Dead Girlfriends’ “On Fraternity”: When Male Musicians Write About Rape

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Yesterday, James Brooks — the artist formerly known as Elite Gymnastics and these days known as Dead Girlfriends — released a new EP entitled Stop Pretending. The EP’s caused a heap of debate online, largely because of its closing track, “On Fraternity,” a song that addresses rape culture and patriarchy. The most debated aspect of the song is its initial verses, which seem to envisage the experience of a potential sexual assault situation from the perspective of a woman. The reaction to the song has been swift and polarized, with some commentators praising Brooks for tackling this subject matter and others condemning him for writing about an experience they assume he’s never had.

Clearly, there’s something potentially controversial about this, and because the Internet has never seen a potential controversy it didn’t want a piece of, there have already been plenty of opinions expressed about the song. The responses have ranged from the measured and thoughtful to the unfortunately mean-spirited, with most falling somewhere in between.

On the whole, there’s been a definite knee-jerk reaction — largely from people apparently unfamiliar with Brooks’ oeuvre in general (because he’s written extensively and eloquently about sexism and feminism on his Tumblr for quite some time now) who are immediately eager to jump down the throat of a straight white dude daring to express an opinion on rape culture because, no matter how well-intentioned he is, he’s part of the problem, right?

Only, wait. Because maybe the song’s not quite as straightforward as it looks. Interestingly enough, as a male, I read the lyric as about a male experience — not about rape, specifically, but about being victimized by frat boys and/or other avatars of the patriarchy. (I’m not the only one to have read it this way, apparently.) The lyrics in full are here, but the verses most cited are as follows:

The way your heart speeds up When you notice someone walking behind you- Well, that’s why. The way they’re all watching for your guard to drop At the end of the night now- Well, that’s why. It’s like you have to wear black in places like this In their opinion you were always kind of asking for it All along Who cares if it’s right as long as it’s fun? So if someone gets hurt and then the cops come, then No One Talks.

It could be about rape, of course. But it doesn’t have to be, does it? The second person seems to invite listeners to impose their own experience on the lyrics. In this respect, it’s unsurprising that feminist critics have taken up the idea that he’s writing about rape from the perspective of a woman, but that’s not the only possible interpretation.

The fact that the lyric is ambiguous enough to accommodate many such interpretations suggests that perhaps the firebrand accusations of Brooks trying to appropriate women’s experiences are both premature and unfair. Brooks himself surfaced on Tumblr this afternoon to say something similar: “I’m sort of starting to veer too closely to the zone of ‘stuff I am probably not willing to go into depth about in the context of a tumblr debate post,’ but women aren’t the only people in the world who get raped, you know?”

Only Brooks knows exactly what he’s alluding to here, although reading it makes me sort of clench my teeth and cross my fingers he’s not saying what I think he’s saying. But either way, it’s perhaps telling that pretty much no one on the Internet stopped to think that, hey, maybe Brooks does have his own experience in this area. Instead, there was plentiful, “Oh, you’re a straight white male, SHUT UP.”

But then, even that’s somewhat simplistic, because there’s a definite theme of questioning gender that runs through “On Fraternity” and the rest of Stop Pretending. The title itself rather evokes the idea of gender confusion or ambiguity, and it’s echoed in the title track’s lyrics: “If people talk shit and say ‘You’re not one of us’/ I guess we can stop pretending now that I ever was.” There are plenty of questions raised by this, most specifically: who is “us” here? Jocks? The patriarchy? Brooks’ fellow musicians? (He’s not been afraid to call them out in the past, and the “Who cares if it’s right so long as it’s punk?” line here seems to allude to similar subject matter.)

Or is it males in general? The idea that all these songs certainly can be read from a female perspective is perhaps less a case of appropriation and more a case of identification — it’s interesting, for instance, that the only first-person pronoun in “On Fraternity” comes in its very last line: “This is why I wanted out.” And then, as if to reinforce the point, there’s this press shot.

This is all speculation, of course, but there’s a point to be made here about jumping to conclusions about the perspectives of people because they appear to be privileged/gender normative/etc. If with these lyrics Brooks is exploring the idea of gender fluidity, it puts an interesting spin on the idea that “On Fraternity” is about imagining what it must be like not to be male.

And even if he isn’t, there’s something to be said for encouraging men to think about what it must feel like to be a woman in these situations. Of course, as many commentators have pointed out, a man will never really know — but then, honestly, we can never know how any other human being apart from ourselves experiences the world. That doesn’t prevent us from empathizing with them.

If I had to guess what Brooks’ intentions were with “On Fraternity,” I’d hazard that it was about how rape culture and the patriarchy make victims out of a whole lot of people, any of whom can identify with the experiences related in this song. It’s a valid subject, and a point worth making. Whether or not this song is rooted in Brooks’ personal experience shouldn’t matter — if writers could never write from outside their experience, we’d never have fiction at all — but the fact that so many people jumped to the conclusion that it wasn’t says more about his critics’ own problem with inclusivity, and their tendency towards unfounded assumptions, than about anything else.