Turn on the television, radio, or simply scan the front covers of magazines. Browse ‘youtube’ or drive down the highway past hundreds of billboards. Today, no matter where we go, it is nearly impossible to escape the constant images of men and women performing certain roles. The media places men and women in what is seemingly an ‘appropriate’ gender role for the society in which we live. Because of this, gender is commonly seen as a dichotomous concept. Femininity is thus synonymous with vulnerability, weakness, and passiveness, while masculinity is believed to be strong, assertive, and confident. For the most part, these concepts are reinforced frequently in popular culture. A rare but excellent response to this conventional display of ‘femininity’ is represented by the ska-punk band No Doubt and their song “Just a Girl”. Gwen Stefani recognizes, and subsequently mocks, the hegemonic tendency to believe that being a woman is, fundamentally, being pretty and needy.
Stefani blatantly acknowledges the patriarchal society of America in the first line of her song: “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes”. A patriarchal culture shapes ideas about the way social life is supposed to operate and what is expected of people (Johnson 95). This line is symbolically referencing the fact that society has separated her into the gender role she is ‘supposed’ to occupy and assume she will display the corresponding characteristics. This principle haunts the everyday lives and actions of men and women alike, consciously or subconsciously. The song implies that these ‘feminine’ characteristics are limiting and bothersome. Likewise, she sings “don’t you think I know exactly where I stand”, implying yet again that by being a woman, she has a specific lot in life and is seemingly confined to the realm of ‘femininity’ and exclusively to the traits that accompany it.
Gwen Stefani would agree with the media critic Jennifer Pozner’s statement about the patriarchal society in which we live. Pozner writes “…women are valued as ‘perfect 10s’ simply for being pretty, passive, and intellectually unthreatening” (98). Similarly, Stefani ridicules this limiting status for girls by singing “I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don't let me have any rights”. This statement implies that the world of American girl’s is somewhat pre-destined. Ultimately the value of a woman is merely characteristic of whether or not she possesses the select few external traits that define femininity.
Moreover, it is commonly thought that those external traits are identical in every woman. This can be seen on front covers of magazines where every woman is wearing makeup and exhibiting a ‘girly’ pose that reinforces pre-conceived notions about femininity. On the odd occasion that a girl is not ‘made up’, in a literal and figurative manner, before getting her picture taken, the magazine mentions multiple times that ‘so-and-so’ decided to not cover up her face. Unfortunately, it is more astonishing in American culture if a woman is not conventionally pretty and wearing makeup in the exact same manner as other women. Thus, it follows that every woman is believed to be an indistinguishable set of strict characteristics. Stefani, yet again, shows contempt about the fact that every woman is understood to be a carbon copy. Consequently, she calls herself “just your typical prototype”, poking fun at the norm.
In the same verse, Stefani sings “your rule of thumb makes me worrisome”, referencing the aforementioned beliefs as well as the control society has over her identity. The sociologist and author Allan Johnson mentions this power in the following way. “Above all, patriarchal culture is about the core value of control and domination in almost every area of human existence” (94). The ‘rule of thumb’ Stefani refers to is that same dominance Johnson considers existent in our culture. Society has made rules about gender roles and continues to sustain those rules by highlighting them in elements of popular culture and imitating them in daily life. This type of caged in and controlling lifestyle makes the lead singer of No Doubt, and other women as well, disturbed and distressed. Because of this, Stefani attempts to make the culture aware of the patriarchal society in which we live by referencing all the elements that sustain it, and how they make her feel.
At the end of the song Stefani repeats multiple times that she is angry. Her resentment seems to stem from the limited role she is ‘allowed’ to play in society, simply by being female. She rejects the control and limitations of the social construct of ‘being a woman’. After analyzing the way Stefani attacks the society in which we live it is easy to see why the phrase “I’m just a girl” is repeatedly used. This phrase is the most important and honest statement in the entire song. What has been defined as socially acceptable indirectly defines the whole of a woman. In this sense, girls are nothing more than feminine characteristics. Therefore, Stefani is repeatedly saying she is JUST a girl – the sum total of vulnerability, weakness, and physical beauty - because that is how womanhood and femininity are frequently illustrated.
Johnson, Allan G. “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us.” The Gender Knot: Unraveling Out Patriarchal Legacy. Temple University Press, 1997 (91-98).
Pozner, Jennifer. Learning Gender. 96- 99. Print.
Stefani, Gwen. “Just a Girl”. Tragic Kingdom. Interscope, 1995.