On this occasion of Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday, I’d like to take a moment to wish her many happy returns and explain a little bit about why I admire her. It’s not because of her art. It’s not because of her music. Neither of those things are all that great. It’s because I feel she did more for feminism than any number of political activists or angry writers. She redefined, in the popular imagination, what it meant to be a wife. (And here I will also give part of the credit to Linda McCartney.)
Why did Yoko, and to a lesser extent Linda, attract so much rage and criticism from every corner or society? It’s not because she broke up The Beatles. That’s bullshit. The Beatles were going to break up anyhow. It’s not just because Yoko is a damn dirty non-Caucasian foreigner, although racism certainly played a part. Yoko’s crime was that she had the sheer nerve to be her husband’s equal. The problem had two parts; one, she just wasn’t pretty enough for a big famous rock star; and two, she had things to say and goddamn it, John listened to those things and took them seriously and wanted everyone else to, too.
The first problem – not pretty enough. Now, by regular human standards, Yoko Ono has always been an attractive enough looking woman. But she’s no fashion model, no movie star, no unattainable superhuman ideal. She’s just a regular woman of average appearance. That goes for Linda McCartney as well, but she at least had the decency to have blonde hair. Nobody had any problems with the first round of Beatles wives, because they were all safely, conventionally, nonthreateningly attractive. They were decorative, just as wives should be. Patti Boyd was a fashion model, Jane Asher a minor movie actress, Cynthia Lennon and Maureen Starr were housewives. Three of them were blondes. I am no way disparaging Patti Boyd or any of the others, they were all, in their own way, strong women who made the best of a very weird situation. But they didn’t threaten the status quo. Then Yoko and Linda came along. Plain looking, smart women with creative careers of their own and ideas in their heads. With the others, you could understand why those guys chose them. They were pretty, and famous rock stars are entitled to have pretty things. But why, oh god why, would Beatle John and Beatle Paul choose such non-hot women for wives? What could they possibly see in them? In a culture where a woman’s worth is measured in beauty, Yoko and Linda were practically subhuman. They obviously had no worth as decorative objects. And in that way, they both forced the public to grapple with the possibility that they had worth as human beings; intellectual worth, spiritual worth, creative worth. Those were marriages based on something more than disposable physical attributes. That was a radical, radical notion in 1969.
Secondly, Yoko Ono had ideas. Which she said. Out loud. In public. She was an artist, and not just a maker of pleasant objects. Her art was meant to challenge, to confuse, to inspire thought. She not only made her own art, she influenced her husband’s art. John listened to her. They shared an intellectual affinity. She changed him, opened his eyes to new ideas, and I would argue, made him a better, more enlightened person. Together they experimented with music, film, art projects, political activism. As equals. Where one went, the other followed. Always as equals. The fact that many of those collaborations weren’t very good is beside the point. The point is they did those things, because they loved to do things together and didn’t care about what flak they would be getting for it. Which, meanwhile, is exactly what Paul and Linda were also doing. Playing music, making art, raising a family, doing everything together in a partnership. Those were radical, radical things to be doing.
The press raged. Who did those two bitches think they were? How dare they try to influence their husbands? How dare they make themselves heard? Did that crazy Japanese bitch Yoko somehow bewitch our John? Yoko was too weird. She was making John turn weird too. She was a bad influence. She wasn’t worthy of being his wife. She wasn’t good enough, she wasn’t talented enough, she wasn’t pretty enough, she wasn’t white enough. What nobody could grasp was, John thought she was good enough. They loved and respected each other and they didn’t care if the world didn’t approve. Nobody has been put through so much public abuse for no good reason than Yoko Ono has. She has been called every insulting word, she has been vilified and scapegoated. And she has handled it with remarkable grace and dignity. She simply went on doing her thing, speaking her mind, being herself. Eventually, over the years, the hate abated. She earned respect for her courage after John’s death. She earned respect for continuing to make music and create art, and as the keeper of John’s legacy. Most of all, she’s earned respect for being unquestionably her own woman, despite everything that has been thrown her way. She married arguably the most famous man in the world, but refused to be overshadowed by his fame, refused to let his identity obliviate hers. She put her foot down and demanded to be his equal in the eyes of the world. The world responded with anger and hatred at first, but eventually the world came around. Now we take it for granted that two people, even if one of them is the most famous man in the world, can have a bond that’s not just based on the man’s desire to possess an attractive thing. That’s something a lot of very, very smart women have written a lot of books about. But I believe that written manifestos only go so far. The common person doesn’t care about some activist writing angry letters. But the common person cares very much about The Beatles, and it took The Beatles leading by example to make the common person pay attention. It’s because people were paying attention to the personal life habits of a couple of rock stars that we now accept that a wife is more than a piece of furniture, that marriage should be a partnership of equals, that the woman deserves to be heard, that being an outspoken brave person is more important than being pretty and love is all you need.