On Pop Feminist I poach the terrain of pop history, claiming a booty of heretofore discarded artifacts, doing my part to put flesh on the bones of an impoverished feminist aesthetic. Now and then I may jump through a few hoops to sell my readings of popular culture to my readership, but occasionally I have the pleasure of highlighting feminisms that are wonderfully self-evident.
Prince’s Purple Rain is one such artifact. Both the film and the album are unambiguously feminist.
In the film, Prince plays the lead of a locally popular band (poignantly named The Family), when he encounters the aspiring singer Apallonia, with whom he instantly falls in love. There is a dual dramatic arc in Purple Rain, one of the tortured love between Prince and Apallonia and one of Prince’s struggle to retain artistic integrity in a sales driven music industry.
Though Prince loves Apallonia, he struggles with his own tormented past, having grown up in a household of domestic abuse where he witnesses his tyrannical father beating his mother daily. The conditioning of naturalized male authority Prince undergoes in his household leaves him unable to express his love to Apallonia without violence. He is undermined throughout the film by his own destructive displays of masculinity and is trapped within a dark patriarchal narrative as expressed by the great track “When Doves Cry”.
Meanwhile, the two female members of “The Family” (guitarist Lisa, and keyboardist Wendy) want Prince to listen to the music they wrote; a request cruelly dismissed by Prince without a moment’s consideration. Though he is losing coherency as an artist, characterized by increasingly misogynistic tracks (“Darling Nikki”), he is unwilling to consider the women in The Family as his artistic equal.
Further, Prince’s guitar is fashioned clearly as a symbol of the phallus (in one scene a female band member pretends to give it fellatio on stage). Apallonia purchases Prince the guitar/phallus of his dreams, and in exchange Prince presents her with a ring (a hoop earring in his case) as a traditional symbol of heterosexual union. However, when Apallonia discovers that Prince expects her submission in service of their monogamy, she tears the ring off and throws it at his feet.
Distraught, Prince returns home only to discover his father has attempted suicide—an act Prince too entertains as the only possible outcome of his father’s patriarchal pattern.
It is this dilemma which finally inspires Prince to seriously listen to the music of the women in The Family and has an epiphany through feminine art.
The song they wrote, which Prince performs on stage for the crucial moment of his artistic career is “Purple Rain”.
“I only wanted 2 see u bathing in the purple rain
I never wanted 2 be your weekend lover
I only wanted 2 be some kind of friend
Baby I could never steal u from another
Its such a shame our friendship had 2 end”
The song is a release of sexual and jealous claims on women, instead urging a cleansing to take place in the “purple rain”, an experience offered from a man to a woman as a friend—an equal.
“Purple Rain” reduces the audience to tears, and Prince breaks free from his torturous struggles within masculinity by finally discarding the guitar/phallus and launches into the jubilant “I Would Die 4 U”, which opens with the stanza,
“I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you’ll never understand”
Prince sheds the chains of gender and is finally free from the narrative of his parents, to forge a new path in solidarity with women.
His band “The Family” is also called “The Revolution”.
For those who have seen Purple Rain, or plan to, I’d like to know your reading of the very last scene in the film…you’ll know the moment I’m interested in if you see it.
This film belongs in the cannon of feminist cinema. I’m starting the campaign now.