The Only Three Women in Bruce Springsteen's Music

Women are on par with cars and guitars in the Boss's worldview.

by Rebecca Bohanan

As an unabashed Bruce Springsteen fan, I've always loved the nuance he brings to his characters. Though he's sometimes portrayed as a heartland caricaturist, the people in his songs and the stories that he tells have more shading than the bombast of some of his songs would make you think.

But even from the first time I heard his music as a ten-year-old, I felt that there was something missing from Springsteen's storytelling. Though each track opened up a new world to me, I always felt like I was watching from the sidelines. I saw Mary dancing in my room, but I could never imagine I was swaying in her shoes. And the more I listened, the less I could even imagine her as a person — she was just another object, another guitar, or switchblade, or car.

In fairness, Springsteen's a man, so he writes about men, from a male perspective. But on album after album, Springsteen's female characters consistently fall short. In the vast majority of his songs, the man — the hero — is at the fore, receiving the bulk of Springsteen's characterization. We hear a lot about love — in fact, "love" is often drawn so painstakingly that the concept of it feels more real and solid, more of a character, than the women themselves, who are ostensibly one-half of the experience.

Springsteen's women usually fall into one of a couple of archetypes. The most common one is probably the "Mary," from "Thunder Road." She's beautiful and pure, but that makes her remote or even unattainable. She's either a goal that the male hero can strive toward (in which case, the real story is all about him, his trials, and his tenacity), or she's a deus ex, a savior swooping in from the heavens. In "She's The One," she's the latter:

"With just one kiss / she'd fill them long summer nights / with her tenderness
That secret pact you made / back when her love could save you / from the bitterness"

Listen: “She's The One”

 

Besides Mary in "Thunder Road" and "Mary Queen of Arkansas," there's Wendy in "Born to Run," Sandy in "Fourth of July," and of course, Rosalita in, uh, "Rosalita." (Springsteen's narrator wants to "liberate" and "confiscate" her.) These women exist to save men from grand cosmic themes like unhappiness or small-town ennui. (In interesting contrast, Springsteen's men tend to save their women from very real concrete ills, ranging from poverty to family strife.)

There's an inverse to Mary, typified by the women in songs like "Candy's Room," or "Backstreets." These are stronger-willed woman, if only because they're living independent of the male characters, but there's already a value judgment in that: these female characters are damaged. They're making the wrong choices in life, often by walking away from the men who love them in exchange for lives filled with something perverse, like prostitution or gratuitous wealth.

That's how it goes in "Backstreets," when Terry leaves for another man, or in "Kitty's Back," when Kitty leaves her man for some "top cat city dude" (though she does eventually return, cf. the title). Springsteen's men love them forever despite their unreliability, so in the end, they too become objects to pine for.

Listen: “Kitty's Back”

 

There's a third, somewhat darker role women can play in Springsteen songs: they can be noble burdens. This is a woman who the protagonist has gotten stuck with somehow, but he loves her no matter what, and that love will be enough to — you guessed it — save them both. Probably the best example of this is in "The River:"

"I got Mary pregnant / man, that was all she wrote /
for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat"

Listen: “The River”

 

These women are huge parts of the story, but they remain voiceless and often actionless — they're accessories to the men's life journeys. (You really think Mary's goal was to get pregnant and get married by eighteen? What's she thinking in all of this?) Springsteen wants us to believe in the amazing power of love, but in his love stories, the woman is often the albatross around the man's neck — something to emphasize the hero's perseverance.

It's odd to me that Springsteen keeps writing about women like this with one marriage behind him, a wife who's out beside him on stage every night, and a daughter of his own. His daughter, Jessica Rae Springsteen, is a nationally ranked champion equestrian who attends Duke University. She doesn't work at a bar or a grocery store, and I'm guessing she doesn't need a guy to get her out of town, or save her from much of anything.

On Springsteen's newest, Wrecking Ball, there are only really two lines on the whole album that hint at the presence of a female character. On the second track, "Easy Money," Springsteen briefly flashes back to "Atlantic City," singing:

"Put on your red dress for me tonight, honey / We're going on the town tonight looking for easy money"

Listen: “Easy Money”

 

And that's it. That's the only woman he addresses on his latest release. The rest of the album transitions between purely political tracks and songs exploring Springsteen's usual hard-up scenarios (beautifully, as usual). And that's what puzzles me: Springsteen's American Dream is still about a man providing for his family, but is this an accurate vision of contemporary America? Where are the women who want to provide, too? The ones who get the same joy and satisfaction from putting food on the table or sending their kids off to college as their husbands do?

Springsteen's reliance on ideas about gender roles from forty or fifty years ago dates his songwriting more than anything else does. Maybe his next album will feature a song from the point of view of an accomplished young woman like his daughter, or just a female character who exists to do something beyond pine or be pined for. That's a vision I'd like to see dance across the front porch.

