The XX Factor

How Can They Call Jack White Sexist?

Jack White

Photograph by Mike Coppola/Getty Images.

Jack White’s first solo album, Blunderbuss, is not just a great record; it also cements White’s unlikely status as one of rock’s biggest champions of women.

In a recent piece for the Atlantic titled “Jack White’s Women Problem,” Jessica Misener criticized White as sexist, primarily basing her argument on analysis of his lyrics. It’s true that some of his songs grate on the feminist ear, but others— “Passive Manipulation,” for example—are explicitly pro-woman. And ultimately, who cares if his songs detail the dark, suffocating moments of (presumably often fictional) romantic relationships? That’s what pop music is. It makes more sense to examine his treatment of women, and in that arena, he stands head and shoulders above his male peers.

Firstly, of course, he’s shared equal status with women in two of his three bands: Meg White in the White Stripes, and Allison Mosshart in the Dead Weather. He may have been the creative force behind the White Stripes, but he repeatedly described Meg as an essential part of the band, even telling Rolling Stone that to say otherwise was “pure sexism.” And to say, as Rob Sheffield does, that White sculpted Mosshart’s reputation is demeaning to Mosshart. She had a strong career and a ferocious stage persona before she met White, and her style is distinct enough from his that you can tell who wrote which Dead Weather songs without looking at the liner notes.

White has also been happy to take a backseat to women, collaborating with—but ceding the spotlight to—female acts like the Black Belles and Loretta Lynn. (Sheffield attributes Loretta Lynn’s goddess status to White, too, as if she didn’t earn it herself while White was still banging on pots and pans.)

As a solo artist, White employs two backing bands, one all men and one all women. It’s unclear whether he recorded takes with both groups and preferred the female versions or simply called in his all-girl band more often, but the women play on 11 out of 13 songs. If you thought he chose the male band for his SNL performance of “Sixteen Saltines” because it’s an inherently manlier song, think again—the ladies cut the album track.

Blunderbuss’s woman-heavy lineup is perhaps the most impressive of White’s bona fides; society will accept female singer-songwriters as having innate vocal talent, but we have a harder time dealing with skilled female instrumentalists, especially when they play masculine-coded instruments like drums or bass. So what if White’s lyrics savage imperfect romantic partners? Until the “sensitive” guys or other auteurs deign to work with women, there’s no question whose women problem is bigger.

Even in his personal relationships, White seems to be more enlightened than the average man. In a New York Times profile, he comes across as some sort of polyamorous wizard-king (“I gave [monogamy] up a long time ago. Those rules don’t apply anymore”), and, if that’s his thing, I’m in no position to judge. But given that he and Meg White made four albums together after their divorce—and that she was a bridesmaid in his second wedding—we can surmise that their split was relatively amicable and respectful. His second wife, Karen Elson, has also worked with him post-divorce, and they actually threw a party to celebrate the end of their marriage without rancor. Not to mention that White, né Gillis, did something the overwhelming majority of men are too threatened by women to do: he took his wife’s surname.

In a post on her blog, DoubleX’s Amanda Marcotte discusses how audiences are finally starting to accept the sight of women onstage without immediately spitting misogynistic slurs. Obviously, female musicians themselves made most of this progress, but it can’t hurt for people to see one of the biggest male rock stars in the world consistently promote their work without condescension. White is often credited with saving rock ’n’ roll—he should get a little credit for his contributions to gender equality, too.