Really Loves Me? and The Greatest Love Of All which begins, “I believe the children are our future—Teach them well and let them lead the way—” That one made me cry, often.
Whitney Houston’s music centred human love, also including happy loving relationships. But maybe she too should have listened to Pat Benatar more, since she fell into an abusive marriage with singer Bobby Brown.
Later, she ruined her looks with a horrific drug habit and died tragically too young, drowned in her own bathtub with some help from cocaine and heart disease.
What your brain’s doing behind your back
Dina McMillan had a bastard of a point about the messages we imbibe; we can accept them, as I did, or ignore them, as Diane did. She fell into a string of bad relationships and bad marriages, and several years ago vented her rage on Facebook. The tenor of her posts indicated she’d finally learned that abuse was a choice. It took until her fifties, but finally she got it.
McMillan describes exactly what happens between our ears when we think we’re just enjoying a movie or a song espousing values we don’t consciously hold. She notes only 5%-8% of the everyday choices we make are actually made by the logical, rational parts of our brain. Those are the decisions we make when not under stress - when choosing a product in a store, or thinking about what we can do with a free weekend. But our emotional and memory-processing parts, the limbic system and reptilian part of our brain, control our autonomic nervous system, negotiate our environment, and drive our most primal reactions: Fear, anger, hunger and lust. And the logical part, she states, ‘might as well not even exist’. It shows up after the party’s over to offer 20/20 hindsight or retrospective rationalizations to justify our choices.
She notes how illogically-operating brains drive social movements and politics, with our limbic and reptilian parts primed to encourage us to stick with the group, espouse what it preaches, fit in, support what’s being promoted in the countless mass and social media messages we receive all day long. They spread ideas, memes, and causes like wildfire and eventually teach us to embrace people, values and beliefs in direct contradiction with what we believe are the ways we should live our lives.
Toxic, values-antithetical content is absorbed into a largely emotional brain that can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality like our logical, rational parts do. It’s inaccurately processed as an accurate reflection of the values of your group, even if you don’t realize it. It doesn’t mean watching violent porn will turn you into a sadistic rapist, but it could normalize misogyny, that you don’t even know is there, because you’re not like that guy. Or the vulnerable woman in the Whitney Houston song pining over her married lover.
Fortunately, it’s not engraved in stone tablets. When I was in college I loved A Clockwork Orange. The book absorbed me with its message about the criticality of free will, and how bad people often eventually choose good, and shouldn’t have it forced upon them, as it was the antihero Alex, who agreed to a treatment he didn’t understand would remove his free will, then it was returned, along with his desire to harm others. Eventually he chose a better path, at least in the British version of the book, as the American publisher removed the last chapter.
Stanley Kubrick’s movie was amazing in so many ways, but now I can’t stand the subtly smirking glorified violence against women, and can no longer explain it away by observing it was released in barely-feminist 1971. I don’t find Malcolm McDowell’s Alex sexy anymore in a way I did in 1983, conscious even then that he was a monster. I’ve spent the last four decades analyzing the appeal of the Bad Boy and how he’s best left in the realm of fantasy. Although even back then I would never have allowed an Alex into my life.
In the ‘80s, we had only a few truly strong, powerful, action-oriented female role models like Pat Benatar or the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley, a courageous, badass hero in a role traditionally served by men. We caught a shade of Ripley in her predecessor Princess Leia when she ripped the blaster out of Han Solo’s hands, blasted a few stormtroopers, then an opening in the wall, and yelled, “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”
Later came Buffy, and Xena, and female Ghostbusters that made social media’s Insane Troll Posse’s heads collectively explode with female heroes who didn’t need men to save New York from ghosts and other supernatural scaries.
I wonder what happened to all the ladies of the ‘80s who consumed the ‘wealth porn’ of the era. The decade was infused with the Gordon Gecko ‘Greed is good’ fixation; movies extolled horrible romantic and sexual ideals. Like that fat girls were to be mocked (Porky’s), that it was okay to trick women into having sex with you (Revenge of the Nerds), that near-kiddie softcore porn was okay (anything starring Brooke Shields), that an older woman seducing a teenage boy was less offensive than the reverse (Private Lessons), that it’s okay to hand over your drunk girlfriend to another guy (and you’re the cute guy hero Molly Ringwald snags, Sixteen Candles) or that you should end up with a guy who treats you like crap (Pretty in Pink). The very, very worst movie that exemplifies a woman pursuing a clearly toxic relationship and glorifying it was from the ‘90s - the utterly ludicrous As Good As It Gets, with Helen Hunt as a single mother chasing an unattractive, misogynist, misanthropic obsessive-compulsive writer (Jack Nicholson) for which they both won Best Actress and Best Actor Oscars.
I left the theatre with my then-partner fuming. “Who the hell could ever fall in love with an asshole like that?”
Feed your head
In an era of violent porn, truthless social media and sourpussed ‘woke’ movies and books promoting poisonous ideologies bankrupt of any genuine ‘social justice’, we have to feed our brains as responsibly as we do our bodies.
I started reading a dystopian non-fiction book called Survival of the Richest, and it was so depressing I gave up before I threw myself off my balcony.
I switched to Helgoland, the last of my last-Christmas books, about quantum physics (I’m weird) and it was better but I still felt mired in mental mud. So I put it aside for Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Again. It’s my Bible. It starts:
Please don’t think that because you are unhappy, because there is pain in your heart, that you cannot go to the Buddha. It is exactly because there is pain in your heart that communication is possible. Your suffering and my suffering are the basic condition for us to enter the Buddha’s heart, and for the Buddha to enter our hearts.
I feel better, ready to meet the challenges I’m facing.
What I must consider soon is how to be a social activist without allowing the news and the world’s growing inhumanity to ruin me.
Did you like this post? Would you like to see more? I lean left of center, but not so far over my brains fall out. Subscribe to my Substack newsletter Grow Some Labia so you never miss a damn thing!