1980s MTV, the meaning of style, and feminism
In my theory class we have just begun the unit on the relationship between representation and agency, and in my other class we just finished reading John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, a novel that adapts the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the postmodern condition of the 1980s. (See my blog post a couple weeks ago here for more about postmodern Scarlet Letters.) In it, one of the main characters — a teenage single mother named Verna – is a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper at the beginning of the novel, but by the novel’s end has switched her allegience to Madonna. Updike’s novel is set in the autumn of 1984 and spring of 1985 — the year Ronald Reagan was reelected on a platform of traditional family values and an end to government-run social programs… and also the year that Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” dominated the MTV and pop music charts. Music historians often consider both of these songs as together occupying the same moment of sexual liberation for women in popular culture, though arguably that moment of liberation began long before in the 1960s. At the very end of the novel by Updike, Verna decides she prefers Madonna over Lauper at the same time she decides to leave her child with her uncle Roger and find her own pathway to material success, like Madonna in “Material Girl,” which was released in January, 1985.
I’d like to compare and contrast these two music videos, because in contrast to Updike’s characterization of them in his novel, I think they have very divergent visions for sexual liberation. One seems to me to be an example of post-punk feminism and the other a co-optation of post-punk feminism. However, the fact that both appear in Updike’s novel as co-equals and that MTV and radio might very likely play them back-to-back illustrates how complicated the concepts “representation” “ideology” “hegemony” and “feminism” actually are.
First, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which was first released at the end of the year 1983.
What is most blatant in this video is Lauper’s emphasis on her multicultural group of friends. In a sense, her song is similar to the mildly feminist lyrics in The Spice Girls 1996 hit “Wanna Be” that go, “If you want to be my lover, you have to get with my friends.” In my opinion, these lyrics are good advice for anyone, no matter what gender identity they claim to have. And likewise, in her video, Cyndi Lauper represents the ways personal agency comes from a positive community of friends. In addition, her post-punk style of dress deconstructs traditional gender roles by mixing a ridiculously out-of-date prom dress with goofy sunglasses. For literary critics, this postmodern stylistic device of mixing and mashing is called pastiche, and theorist Dick Hebdige has famously analyzed the “meaning of style” in his book on punk rock, Subculture, to show how – through such pastiche — young people culturally subverted and resisted mainstream ideas about how they should behave.
Less than a year after Cyndi Lauper’s hit, in November of 1984, Madonna released “Like a Virgin,” which in my view co-opts a lot of the liberatory potential of Lauper’s hit in a way that rearticulates women’s identities as objects of sexual desire. For a YouTube clip of her MTV Awards performance in 1984 click here, and for the original music video, click here.
Many have argued that Madonna was one of the early pop stars to create an enduring and mainstream image of women enjoying sex. Indeed, during the MTV awards, she rolls on the floor, apparently with sexual abandon and pleasure. However, in my view, both her MTV performance and her original video are not feminist in the way that Lauper’s is. When compared to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” noticeably isolates the woman from any community. Her entire feeling of self worth is derived from being the object of male desire – a rather creepy sensibility that is totally contrary to every brand of feminism I’ve ever encountered. In addition, Madonna’s postpunk style of dress also performs a postmodern pastiche that scandalously blends Catholic and sexual iconography, but in contrast to Lauper’s deconstruction of what it means to be sexy, Madonna’s transgressive style of dress agressively asserts and intensifies her sex appeal.
Ultimately, it would be an oversimplication to call one of these songs progressively feminist and the other reactionary. Clearly, both artists consciously and deliberately represented sexuality in a way that had political implications for how men and women relate to each other – encouraging both men and women to be open about sexuality rather than repressed. And therefore one could argue that both songs had an effect on women’s agency. Both offer transgressive and subversive representations of women, but both also emphasize pleasure-seeking over any substantial community building. Therefore, some feminists would react negatively to both videos, but in my view, it would be a mistake for feminists to eschew the importance of fun and pleasure in our daily lives, and so at the end of the day, I think both Lauper and Madonna’s representations have something to offer to the on-going, open-ended project of feminism. And that is why Updike’s character Roger is simultaneously disturbed, threatened, and sexually aroused by them.
In conclusion, I’d like to end this post with a more recent clip of what seems to me to be a strongly feminist song by singer Christina Aguilara and rapper Lil’ Kim — their 2003 hit, “Can’t Hold Us Down.”
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