This post is by Cortney Alexander as part of the series Behind the Mask of Masculinity hosted by Gender Across Borders.
As a feminist scholar, I am interested in Kurt Cobain because he looked at masculinity from an outsider’s perspective, from a stance of marginality, never feeling a part of the mainstream. He offered, through his music and art, such striking insights into masculinity’s dysfunctions. Cobain constructed an image of himself that was highly suspicious of normative, hegemonic gender while at the same time desperately trying to find a comfortable relationship within socially acceptable gender roles. He publicly performed femininity as a challenge to the gender binary that enforced rigid masculinity. Many of Cobain’s songs were about heartache, divorce, rape, self-hatred and insecurity. In his lyrics and journals, Cobain often identified himself with women, racial and gender minorities because he felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity.
One way in which masculinity is performed is through physical strength and yet also through transcendence over the trappings of the physical body. This is constructed in contrast to femininity, which is performed through physical weakness and closeness with nature and the body. It is important to understand the social construction of nature in opposition to culture because women are associated with the feminine and the feminine is associated with nature and the corporeal body. In this dualist framework, men are associated with masculinity and the masculine is associated with rationality and transcendence from the physical body. Interestingly, while the masculine is granted the privilege of transcendence, men are still expected to be more physically strong than women so that in both realms, the mind and body, masculinity is valued over femininity.
When we apply this framework to Kurt Cobain we see that with his small and often weak body he falls more on the feminine and nature side of the nature/culture divide. In one striking photo taken by Ian Tilton, Cobain sits on the ground crying after a 1990 concert in Seattle. Biographer Chris Molanphy writes that this image “captures Kurt’s vulnerability and also depicts the raw angst and mixed emotions of the entire Seattle scene…Kurt, after destroying his instruments in the frenzied show, came offstage, fell to the floor, and broke down crying.” So overtaken with emotions was he that he was forced to the floor in tears.
The emotional and irrational are typically associated with the feminine and in this example, so is Cobain. Gender is not a stable or permanent concept and it is not necessarily related to biological sex. Cobain performed femininity alongside masculinity throughout the narratives about his life. In his relationship with Courtney Love, he regularly positioned himself as the passive one against her aggressive public personality. The very fact that he chose to marry a women who is quite aggressive and masculine in her own right, is a challenge to normative gender.
In the media coverage of their longstanding feud, Cobain also positioned himself as the passive, feminine, non-racist, non-sexist figure against Axl Rose’s hypermasculine, racist and sexist posturing. In an oft-repeated story, Cobain talks about Rose’s threats and his response to them. According to Cobain, Courtney Love yelled to Rose “Axl will you be out baby’s godfather?” to which Rose said, “You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.” Cobain told biographers, “Everyone around us just burst out into tears of laughter. She wasn’t even saying anything mean, you know? So I turned to Courtney and said, ‘Shut up, bitch!’ And everyone laughed and he left. So I guess I did what he wanted me to do–be a man.” In this story Rose demonstrates what it means to ‘be a man’ in American culture. He used violent language to clearly assert the consequences of not ‘being a man.’ Cobain, jokingly, acquiesced because the idea that anyone could control Love was laughable. Here the difference between subversion and acquiescence is unclear. Cobain could have chosen not to respond to Rose’s comment but instead he did as he was told. Oddly, both Rose and Love were depicted as masculine ways while Cobain was more docile. His docility could also be read as a performance of grunge coolness and apathy but his response in the interview was to deconstruct the exchange, recognizing that Rose wanted him to ‘be a man’ and he sarcastically did so, perhaps knowing that it would be taken as a joke.
Another, less obvious way that Cobain performed femininity is through his frequent illness and drug use both of which forced him to be very intimately and deeply aware of his bodily functions which in turn sustained his small, weak appearance. As mentioned earlier, inability to transcend the weakness and fallibility of one’s body is culturally coded as feminine. Cobain’s experience of his failing body comes out in almost all of his writing. Physical pain, emotional pain and self-annihilation are major themes in the narratives around Cobain’s life, especially the narratives he authored.
It was through his subversion of gender, as is exemplified by his attire and public performances, and his perversion of sexuality, as is exemplified by his lyrics and journaling, that Cobain queered hegemonic masculinity.
It is especially striking to note the “Rape Me” on the album “In Utero.” In “Rape Me,” like many of Nirvana’s songs, Cobain identifies with the victim of a violent, gender-based crime and uses language and voice to demonstrate his extreme discomfort. Whether his discomfort comes from the violent nature of rape as a violation of female bodies or from his own displeasure at MTV, Vanity Fair or any of the other countless corporate entities that Cobain felt had stripped him of his identity and manufactured his art for mass sale, we cannot know for certain. While he often claimed to feel violated by his own success, he also actively pursued this very outcome. In the song “Floyd the Barber,” Cobain again takes up the subject position of rape and murder victim.
“I was shaved…/ Barney ties me to the chair/ I can’t see I’m really scared/ Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip/ Pee-pee pressed against my lips/ I was shamed…/I sense others in the room/ Opey, Aunt Bea, I presume/ They take turns and cut me up/ I die smothered in Andy’s butt.”
In this song Cobain imagines being violently assaulted and murdered by the characters of 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. He likely chose this show because of its idyllic representation of traditional American race, class and gender roles (race and class being all but invisible). The participation of these supposedly wholesome characters in a gruesome rape is disturbing and jarring. That reaction was certainly intentional. It forces fans to re-think the imperialism of images in producing a certain vision of American life.
Relevant to the theme of Cobain as a victim of physical and emotional pain, feminine subjectivity and American capitalism, is the constant underlying theme of white male masochism. In the public performances, writings by and about him, Cobain embodied a certain masochistic pleasure in self-destruction. There are countless examples in the biographies of Cobain depicted as a feminine figure including the few analyzed here. Femininity is intimately tied to masochism because culturally women are tied to femininity and feminine people are expected to be penetrable, soft, yielding and receptive to pain. When men put themselves in the feminine position of pleasuring from pain it is an aberration.
Cobain’s performance of femininity along with his performance of victimization is not entirely surprising considering the political atmosphere of the 1980s. One of the most important requirements of masculinity, is the ability and willingness to ‘take it.’ Throughout history, white male subjectivity has been inextricably linked to masochistic imagery. Men have long been taught to take pleasure in punishment, humiliation and abuse. That pleasure is deeply internalized and what we often see is the performance of an overwhelmingly aggressive, homophobic, ethnocentric and dissident masculinity. This is, of course, the reverse side of the same coin. The ‘angry white male as victim’ trope is one that informs almost all texts about Cobain. During his early years in the Seattle punk scene and continuing into his later years as a pop icon, Cobain always felt alienated and empty. White men, like Cobain, sometimes utilize marginalized subject positions to situate themselves as victims in order to actually reassert their privilege.
It is my contention that Cobain adopted a feminine subjectivity in order to assuage pleasure from the grips of the immense pain of living in a culture of sexual shame and rigid masculinity. The ultimate expression of Cobain’s failed masculinity is his suicide.
About the author
Cortney Alexander lives in Chicago, Illinois but she is originally from Northern Wisconsin. She recently completed a Master’s in Women and Gender Studies from De Paul University. Currently, she is working as an academic advisor and adjunct faculty member at Malcolm X College. She writes her own blog at http://afeministresponsetopopculture.blogspot.com/ and moderators for the blog http://hollabackchitown.blogspot.com/.