You Oughta Know

Alanis Morissette On Why America Must Embrace the Feminine

Disallowing same-sex marriage. Bullying. Depression. In order to become a freer society, America must embrace the feminine, writes singer Alanis Morissette.

Silvia Izquierdo / AP Photo

In 1995, I was thrust into the role of reluctant, flag-waving feminist and emotionally-focused artist/advocate. Overnight, I was being asked to lunch by feminists the world over, and yet I was not in any way objective about my place or contribution to this latest rising of the divine feminine in our culture.

Certainly, I had the raw qualities to take on this role. Yet, in my mind, all I had done was semi-naively write a record that mattered to me, and more importantly, mattered to ALL parts (emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual and otherwise) of me: Jagged Little Pill.

For me, the conversation around this record wound up being an inadvertent commentary on what was happening with the feminine aspects in our culture at the time. Perhaps because the album spoke to the money/fame, perpetual youth-hungry, might-is-right American dream paradigm (i.e.: it broke records, won awards and made bank) the empowered feminine (incorporating emotionality, fiery-kali anger, vulnerability and tenderness, to name a few) was being given a say in a culture in a way it seemed not to have been in days past.

The scales were still dramatically tipped, in 1995, toward the disempowered-male, masculine approach to life, yet there was this whisper of a portended, more integrated future that gave rise to femininity being given its chance by the industry. Now instead of hearing, “Well, we’re already playing a woman on our radio station,” the album was welcomed.

This change showed up in many socio-political environments, most notably and stunningly around the topic of legally recognizing same-sex marriage—the discussion alone of which requires openness, powerful femininity, and leanings toward “win-win”—all aspects of Femininity (as I like to capitalize Her).

The ideal vision, in theory, would be to find the delicate and meaningful blend of both the masculine and feminine, and the acceptance of the fact that we all fall somewhere unique on this continuum … and that it is a continuum.

The embodiment of the empowered feminine and masculine, in theory, would “show up” in people who possess varying degrees of both qualities. The most important part being that what we had on our hands was less a gender war, and more of a resistance to the masculine or feminine within each of us.

The 1990s offered a glimmer of hope as the feminine side was beginning to be explored—with less apology—in music, film, and comedy (all known for their masculine-centricity).

I was part of a wave of musician/activists (the crest!) that started with many of my fore-sisters: Patti Smith, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and closer to my generation, Sinead O’Connor, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey and Courtney Love.

With all the fever-pitched, PTSD-producing mayhem that touching on a crackling zeitgeist can yield (aka the “success” of and ensuing tour for Jagged Little Pill), I found everyone telling me what a huge responsibility I had; that I needed to use this fame to support the emergence of the divine feminine, to turn the feminine frown upside down, so to speak; to put the crown back on her shiny-haired head! It was very daunting and exciting. And while I had some semblance of objectivity of where we had come from, culturally, and where we could well be going, I was still subject to the patriarchy, misogyny, and chauvinism that I was being commissioned to help comment on, and ultimately, help eradicate.

Whether it was inappropriate use of power by so-called mentors—which I sing about in a song called “Hands Clean”—or the art-killing “violence” that involves working as a sensitive and vulnerable young artist with a bevy of suit-wearing, agenda-to-exploit archetypes whom I rail against in “Right Through You,” I felt it in the professional, romantic, political, and personal contexts alike. The main message was: the feminine is dangerous, and must be snuffed out within and without us, alike.

I—along with so many other brazen women—became a target of the unrest around the rupture we all felt about disassociating from the feminine. Whether I reminded people of their moms, their ex-girlfriends, or their sisters, one thing was certain: this was barely personal. For how could it be? The most vocal of the aggressors didn’t even know me.

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While I did have a propensity for Joan of Arc brazenness (Passion! Willingness! Feistiness! God-love! Sincerity!), I didn’t have the wisdom, age, or objectivity enough in the ’90s to be thrust into the front lines of a movement, especially with the movement itself being in such a fragile place. It seemed we were at a fork in the road, with the feminine being potentially extolled and exalted for its connection-inducing liberation, or, in the opposite direction, being feared, hated and snuffed back into submission. Yikes, ouch, and … help!