 

Are you a Mary, Sandy, or Rosalita searching for your Spanish Johnny or Knife Jack or whatever name Springsteen can rhyme with yours? Try Nerve Dating.

Commentarium (34 Comments)

Mar 14 12 - 12:22am
Um

You forgot Bobby Jean, one of his finest songs.
Possibly his truest and most vivid female character, in which she is remembered with a sort of sadness, happiness and fullness. His strongest female depiction, in my opinion.

Mar 14 12 - 6:17am
Nils

Except that Bobby Jean is all about little Stevie leaving him

Mar 14 12 - 9:35am
Erin B.

I am an obsessive Springsteen fan - and, though I completely agree with Ms. Bohanan's analysis here, I don't know how much I fault him for it. The great shame is that similar stadium-filling adulation is rarely bestowed upon women songwriters who flesh out the other side of these narratives.

I always thought Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" was the perfect female-perspective companion to so many of these Springsteen tropes. It gives eloquent voice to the aftermath of the "Born to Run" duo's inevitable crashdown and flips the woman-as-noble-burden depiction Bohanan writes about here on its head.

Mar 14 12 - 10:12am
tmp

That's a great comparison I wouldn't have thought to make. "Fast Car" is totally the female-voiced aftermath of "Thunder Road" etc.

Mar 14 12 - 10:18am
mncowboy

I agree with Erin B. that Ms. Bohanan's article has a lot of truth to it, but I'm not so much bothered either - it's hard to create more than one complex character in a four-minute song. I was thinking about the wife in "Racing in the Streets," though, where the husband is the "noble burden" and "all her pretty dreams are torn."

Mar 14 12 - 2:23pm
Joe

What about 'Car Wash'? http://brucespringsteen.net/songs/car-wash

Mar 14 12 - 4:46pm
lectron

Not a woman, but he's got a girl: Ricky, who wants a man of her own. Jessica?

Mar 14 12 - 11:23pm
Melvin Moten

"In fairness, Springsteen's a man, so he writes about men, from a male perspective."

Here's your problem: You've decided that since Springsteen can't write about women, nobody can. It's just a "man" thing. You couldn't be more wrong. The history of music is filled with men who write both about and for women with skill and creativity: Puccini, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Gerry Goffin, Lamont Dozier, David Porter, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson...The list is as long as it is diverse. The fact that Springsteen isn't on that list has nothing to do with men and everything to do with Springsteen, and possibly the fans whose expectations he labors under. His attempts to branch out into different musical forms have usually met with derision from his staunchest admirers, so maybe he's just giving you what (he thinks) you want.

Perhaps the female counterpoint to Springsteen's songs is closer than you think: I recommend the excellent albums by Mrs Springsteen, Patti Scialfa. She writes thoughtful, intimate portraits of a real, live woman - portraits which Springsteen's fans seem to ignore for some reason.

Mar 15 12 - 11:55am
Rick B.

How can an essay like this end with a call to action for "Rosalita" to "try Nerve dating" ?!?!

Mar 15 12 - 12:23pm
Hugh W.

I don't think he's really trying to comment on women at all. Rather I think he's using the women as allegory for innocence and desire. In "Thunder Road" Mary is pure, a "vision" who dances, Kitty and Rosalita are motives for teenage lust and desire. I think it would be wrong to critique Bruce as writing about women in a shallow manner, as he's not trying to write into their character, he's trying to write about what drives a person to look back, to move on, to love. It's why his songs are relatable to both sides of the sexual equation.

Mar 15 12 - 6:45pm
tmp

Yeah, but that's precisely the point, isn't it? Reducing women to allegorical chess pieces in the stories of the men? I'm not sure I totally agree with the author, but I see the argument.

Mar 15 12 - 3:05pm
francois

donno in what catgory you put Downbound Train (one of his best song ever) but it think it invalidate some of your psychology 101 theory. )

Mar 15 12 - 3:16pm
mythster

My name is mythster and I just realized that I was born a "male chauvinist pig" and I'm probably gonna die one. When the author writes "Springsteen's reliance on ideas about gender roles from forty or fifty years ago"
She wasn't just talking about Bruce but probably most of the guys of that era. I've done a lot of diapering, cooking and house cleaning in the last 60 years but I guess "you can take the boy out of the country" (of old men) but you can't take the country out of the boy. (Susan Brownmiller, forgive me)

Mar 15 12 - 4:16pm
mytthew

"me and crazy janey were making love in the dirt, singing our birthday song

Mar 15 12 - 4:48pm
Tracey

Sometimes all you ever need's
Never quite enough you know
You and I Maria we learned that's so

Mar 15 12 - 5:05pm
Tracey

I keep my heart in my work
but trouble's in my head
and I keep my soul in Maria's bed

Mar 15 12 - 6:00pm
WingsForWheels

Always nice to see fellow Bruce fans out there, but I respectfully disagree strongly with the OP. I actually think Bruce has a pretty progressive approach to women overall, and I'd argue it's one of his few original contributions to rock music.

