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"Son, Can’t You See That She’s Just a Little Girl?"

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“Son, Can’t You See That She’s Just a Little Girl?”


From the hypermasculine stance on the cover to Springsteen’s forcefully vigorous vocals throughout, Born in the U.S.A. is an album about masculinity, clearly operating from a man’s point of view. To Springsteen’s credit, his women are seldom sex objects, and when they are, such as on “Darlington County”, that objectification is punished. However, there is little subversion of assigned gender roles within Springsteen’s portraits. In fact, his women are largely powerless, kept firmly in the private sphere, functioning as trophies or even as entitlements for the male protagonists. Such blind traditionalism was especially notable in 1984, when everyone from Madonna to Cyndi Lauper to Chrissie Hynde and Tina Turner were subverting the standard rock masculinity. Hell, even Springsteen’s mega-selling male rivals, Michael Jackson and Prince, did more, in both appearance and sound, to challenge the common expectations of masculine performance. In being a rock and roll revivalist, Springsteen also revived the less savory aspects of rock and roll, namely the Eisenhower-era female submission that coursed through so much early rock.


If Born puts forth the male version of the American Dream, one glaring question left unanswered is what is the woman’s American Dream? The album’s two most empowered female characters, the unnamed love interest from “Downbound Train” and Bobby Jean, both shun their oppressive circumstances for the promise of the unknown, striking out independently rather than in service of a man. Yet neither is given her own story: their murky disappearances are relayed exclusively through the men they have let down. While the “Bobby Jean” narrator offers begrudging respect, the “Downbound Train” sadsack almost villainizes the woman for leaving, as if she had no interest in him once his income declined, and she became complicit in his torturous downward spiral. But in the rest of the songs, women are confined to the standard patriarchal roles: supportive protector, shrewish tease, object of a lustful male gaze. On “Working on the Highway”, the “little girl who don’t know nothin’ about this cruel, cruel world” is torn between two forms of patriarchy, her domineering male family and her overzealous male suitor, with no conceivable hope of transcending patriarchy by her own means.


Born, especially its second half, drops hints of the fractured adult relationships that Springsteen would explore in full on 1987’s Tunnel of Love, as well as throughout the ’90s. Aside from “Darlington County”, there is little actual fucking taking place. “I’m Goin’ Down”, “I’m on Fire”, and “Dancing in the Dark” are, like so many rock songs before them, specifically about not fucking. The interaction between the narrator and the once untouchable looker on “Glory Days” is fraught with sexual tension, but contact never materializes, as the two are content to relive old memories rather than create new ones. This contrasts much of Springsteen’s earlier work, where sexual payoffs were constantly implied, if not directly stated. But Born completed Springsteen’s gradual transition from romantic ideologue enamored with the dual promises of America and rock and roll, to a cynical journeyman keenly aware of the hollowness at the core of such promises. And both the American Dream, in its emphasis on the American values of family and virility, and rock and roll, with its rebellious attitudes towards sexual inhibition, affirm (male) sexuality as core components of their promises.


But ultimately, their promises are myths, as alternately alluring and disappointing for men as the myths of monogamous love and predestined romance that characterize more feminized forms of entertainment, from Jane Austen novels to romantic comedies, are for women. The American Dream is an ideal we chase, not a birthright we’re automatically awarded. Just as people work hard their entire lives to no great avail, so people spend their lives in search of love, romance, and sexual satisfaction as well. America produces dozens of failure stories for every story of success. And thanks to Bruce Springsteen, twelve of those failure stories, unflinching warts-and-all portrayals, found their way on to Born in the U.S.A.

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