Kate Bush released the song “Wuthering Heights” one-hundred and thirty-one years after the first publication of the novel of the same name by Emily Bronte. Despite colossal changes in British society over the spanning years, the words of Emily Bronte and her tumultuous character Catherine Earnshaw, translate seamlessly into Kate Bush’s 1978 interpretation of the novel. By reawakening the (largely considered) feminist author’s tragic heroine as her persona in “Wuthering Heights”, Kate Bush places herself in a historical feminist continuum. Her choice of the posthumous Cathy as her character in the song is significant, and Berkoz suggests that, “Bush’s narrative technique in the song enables her to bring the novel’s dead heroine back to the material world, the shape of a ghost woman who is free from the rules of society” (158). The line, “let-me-in-a-your-window” can be interpreted as Cathy/Bush yearning to be back in the natural world with Heathcliff, but it can also be read as the desire to enter the window into the male realm from which she is restricted, as an equal.
In “Running Up That Hill” her character is desperate to “make a deal with God” to swap places (and genders) with her partner. She emphasizes not a “battle of the sexes” but a disconnection created by strict societal gender roles that don’t allow men and women to embody one another in a way that facilitates a truly share experience. This desire to temporarily abandon her female body and take on the male form suggests an underlying dissatisfaction with the lot she has inherited as a woman. Once she does the swap, she fantasizes she will be “running up that road/ running up that hill/ with no problems”. This ability to run away or be free is tied to the masculine character. It seems to indicate that her femaleness grounds her in some way or is constricting and immobilizing. This speaks to the mobility of women, particularly when it comes to relationships with men. Do men have more freedom in relationships than women? It does seem that, in a generalized sense, women become are more dependent upon relationships than men and have less agency to leave them economically, emotionally, and physically. Kate’s instinct to run when she takes on the masculine role reflects her symbolic inability to run free as a woman.
“Hounds of Love” sees Bush running yet again. In “Running Up That Hill”, she seemed to be running toward something whereas in “Hounds of Love she is running away from something, specifically love. She uses hunting dogs as a metaphor for love and she desperately flees from the bloodthirsty hounds and attempts to throw them off her trail. This is an odd association, the hunt is not something normally equated with love. It seems there is something about love that she fears and that submitting to it would leave her emotionally and symbolically mauled or even dead. I’m sure however, this association of love with death is not completely alien to many women. The tension many women surely feel between the desire for companionship and romantic love and the desire for independence and freedom is embodied in this song. Allowing someone in and opening up to love can be a frightening prospect to women who regard themselves as empowered, strong and independent. Vulnerability is not a comfortable position for anyone, particularly a woman who desires to be regarded as an equal to men. It seems Bush is keenly aware of the high stakes of entering a relationship for women in terms of submission and relinquishing control and power. Allowing oneself to be emotional and vulnerable can be hard for women who reject the stereotype of the over-emotional and irrational female. Bush is clearly conflicted about entering a relationship and this is a sentiment that is rarely expressed in popular music.
In the 1980 song “Babooshka” takes on the persona of a presumably middle age or older woman. This is a remarkable undertaking in several ways. Firstly, that she has the intuition and insight to embody this character so successfully and eloquently while only 20 years of age is a feat in itself. In addition, writing a narrative about aging, specifically female aging, is something very rare and artistically brave in a cultural climate that regards aging as a severely unfortunate process. The general concenous toward female aging in popular culture seems to suggest that women have an expiry date and are unworthy of much attention prior to a certain age, normally around 50. This is made clear by the lack of visible older women in almost every kind of media, music included. Further, the expansive culture of anti-aging and youthfulness speaks to the decreasing value of women as they age. This is linked to women’s value being intrinsically tied to their appearance and biological and domestic roles in society.
“Babooshka” tells the tale of an older woman who disguises herself in order to test her husband’s faithfulness. When confronted with her disguised persona he falls for her immediately and exclaims that she is just like his wife “before the years went by”, “before the tears”, “before she freezed on him”, “when she was beautiful”. The husband is eager to trade in his sad, tired old wife for the newer [former] model. Her life experience, pain and hardship has rendered her undesirable to him. Despite the implication that he himself has surely aged and been changed by the passing of time in their marriage he feels entitled to dismiss his wife for her younger self who has the “capacity to give him all he needs” and his dialogue in the song never mentions what his wife may need from him. While she still possesses the qualities she did as a young woman they now exist under hard layers that life has shellacked over her (hence the Babooshka image) he is unable to accept her in her current form. This song is a clever and multi-dimensional view of the struggles of the aging female in terms of identity, self-worth and social value.
Kate Bush’s lyrics from early in her career suggest wisdom beyond her age and a keen understanding of the systematic gender inequalities embedded in society. She successfully “blurs the line between the genuine and fictitious woman” (Berkoz 194), using allegory, fable, and storytelling to celebrate female imagery and iconography in experimental and subversive ways.