Guest Blogger

"Bobbi with a I" and I

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 16, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: bobbi with an i, crossdressing, drag queens, phil vassar, porkchop, transgender

Editors' note: Guest blogger Lena Dahlstrom is a crossdresser from the San Francisco Bay Area who also performs as a drag queen under the stage name "Joie de Vivre."

lena_dahlstrom_headshot_130h.jpgI'd run across "Bobbi with an I" by country singer Phil Vassar a few months ago and was intrigued. The song tells the story of the singer's friend Bobby, a former "linebacker, a quarterback sacker," who drives a tow truck and bench presses 335--and who shows up one night at the local bar "in his pink party dress." Jaws drop, but over time nobody gives it a second thought, it's "just Bobbi with an I."

Given that country music isn't known as a bastion of social progressivism it was a pleasant surprise, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor (one reason Bobbi gets respect is because "he's been known to knock a few teeth out if you ask him for a beauty tip") that doesn't make Bobbi the butt of a joke. It seemed like Vassar either knew someone who crossdressed, or at least had run across crossdressers hanging out at a bar somewhere.

Vassar just released a music video for the song and it's got some, ah, interesting differences. (Video after the jump.)

The video adds a prequel where Bobby is invited out by his friends, but demurs because he's broke. But his eyes light up when his friend mentions "it's Ladies Night, free drinks for the girls!" Did someone say: free drinks? Cue the music. Bobbi enters the bar, a cigar-chomping burly "man in a dress" (in fact he's wearing sunglasses to conceal the fact that he's not wearing any make-up). And in interviews and his "behind-the-scenes" video, Vassar says: "Bobbi is actually a guy I knew--this outrageous guy who showed up at a club one night dressed as a girl. It was just a funny way to pick up chicks." In other words--it's all just good fun, it's a one-time thing, and Bobbi doesn't really want to be seen as a woman.

I'll take Vassar at his word, he seems like a decent guy--but also a guy who comes across as savvy enough to know how far he can push things with his fans. Not that that might be a reason the video is at odds with the actual lyrics. (And don't think too hard about how Bobbi, who's flat broke, manages on short notice to get decked out in a cocktail dress, high heels, earings, platinum wig, fashionable women's sunglasses and a black sequin purse, or why he's got seemingly hairless legs.)

But even if the video undercuts the lyrics, Bobbi's having a great time, his friends are having a great time, in fact everyone's having a great time except an eye-rolling old man, who's presented as a curmudgeonly killjoy. The "big-boned girl with a platinum curl" is the life of the party. As Vassar sings: "That's how it is, nobody gives a second thought these days."

Would I have preferred that the video stayed true to its roots and cast someone like Victoria "Porkchop" Parker as Bobbi? Hell ya. But if the "lite" version ends up making life a little easier for some trans person in some shitkicker bar somewhere, I'm not gonna complain too much.

* Before anyone kvetches, yes I know Porkchop is a gay man who's a professional female impersonator. But she's burly enough as a guy to be a convincing Bobby and femme enough to be a Bobbi who would've left viewers stunned and amazed.

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Ah, hello, mystery guest blogger. :)

Mr. Vassar might be unaware of it, but as awareness about transsexual people spreads, the statement he's making with the video (crossdresser = okay) may be even more risque than if he'd portrayed Bobbi as a transitioned woman.

I don't follow country music. How have people responded to both the song and video?

Sorry about that.... I forgot to put up Lena Dahlstrom's bio and photo!

I don't really follow country music either, but from what I've seen (which may not be at all representative) people seem to love the song.

One story I saw about it had this quote:

Although it's still early, early responses to the tune from radio programmers and fans are positive, with Tampa Bay-based Mike Culotta, a CBS Radio operations manager/program director, noting, “'Bobbi With An I'”, what a hoot. The minute we got it we put it on the air and listeners responded immediately with laughter and applause. They got it. They loved it. And the requests keep coming. ..."

