Welcome to Blessing All the Birds, a feminist fan project focused on the work of songwriter Joanna Newsom. We see Newsom's work as feminist literature and our goal is to provide it the serious critical analysis it deserves, as well as to discuss her unique place in popular culture.
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There have been a couple posts  circulating my tumblr dashboard in the past few days that have set my mind towards a reading of Monkey and Bear, specifically focused on the way the song engages with the concept of Bear’s body. I’ve also been mulling over all of the ideas about adornment, clothing and femininity that our brief foray into the world of fashion brought up and I think that they will surface in this post.

For the new readers, Melissa has already posted a really excellent exploration of bears in Joanna’s work, in which she suggested that bears might represent, for Joanna, aspects of “femininity” (art, intuition, nature, creativity). This post is not a response to Melissa’s work at all, but you should read it because it is awesome and I will probably pick up on a few ideas of hers here. For one, I also see Bear as an embodiment of the “female”, particularly in regards to her body.

I want to talk in more detail about the idea of “baring” in the song as it pertains to Bear’s body. Perhaps I should first establish that Bear’s body is, for most of the song, covered and contained in “fancy clothes”. There are repeated references to what Bear is wearing and her clothes seem to represent a prison, an insistence on the act of “performing femininity”.

This idea of performance is important to the song and, I think, to Joanna as well. On Have One on Me she explores this through Lola Montez and talks a lot about the commodification of the female body and femininity, how both are “performed” for economic gain. That Monkey and Bear rely so heavily, for their physical and economic survival, on the performance of Bear’s body and acceptance of traditional gender norms (They had got to pay the bills, hadn’t they?/That is what the Monkey would say), is a sad statement about the world they live in, a world of prisons within prisons.

Indeed, the song is full of references to femininity, particularly the adornment and “performance” of the female body.  Bear is dressed in “fancy clothes”, the land is “girded” (read: girdle), her fur is a “dun-brown gown” and she wears a “jerkin of swan-down and leather”. I’d like to suggest that the scene in the water, when “Bear [steps] clear of Bear” is an act of shedding the confines of imposed femininity, but that it is not an act of liberation. I simply don’t believe that Monkey and Bear live in a world where liberation is possible (prisons within prisons within prisons).

The idea of shedding prisons is repeated throughout the song (most of all in the way that Monkey and Bear move from prison to prison). There is a repeated promise, spoken by Monkey, that Bear will “bare” her teeth. Monkey is promising freedom, that Bear will eventually be able to reveal her true nature. I would argue that a huge source of the tension in the relationship between Monkey and Bear is that Ursula’s “baring” is actually a constant threat that she will recognize the power in her self and, in this reading, her femininity.

This fear is at the centre of Monkey’s control over Bear. He is afraid of “spelunking down in the caves” where Ursula goes to bathe. He is terrified of her autonomy, but also of “what the village people would say.” The idea of a woman alone, with her natural body exposed, performing acts of self-care without an audience, is terrifying to Monkey.

The cruel duality of Monkey’s control over Ursula is that he both expects her to present herself in “fancy clothes” and yet shames her when she shows interest in her appearance and self-care. He can’t wait to chastise her for bathing herself:

Well, it seemed irrational, really; washing that face
washing that matted and flea-bit pelt
in some sea-spit-shine, old kelp dripping with brine
but monkey just laughed, and he muttered;
when she comes back, Ursula will be bursting with pride

'til I jump up!
saying: you’ve been rolling in muck!
saying: you smell of garbage and grime!

To me, this recollects our conversations about women and adornment- that they are allowed to be “fancy” only insofar as it makes them suitable for the male gaze (or in Bear’s case, the spectators). Monkey’s words recall the backlash against women who wear makeup, who are shamed as “unnatural” for wearing a face full of “gunk”.

But Monkey’s manipulation of Bear is even more insidious. Not happy to simply deceive her into wearing fancy clothes, he actively takes part in the shaping of her physical body. Monkey uses food as a tool of his control. He tells Ursula that she must leave her clothes on because “we’ve got to eat something” and promises a world, somewhere in the distance that is “steeped in milk and honey” (plentiful in food). As they walk, Monkey makes myriad promises of the potential to eat, imagining a world where the “hills are groaning with excess/like a table endlessly being set” and pleading with Bear to “keep your eyes set on the highest hill/ Where you’ll ever after eat your fill.” Yet, he denies Bear a stop along the way for tea, reasoning that the kettle will attract the attention of potential captors. Bear is starving and it takes a toll on her body, demonstrably in her need to mend her coat each night, after it becomes “threadbare”. She tries desperately to hold together the pieces of her fractured sense of self. Eventually the process becomes unbearable and she must “step clear of Bear”.

The interesting thing to me is that, by the end of the song, the line between the adornments (the “fancy clothes”) and Bear’s own physical body are so blurred that when she sheds herself, she does not simply take off clothing, but sheds her body parts. Taking her clothes off to bathe is no longer freeing enough for Bear. The demarcation between her body and the clothes she wears is so thoroughly eroded that by the end of the song her body itself is the adornment, the prison that she must shed. Newsom describes the various body parts as expressions of traditional femininity. The legs are “knobby garters”, her arms are lowered in a “genteel curtsy”, Bear’s shoulders are a “mantle” and her belly an “apronful of boulders”. In other words, her body itself has become a trap, or an expression of the confines of femininity, of subservience to Monkey, of her prison.

Sadly, in her final act, Bear is still “performing femininity”. Her feminised body becomes a net to catch the minnows, but she never gets to eat them. She goes out in a pirouette, “balletic and glacial”, still dancing, leaving only a shadowy reminder of the promise that “sooner or later” she’ll bare her teeth.

I’ll leave you all with this quote that came to me via wild-cosmia and struck me, as I was writing and wrapping my head around this post and the idea of women’s bodies as controlled, shaped etc. You will all be interested in the original post too. Read it. It is absolutely brilliant.

I am not a woman trapped in a man’s body. This body is no man’s; it is mine, it is me, and there is no man in that equation. And I am not trapped in it. There are a million and one ways out of this body, and I have clung to it, tooth and claw, despite an endless line of people and institutions who would rather I vacate the premises, and have sometimes been willing to make me bleed to convince me they’re right.

 

This body is mine, and I claim it and its bruises, and it is not a man’s, and I am not trapped here. I have looked leaving my body in the eye and I have said, in the end, hell no. There is too much to do, too much to love, too many who need one more of us to say hell no and help them say the same.

—- little light, “The Seam of Skin and Scales”

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