Theory Teacher's Blog

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.”


March 25, 2009 - Posted by | feminism, music


  1. I don’t know about Roger, but I can tell you I’m simultaneously disturbed, threatened, and sexually aroused by those videos. I also think it would be interesting to analyze the light feminism behind the lyrics from the girl groups in the motown age. There were definitely some feminist tones in their messages, but ironically, the lyrics were written by the male producers and musicians behind the scenes. Thank heavens for Aretha Franklin.

    Comment by Reese | March 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. Reese, to speak to your point about Motown, one’s recent blog posts from the SXSW festival is about a song that was written by Carol King and produced by Phil Spector and performed by a 60’s girl group. You can read about the transformation of the song from songwriter to (misgogynist) producer to girl group to other bands here:

    It’s unfortunate that the Christina Aguilera/Lil’ Kim song posted in this blog was perhaps the most minor of their hits, while (particuliarly Lil’ Kim’s) most major hits were the most overtly objectifying tunes (re: everything from Xtina’s Dirrrty phase, most of Lil’ Kim’s stuff). Most of those singles are comparable to Madonna’s stuff as you have described it: post-previous era, with music videos and lyrics that are overtly sexual. But there has been a recent return respect for the pop singer-song writer and female fronted indie band, most of which share Cyndi Lauper’s preference for pastiche, like Feist and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to name a couple.

    But the first song that I thought of when I read this post is Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed A Girl” (not to be confused with the Jill Sobule version). At first, I thought, this song is the torchbearer for Madonna’s objectified sense of sexuality, since it appeals to a male fantasy. But then again, the song is sang with a smile and a wink, as it it were somewhat progressive, given the subject matter. As far as I can tell, there’s not much that is progressive about it.

    Comment by M---- | March 29, 2009 | Reply

  3. I think you get us to the point where all the feminist debates of the 1990’s spring up, particularly the question of performance. It’s not clear that Madonna is merely succumbing to objectification, in other words. It’s equally arguable that she’s putting objectification on trial by performing it, or heightening its status as performance. You’ll get this argument in a lot of third wave feminism. It’s the old “Two Ways of Destroying a Norm” argument: you can break it down, like Lauper, or push it until it reveals itself, a la Madonna. In the big scheme of things, I think Madonna’s version caused more cultural anxiety than Lauper’s, in any case, particularly where it intersected with queer sexuality, as it clearly did from Truth or Dare onward.

    Comment by topspun | March 30, 2009 | Reply

  4. In response to Reese, isn’t it an almost universal ritual aomng women in their first year of college to jump up and down on the dorm-room bed with three or four of their new-found friends screaming at the top of their lungs “R-E-S-P-E-C-T-fine out what it means to me!” I can’t think of a better way to solidify new friendship… or a more joyful act of solidarity.

    But M— and Topspun raise an important point that I hadn’t really considered, and that is the act of revision. So, a rock group or R&B group may perform an old sexist song but put a spin on it in a way that totally changes the meaning. Think of White Town’s “Your Woman” and how it deconstructs Bing Crosby’s “My Woman.”

    And likewise, Topspun makes an excellent point that succinctly and clearly summarizes the theory of Judith Butler’s very complicated book, Gender Trouble, which came out at the very pinnacle of those debates in the early 1990s that he mentions. As Topspun (and Butler) argue, performance doesn’t simply repeat, it also parodies, ironizes, or puts on trial. Since we never re-invent the wheel of self-hood but always borrow the forms available, we are always immitating and repeating… i.e., performing our gender. But there is room to play with those available forms, and we can repeat them with a difference. And viva la difference!!! (Or viva la differance, in reference to Derrida’s neologism, combining the words difference and defer.)

    And putting on trial is perhaps the perfect phrase here, because both Butler and Derrida talk about performativity “before the law” in reference to Franz Kafka’s short story titled “Before the Law” and his novel, The Trial.

    However, I have some problem with Butler and her Foucaultian sense of self, because it’s very individualistic at the end of the day. And in this sense, I share Jane Juffer’s critique of Foucault and Butler for not fully addressing agency in terms of the forms of community and the social spaces from which we act. And I think (whatever wave of feminism one claims, and personally the whole “wave” categories are annoying to me), I think that is my position on Lauper and Madonna. It’s true that Madonna’s performances were more shocking at the time, but nobody listens to “Like a Virgin” anymore. Lauper’s song has proved to be the more enduring one.

    Comment by steventhomas | April 2, 2009 | Reply

  5. I forgot to mention that I think it’s interesting that Christina Aguilar’s video is vaguely set in the early 1980s. It’s hard for me to tell when exactly, but the clothing style, breakdancing, “Crack is Wack” graffiti, and allusions to Michael Jackson suggest to me roughly the same era as John Updike’s novel… and the same era as Madonna and Lauper’s two hits.

    Why would Aguilara set her video almost 20 years in the past like that? I’ve heard of historical novels, but historical music videos?

    Comment by steventhomas | April 9, 2009 | Reply

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    Comment by Fralaystola | February 11, 2010 | Reply

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