The movement seemed to split off somewhere in the ’90s into two very different directions: one was going the way of empowerment, the other, in the direction of further disempowerment, with an aggressive downward turn back toward the feminine being shamed, mocked, and outright abused.

Slowly it became clear that we have not been fighting each other in a “gender war”—as it became so popularly known as—nor that the “war” was personal in any way. What we really had been fighting was the idea that feminine and masculine are inextricably linked and dependent upon each other, and that it is the act of embracing these contra-sexual parts of ourselves that offered the peaceful and inspired future that we all say we long for.

Much of this clarity is found by looking no further than the people who are in the audience at my shows, or hearing about bullying stories, or reading about how stress and depression are the leading killers in America, seeing that same-sex marriage is still disallowed in so many places, and most recently, witnessing my very own self, continuing to sing “You Oughta Know” with more passion than ever before. There began to be a through-line to all these stories: It is the feminine within these stories that the patriarchy has attempted, and still attempts, to get rid of.

So it becomes less about “men hating women/women hating men” and becomes more about the fear and loathing of the feminine within our own hearts and minds, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Importantly and secondarily, it’s the disempowerment of both the masculine and the feminine that is also the culprit here.

What has been grossly overlooked throughout age immemorial is that both aspects need each other for wholeness! And that unification of both, in all its forms, (meaning peace, connection, healing, inspiration, prosperity of all kinds) is our birthright.

So the idea of true partnership and connection (inner and outer)—which so many are saying is the way of the future and will ultimately stave off the destruction of our planet—requires an empowered version of both the masculine (action, generosity, solution, confidence, boldness, industry, strength etc.) and the feminine (vulnerability, tenderness, yielding, humility, grace, intuition, heart, etc.) aspects to come together, seeing the need for the other. And that this unification and complement will show up in every area of our lives: work, romance, family, health, business, art, and even politics.

So as it turns out, it’s the disempowerment of the masculine and the fear of the feminine in us that is patriarchy. The fear of this delicate and fierce feminine has more to do with our fear of being vulnerable again, getting hurt again, than it does by our actual distaste for the beauty of the feminine and Her qualities. But our avoidance and resistance to Her is torturing men and women alike, and tearing apart the fabric of what could be a very harmonious society.

Liberation is only possible with the integration of these two aspects, equally respected for their unique and powerful contribution. Not in evidencing these qualities equally every day by homogenizing and overriding our unique essential temperaments (not possible!) and contexts, but rather simply accepting these parts, even loving them, in ourselves, and in others.

Creating inner partnership between both the masculine and feminine would render us all humanists, life-ists, and wholeness-ists, rather than patriarch-ists or feminists/matriarchists.

The feminine has been lost within our stories about who God is, which has turned sex into a domination/submission at times addictive power play, perpetuated a work-addicted money/fame/youth hungry society, and put us at odds with some of the most powerful emotional/intuitive parts of our natural selves.

So in the face of patriarchy, it is a brave act indeed for both men and women to embrace, rather than shame or attempt to eradicate the feminine. Whether it’s by keeping art programs alive in schools, respecting and compensating artists and teachers well, risking being more vulnerable in our relationships, more transparent in our businesses, living more communally, creating more rest and rejuvenation in our lifestyles, redefining God by including the feminine, or redefining what enough means to us (so that not every waking moment is spent making money/ego gratifying fame more important than our relationships), or shifting the cultural/political arenas to skew toward win-win rather than win-lose … we have before us a powerful mending of our birthright union.

And so, by accepting and embracing the feminine within us, and flying in the face of an overly masculinized (of the disempowered variety) society (with all of its disconnected and lonely results), we support this empowered and connected brave new world we all dream of, and, allow this union to serve as a direct portal to the Divine.