[CONTENT WARNING: ABUSE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, RAPE, SUICIDE]
I have been having thoughts about the refrain of “sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth” in “Monkey & Bear” for quite some time now. I wrote an early draft of this mini-essay on my iPhone while on a disastrously long subway ride to Queens a month ago and it’s taken me this long to actually set it down officially.
As mentioned previously on this blog, “Monkey & Bear” is probably my least favorite from Ys musically and aesthetically, but its lyrics have always been a treasure trove for feminist analysis. Some of what I will talk about below responds in part to Rachel’s most wonderful essay on Bear, clothing, and performative femininity.
At a literal level, the refrain refers to Bear and her (in)ability to eat because of Monkey’s abuse. Monkey is controlling her food consumption as a way to fetter her and exploit her. He explicitly begins their “liberation” from the farm with fear-mongering about eating (“But, Ursala, we’ve got to eat something/ And earn our keep, while still within/ The borders of the land that man has girded”).
But the refrain also bespeaks of Monkey’s fear of Bear and the revenge she may take against him.
[Rachel’s Note: Wow! Wow! Wow! What an incredible piece from a long time reader of this blog. I think she’s introduced a really interesting idea that we haven’t talked that much about on allthebirds, which is Joanna’s use of ‘fantasy’ in her work as an embodiment of power. Definitely something to think about some more. Enjoy this fantastic read!]
I wrote this paper last semester about Joanna’s “Monkey and Bear” as both colonial and feminist allegory, but more importantly (I think), about how the character of Ursala can come to symbolically represent the function of fantasy as a genre. I suppose it’s somewhat relevant to how Joanna is often very flatly (and simplistically) equated to this idea of sparkly, airy fantasy - elves and unicorns and so on - and how we can rethink the way she’s used fantasy in her work to overturn our preconceptions and notions of fantasy. :)
Ursala’s narrative in Joanna Newsom’s song “Monkey and Bear” can be read simultaneously in three different ways, all of which serve to support, add meaning, and build on each other. Ursala’s initial subjugation to Monkey and eventual act of escape could be interpreted as an allegory of colonial subjugation; as a narrative of female emancipation; and as a symbolic testing of the ability of fantasy as a genre that best expresses the subversion of prevailing social structures of power.
The characterisation of Monkey (ironically) comments on the nature of humans when faced with the prospect of power: even when freed from bondage as presumed equals, as Monkey and Ursala inadvertently are, there is a tendency for humans to reassert an exploitative hierarchy. Monkey’s alignment with humankind is asserted through several poetic devices. Despite his disparaging of their “allegiance to a life of service”, Monkey is proficient in economic terms as well as the technical names of the various roles humans play. He tells Ursala that they must pay no heed to their previous owner—“that heartless hay-monger” and “charlatan”; refuse to be his “accomplice” in his “artless hustling”; that they must “earn their keep” and “pay the bills” in a land that men have kept “tight-fisted”. In contrast to the imagery of Ursala’s “paw”, “hind legs”, and “dun-brown gown of fur”, all signalling Ursala’s comfort and ease with her natural animal state (as opposed to the ‘unnatural’ vestments that she must don—which I will elaborate on later), Monkey indicates to her “here is my hand”, “shoulder[s] his lamp”, and construes her as a “bride”, “love”, and “darling” (again, human terms of relationships and endearments). The association of Monkey with this set of imagery positions him as occupying the role of his once-master.
I too have heard of the interpretation that clairewitchproject suggested below about Bear’s eventual transformation into Ursa Major. I don’t think there is much evidence for that in the text, but in my post that I cited below (and I’ll cite it again here), I argued that Joanna’s Bear is definitely influenced by the mythological Callisto, the nymph transformed into a bear and then later transformed into the asterism, Ursa Major.
I must say that if this interpretation has basis, I don’t think it would be a very feminist statement on Joanna’s part. I’m a Classics graduate student and I have already started my dissertation project on rapes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One of Ovid’s longest and most horrifying rape scenes is that of Callisto by Jupiter. After Juno finds out about what Jupiter did, Juno totally blames the victim and said that Callisto seduced her husband. Then, out of vengeance, the queen of the gods transforms Callisto into a bear with her human intellect still intact. Callisto later gave birth to Jupiter’s son, Arcas and did not encounter him again for sixteen years. When she sees her son again, Callisto knows it is her son, but Arcas only sees a bear and is about to kill her as he is hunting. Jupiter, the serial rapist, believes this is even too cruel a fate for his rape victim and transforms both her and her son into Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Callisto’s metamorphosis into an asterism is a way for Jupiter to fatally cover up his rape of Callisto and a way for him to finally triumph over her by eliminating further guilt or punishment from his wife.
