"...before he left, he went and named me Sue."
Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue”, made famous by Johnny Cash, ‘over-genderized' femininity and masculinity, stereotyping both the male and female; during the 1960s and early -70s, the rising counterculture and human rights movement directly challenged these stereotypes that society had wholly adopted as ‘natural’. This period of conflict, while seemingly leaving male country performer’s work unaffected, promoted the ‘masculinization’ of female performer’s music.
Strict binary gender identification plays a significant role in “A Boy Named Sue”. McCusker and Pecknold speculate about the relatively private reception and then the vast popularity of the song as it “might have resonated with or satirized the gender-bending politics of hippie youth culture” or perhaps the prisoners of San Quentin, where the song was first performed, “needed to face their own tribulations of challenged masculinity”. These theories center the song around both the male/female gender conflict and the new challenges of asexuality or agenderism, meaning without any form of binary association. The former pertains to the male prisoners directly while the latter develops out of the counterculture and through the appeal of hippie-commune living.
The hippie youth culture of the 1960s can be characterized by two words, peace and love. When gathering in living communities called communes, it can be assumed their community is no different. Commune living housed people from all backgrounds, genders, and religions which, as opposed to the rest of society, better fit their needs and values such as spending more time with their children or a generally more relaxed environment; values such as making their own clothes and baking their own bread, which are, at their root, “a lot of things society stifles out of people”. Separating themselves from society, the hippie community was dominated by fierce individualism; one principal was overjoyed with the children creating “the most disorganized playground [he had] ever seen”. They prided themselves on the ability to break from the strict traditional mold that had gripped society as well as being able to instill that sense of freedom in their children, thus beginning a new liberal tradition.
Breaking away from a conservative society meant breaking away from binary sexual stereotyping. Its antithesis, brought about by the hippie culture, promoted sexual ambiguity, meaning an individual does not fall in a binary category or does not identify strictly as male or female. It was here that women found freedom, and if not so at least a momentary escape, from patriarchal values found in mass Western culture. An interviewee, when asked about her motivation to move into a commune, stated she enjoyed her time there, as “women take care of themselves”; a psychiatrist living in Topanga, California studying the commune commented as well, saying: “No one here is trying to climb to the top of some hierarchy...The most important thing to them is people-to-people contact.” Hippies wanted a place to come together to appreciate the community each other had to offer, regardless of gender. There was equal support of women who wanted to work and those who wished to stay home; the same can be said for men.
In “A Boy Named Sue”, a son vehemently searches for his father in order to kill him for naming him ‘Sue’. Eventually Sue catches up with his father, inciting a bar fight in which the father explains he gave his son the name in order to make him a strong man with “gravel in [his] guts and [...] spit in [his] eye”. The song degrades a feminine name solely based on the fact that it is femnine, thus magically bestowing on the boy femininity; on the other hand, the song is also promoting vigorous masculinity or the development of “a man’s man” because he was named Sue. If the boy were not named that, the boy for all the listener knows could have been a lover not a fighter. Even though hippie culture and country culture are fairly separated, they both are somewhat liberating groups for women to work a channel through. Highly stigmatized as it may be, female singers would “play by the rules (or at least pretend to [...])” until their time had come. Their breakthrough was closer than imagined.
The new women’s movement in Country, emerging in the late 1980s and peaking during the ‘90s, capitalized with the breakthrough of female artists like Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill. Working within the system, female artists promoted music that is both inspiring to their female counterparts but had to hold some sort of appealing factor to the male producers in the music industry. Twain became a powerhouse, breaking through the industry’s reluctance to change. She portrayed a raw sensuality that had never been seen before in the genre paired with a considerably liberal wardrobe (cropped tops, clingy dresses, and the like). She portrayed what women had been working towards: the desire of women to be women, regardless of predetermined gender roles.
Garber, Jenny. Feminism and Youth Culture (Macmillan Education UK: 1991): pp. 1-15.
McCusker, Kristine M., and Diane Pecknold, eds. A Boy Named Sue. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Roberts, Steven V. “The Hippie Mystique: Tate Murders Prompt a Closer Look at It.” New York Times (15 December 1969): 1-2, retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.
Silverstein, Sheldon. A Boy Named Sue--Live at San Quentin. Johnny Cash. Columbia: 24 February 1969.