Two reviews from country music blogs thought it was "catchy, witty and outright fun" and considered it "one of the best radio singles so far this year" -- though both reviews (of the song, not the video) picked up that it's far more subversive than the video lets on (or what people may hear on first listen). I've seen some "eew" comments on sites where the video's been posted, but they've been met by "What's the big deal? Live and let live" replies.

And yes, in some ways making crossdressing the focus of the song is probably more risque. (Albeit it also lends itself to a less threatening spin, as in the video.) In my own experience (admittedly in the socially tolerant Bay Area) most people get the "trapped in the wrong body" meme, but they're really thrown for a loop by someone like myself who's bigendered and alternates between different genders. (FWIW, drag is its own gender in a lot ways.)

Unfortunately because my peers are typically deeply, deeply closeted (akin to being LGB pre-Stonewall), we're the vast dark matter of the trans universe. So we're pretty far behind the curve in awareness, let alone acceptance.

On the one hand, it's great to see the subject of drag/trans issues being addressed so neutrally (as the character is portrayed in such a matter-of-fact manner; there's no judgement placed on him, but there's no real need to show support, either) in an arena such as country music.

However, on closer inspection, a few concerns about how Bobbi with an I is portrayed:

Anyone who has read Julia Serano's Whipping Girl will know exactly what I'm talking about here. In the book, Serano divides portrayals of transwomen into two classes: the "pathetic" transwoman, and the "deceptive" transwomen. What's interesting is that while throughout the video Bobbi is portrayed as the "pathetic" archetype (it is made lyrically and, in the case of the music video, very visually obvious, as demontrated by the complete and deliberate lack of makeup, that this is a man dressing up, ultimately for comedic effect), in one part of the chorus ("you'd better watch how much you drink/she might look better than you think"), the portrayal immediately switches to the "deceptive" archetype.

Furthermore, deeply embedded in the two lines is the strong sense of underlying homophobia, as it implies that if one were to find Bobbi sexually attractive it would mean that such a person, presumed to be a man, would be finding another man attractive and thus homosexual (and that's definitely a bad thing in the song's eyes, or the lines wouldn't be couched inside of a warning)! In the video, that homophobia is reinforced by the image of one of the bar patrons shaking his head in disgust and walking away.

Overcompensation is another underlying theme within the song. Lines such as "A linebacker, a quarterback sacker/Yeahhh Bobbi he's as strong as a mule" and "You never would guess/He benches 335" (as if a woman could never bench that much?) are used in this song to reinforce Bobbi's ultimate masculinity.

It should be noted that, as the lines "He's been known to knock a few teeth out/If you ask him for a beauty tip/So we live and let live" imply, the only reason Bobbi is not teased, assaulted or worse, is because people know that Bobbi will fight back - and win. If Bobbi were less impervious, it's clear that Bobbi would not be so safe from transphobic violence.

Yet transphobic violence is clearly overlooked in this song, at the same time. Bobbi has no fear of being assaulted when she goes in the men's washroom. At worst, a man comes running out screaming "Hey there's a chick in the men's room!" at which point, his warning is dismissed: "We just smile and say/No that's just Bobbi with an I" - were Bobbi less overtly masculine, this would not be the case.

Ultimately this song doesn't do anything to help the trans/queer communities in terms of awareness, as it just builds on age-old stereotypes of trans people, and reinforces the transphobia still embedded into country music culture. I'll give this song and music video a big thumbs down.

I play country locally and sometimes people play close attention to the lyrics and realize that it is often queer as hell. My favorite though is when I get to play country for a queer audience who start with this "oh no" sorta look until I open my mouth.

Not sure they used enough stereotypes about cross dressers for a hit country song. Thanks, I still prefer Johnny Cash's version of "Boy Named Sue".

Kathy Padilla | July 16, 2009 8:29 PM

I thought of "My Girl Bill" - country always has needed a distancing or joke element to talk to lgbt issues.

Rick Sours | July 17, 2009 8:54 AM

Thanks Lena!!

I really appreciated reading your article.