Summers at my house are soundtracked by the oldies. It’s something that I credit most of my random music history knowledge to, just my family sitting with each other around the pool, talking about songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, listening to soul and rock and, of course, The Beatles. There is a shirt my dad occasionally wears to these parties, partly as a joke and partly for its shock factor. He bought it as a gag, I imagine at an airport, or in Venice, CA., where jokey t-shirts hang from store vendors like bananas off a tree. Sometimes, my stepmom will steal it from him and parade through the house in her pajamas, but its slogan isn’t serious to them. I always question the words, and they laugh and throw their heads back, saying, “It doesn’t really matter, does it? It was all their faults.” On the front, in big white letters, the t-shirt says one thing: I blame Yoko.
Of course, this is in reference to the constant cultural assumption that Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles, a prevailing theory among both self-proclaimed scholars and casual fans alike. In reality, the reasoning behind their infamous dissolution is a little more complicated than the work of one relationship, a combination of the time and personal differences between those famous Liverpoolian men. Who knows, in addition to these things, I’m sure Ono and John Lennon’s torrid love affair and his subsequent obsession with their art and music together probably had something to do with it. The Beatles’ breakup is, ultimately, a mystery, and the obvious consequence of what happens when a war, fame, money and drugs coincide in one place. But the question remains — why do we still blame Yoko? Why has our culture become so attached to scapegoating the women in famous men’s lives for anything they do?
In reality, Yoko Ono was an artist in her own right, and according to her, she did not even know of John or The Beatles when they originally met: In fact, he was a fan of hers, a patron of her art long before their romantic relationship began. By Lennon and Ono’s meeting in 1966, she had been a leading member of the Fluxus art movement and published an experimental book titled “Grapefruit.” She was her own person, not just an extension of a very famous man. Even if you set aside the invasive effects of racism in Ono’s case, fans were and have always been confused about why such a legendary band only lasted for a very short time. But the thing that has lasted, and will likely continue to be a cultural touchstone for years to come, is the blame which floats around Yoko Ono’s name. She is not the only famous woman who has been portrayed in the media this way, and has become a reference point for something people call the “Yoko Effect” — a phenomenon that influences us today more than we may even notice.
Earlier this month, in the wake of rapper Mac Miller’s sudden death, Twitter and other social media platforms erupted into outrage. Most of this was undeservingly pointed directly towards Ariana Grande, Miller’s girlfriend of two years until earlier this year. In this case, the “Yoko Effect” is still very much alive, a continuing blame game which pins the confusing and sometimes tragic choices of famous men on their female partners. It is still happening in every conversation we have about The Beatles, about Courtney Love, about Ariana Grande and everyone in between. With every affair, every salacious rumor on Twitter or Page Six that places the responsibility of toxic relationship on a woman’s shoulders, we are still blaming Yoko. When I read Rolling Stone writer Brittany Spanos’s article a week ago on this very topic, all I could think about was my dad’s shirt. Here, in 2018, a time full of feminist movements and supposed social enlightenment, our culture is still fixed on this dangerous pattern of blame and assumption that absolves problematic men of culpability and bestows it on their girlfriends and wives. I have caught myself thinking in these ways many times — the “Yoko Effect” is a product of our society’s fixation on accountability — where many people and influences are in play, it is hard to find a character to blame, and in most cases, it doesn’t exist. But there are ways to subvert this phenomenon, and it is our job as consumers of the media to break the cycle. Do it in small ways, like changing the conversation when it turns to conspiracy, understanding the realities of fame and its influence on choice, and how society’s misogynistic tunnel vision can often look for evil in a woman’s shadows. Beyond all of this, maybe take off the shirt. It could be a joke, but there is a real person in all of these cases, and she deserves to speak for herself.