Take Thunder Road for instance, which was written in the mid '70s by a guy in his mid 20s, who had probably had more experience with sex than long term relationships of any kind (other than with his guitar). He's inviting Mary to join him in the passenger seat, the role of a roadtrip companion for a long drive/journey together , as opposed to say, the backseat, for a quick drive to some deserted parking lot.

Even when he does sing about women as sex objects, it's always with respect (Candy's Room/She's the One). That's counter-intuitive to much of the rock n roll and blues traditions he grew up on.

There are plenty of single mother characters (Janey in Spare Parts, Lena in American Skin, Rainey Williams'' mother) and while some of them may seem to want male companionship, it's rare for Bruce to suggest that they would actually be better off that way (I Wanna Marry You being a notable exception). You have the touching and autobiographic The Wish, where Bruce gently recalls his mother keeping him safe from the worst aspects of his father's world.

Mar 15 12 - 6:22pm
Earl

Mrs. McGrath, albeit not written by Bruce, but at least chosen by him to sing seems more about a mother's perspective on war and what it does. Her son gets injured but it's described as her loss.

Mar 15 12 - 8:01pm
sheistolerable

I said this over on Jezebel, but he's clearly addressing a romantic partner in "Jack of All Trades," which is on Wrecking Ball. I don't recall anything gendered about it, but for a Bruce love song, a female object is assumed, no? He's not Stephin Merritt : )

Mar 15 12 - 9:26pm
mtndeano

Don't forget Crazy Janie "Me and crazy Janie makin' love in the dirt" (Spirit in the Night). He also uses Jane on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle "Jane moves over to share a pillow but sees Johnny up and puttin' his clothes on" (Incident on 57th Street) That Jane is wiser and more settled than poor Johnny who's about to go out and mess himself up.

Mar 15 12 - 10:49pm
Monica

If you're looking for a rebuttal to Ms. Bohanan's post, please check out: http://moniacal.wordpress.com/2012/03/16/the-boss-loves-women-and-dont-l...

Mar 21 12 - 12:10am
Nice work!

Great read.

Mar 16 12 - 7:47am
Sara

Funny, I always thought he made music for the people. I also thought his music was just that, HIS MUSIC. If you want your music your way, then go make music your way. I don't see any rich men complaining about his music. The only one man in Bruce Springsteen's music. The poor hardworking guy. Americans are starting to take things too far.

Mar 16 12 - 5:00pm
Lia

What do you mean "starting to take things too far"? Critical analyses of pop culture is "taking things to far"? It's not as though the author is calling for a boycott of Springsteen's music - she's a fan sharing her observations. I hate when thoughtful, appreciate analyses are met with cries of "if you don't like it , don't listen" or "go make your own movies/music/novels etc." That is so not the point.

Mar 16 12 - 7:33pm
Ravenock

Oh, come now. You're forgetting "woman as sex object" in the date rape ballad "Fire". Seriously, how is that song about anything but date rape and/or sexual assault?

Mar 17 12 - 3:07pm
WingsForWheels

I'll grant you it isn't Bruce at his most PC, but it isn't as if the narrator is acting on what might be going through his head. To me, it's more about sexual frustration and confusion from the male POV. Why does she say "No" when the kissing is so intense and seems like the beginning of something even better? Whereas the woman might be thinking more along the lines of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

I do understand how women might find this song (and I'm on Fire, where he sings to an already taken "little girl") problematic. But in my experience, these are some of the most popular songs among many female fans.

Mar 17 12 - 2:55pm
K

What about "Secret Garden"? He knows women are complex and smart and have a lot going on.

Mar 18 12 - 10:49pm
drbill

Obviously "Spare Parts" was overlooked. Great Song about a women's struggle understanding her goals in life and motherhood. How did ya miss this one?

Mar 19 12 - 11:58pm
BlueCarp

I had never really listened to the lyrics of "Fire" before reading this thread. How does the song's meaning change when sung from the female perspective by the Pointer Sisters?

Mar 20 12 - 3:32pm
robertcaro9941

I remember in the morning, ma, hearing your alarm clock ring
I'd lie in bed and listen to you getting ready for work
The sound of your makeup case on the sink
And the ladies at the office
All lipstick, perfume and rustling skirts
And how proud and happy you always looked walking home from work

Bruce Springsteen "The Wish"

Mar 21 12 - 12:12am
Must say...

I appreciate the relative civility of this discussion.

Mar 21 12 - 6:00pm
WingsForWheels

Tramps like us are good people :)

Mar 24 12 - 8:31pm
Nice

This is nonsense.

Art does and should reflect the experiences and imagination of the protagonist: not some cretin with an ideological agenda.

Hugs xxx

Apr 16 12 - 8:51am
Victor

Just another reason to hate Bruce Springsteen. Here are 10 more reasons in easy to read bullet points complete with video aids: http://blogs.phillymag.com/the_philly_post/2012/03/28/hate-bruce-springs...