However, Bear’s possible transformation into Ursa Major, might add to the ambiguity of her final act. Is Joanna making a comment on the state of femininity (and therefore, is making a feminist statement)? Are women who are sexually abused by men (Bear and Callisto) ultimately always in the power of those men? Do men always have the upper hand? Is there ever freedom from sexual abuse? These are interesting questions and I would like to see more evidence for Bear’s transformation before I go any farther.
(N.B. I would have loved to have cited a lot of poetic and metrical Latin here, but I am sure I would have bored/confused you all to death, so I refrained.)
I definitely agree with your point that bear is representative of someone being exploited for monetary gain. I wrote in my original post on Monkey and Bear (Melissa included the link two posts down) that Bear is presented specifically as “female” and that Monkey uses her femininity to exploit and imprison her and that his actions are born out of a deep fear that Bear has the potential to control her own “femaleness”/body (ie, when she bathes in the caves).
I think the ending of the song is extremely complicated. I think there is a sense of freedom and release, but the fate of Bear is intentionally ambiguous. We don’t really know whether or not she is destroyed in the process. I personally believe that Joanna builds this theme throughout the album (the intersection of imprisonment and freedom, and whether or not anything is resolved by being “free”).
What do other folks think? I love that we are discussing this!
We received it! :)
I’ve heard that idea brought up before, I think, in some discussions of the song. I can see where some listeners would make the connection, since Joanna mentions Ursa Major in “Emily” as well. I’m not totally convinced that that is what’s happening at the end of the song, but if that’s your reading, I would love to hear your reasoning behind it.
Unfortunately, I can’t pretend like I’m very knowledgeable about constellations and the mythology surrounding them, so I wouldn’t be able comment on whether or not there’s a feminist reading in that idea, but if anyone else would like to give that a go, I would love to read it! I’ll try to think on it a bit and get back to you if I come up with anything!
Do you have any thoughts on it?
Here is a submission from the same non-tumblr user in the last post:
I’m surprised there is not much discussion of the song “Monkey & Bear” on here. I have always felt it was a story of a controlling man, exploiting his lover. I have always felt for Bear, following Monkey until they “…reach the open country a-steeped in milk and honey.” Though Monkey really only wants her to dance for profit. But Bear is smarter and more brave than Monkey givers her credit for. I feel it is a very courageous tale of someone breaking free from someone’s control. I have never been able to make much sense of the end. I have always seen bears legs and arms falling off as a sign that she cant be exploited anymore, as she wouldn’t be able to dance again. I don’t want to believe bear dies at the end, maybe just a part of her. What are your thoughts on this: Do you think Bear dies at the end?
Rachel and I have written two major posts on “Monkey & Bear” before. You can find them here and here. The former is a post by me about bears generally in Joanna’s corpus and their ties to her notions of femininity and identity. The latter is by Rachel and concerns how Bear’s body is essentially feminine and how her femininity is destructive. I know I have not written about “Monkey & Bear” more because, like “Colleen,” the song appears to be an overtly feminist statement from Joanna and thus, does not require much further analysis from me. An idea can pop into my head sometime in the future, though…
I think you’re right about the narrative. It’s most definitely about gendered exploitation and creepily conditional love. I’ve always loved how Joanna never allows us to hear Bear’s voice. We hear Monkey’s cajoling and criticism and the narrator’s voice. But what does Bear think about stepping clear of Bear?
And as for the ending, that’s a really great interpretation and it would be fantastic if you could elaborate on that more for a post. I’ve never really considered it important whether she dies or not. Her breakdown/unraveling is the most pivotal part of the song and Joanna wants us to see it as a product and a result of her femininity. Rachel’s post delves into her final act very deeply (and I believe, correctly). Go ahead and read that. Joanna certainly believes that Bear’s femininity is something we all have to face and she leaves her audience with many difficult questions. It’s hard determine “who wins” in this story. Bear escapes from Monkey and as you said, she is no longer oppressed without her dancing limbs, but is freedom from abuse really at such a high price?
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.