Like some grizzled old-timer sitting on the porch of the homestead talking about the good old days, I think back to the first time I saw MTV and pity the prepubescents of today who didn’t have the luck to see, as I did, the wonder of MTV when it first aired. I was eight years old, alone in my living room, and somehow I knew that I was witnessing a tremendous event: a connection with something that just wasn’t accessible through after-school cartoons or Gilligan’s Island reruns. When I recall what I saw back then, I may remember some of the details wrong, but that doesn’t matter. It’s my perception of those early videos that creates the memory, that resonates in my tv-addled mind as the truth. And what I remember best are the images of women that I saw on MTV. I’m aware of those representations in a different way than I was in those first golden days when I sat glued to the small screen, clutching a handful of Fritos. What I say about these images now comes from filtering them through a screen of theory and history and related bullshit, but it still comes from what I saw back then. The women of MTV were not merely women; rather, they were on-screen archetypes of what a video-age woman could be, and they were indelibly printed on my young brain.
By the time the first little MTV spaceman planted his flag on the screens of cable-blessed homes, androgyny in rock music was old news. This was, after all, the post glam-rock early 1980s. The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, David Bowie and many others had been praised up and down not only for their musical achievements but for their knack of appropriating/mocking the styles of the opposite sex. But the legions of suburban tykes lounging in our beanbag chairs in front of the tube didn’t know about that. All we knew was that there were a huge number of girly-looking guys staring out at us from the other side of the tv screen, and we were mesmerized. Through Adam Ant and Duran Duran, I absorbed the concept of androgyny unconsciously as I giggled dreamy-eyed over these grown men with made-up faces,these boys who looked too much like girls to be the “opposite” sex.
But then there were the actual girls: Joan Jett, who wore head-to-toe black leather and reveled in crunchy cock-rock riffs in her video for “I Love Rock n’ Roll;” skinny, imperious Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. These women’s physical images incorporated a litany of bad-boy references, from pre-zirconium Elvis to Marlon Brando to Keith Richards. They were appropriating the style of men whose blatant sexuality made them “dangerous.” Not so much rejecting femininity as cloaking it in the historical acceptibility of male rebellion, these women were insinuating themselves into the badass canon. I didn’t consciously think that they looked like boys, but when I saw the video for the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” I thought that Chrissie Hynde in a waitresses’ uniform was all wrong. And the end of the video, when she runs out of the diner and hops on the the tough guy’s motorcycle—well, that was all wrong too. Anyone who had seen “Tattooed Love Boys” knew that Chrissie would never let her ass be grabbed by a customer and then go for a ride on his hog. She’d get on her own motorcycle and peel out of the diner parking lot, spraying that loser with a mouthful of gravel.
Perhaps the most memorable androgyne of early MTV was Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. In their first video, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Annie wore a man’s black suit and held a riding crop (or maybe it was a pointer); her bright-orange flattop rose out of the ensemble like a placid mask of Ziggy Stardust-style unrealness. The dangerous sexuality of Joan and Chrissie’s leather pants was here replaced by the more dangerous sexuality of total gender unrecognizability. No real precedent for female-to-male cross-dressing had been set on television at this point, although the madcap hilarity of men impersonating women had been proven many times over, from Milton Berle to M.A.S.H. The employment of cross-dressing for non-comedic purposes, and by a woman, was jarring. The whispering among my elementary-school friends about this video yielded only one possible conclusion—that Annie Lennox must be a lesbian.
The Future Freak
The second image that appeared consistently on early MTV can best be described as the space-age, futuristic freak. The SAFF, like the Androgyne, took more than one form. There was the faraway-eyed, operatic Kate Bush, the future-Barbie frontwomen of Missing Persons and Berlin, and the space-age amazon Grace Jones, among others. But unlike the Androgyne, the SAFF had no basis in history other than the collective projection of “the future” that held 1980s media in its thrall. Computers, NASA, and ever-expanding medical and industrial technologies were spurring us on to the future, but what about humanity? The fears of future dehumanization, particularly of women, were given paranoid form in movies like Blade Runner and Liquid Sky, where futuristic females invariably took on the form of alien succubi, preying on the hapless male hero. The sexual female, given power, mutated into something evil that had to be stopped by the likes of Harrison Ford. The message of these films? Future women are going to be scary, castrating sexual deviants. The video counterparts of these cinematic women presented an alternative to traditional notions of what constitutes femaleness. The SAFF was not soft, not yielding, and seemed entirely her own invention. Her voice was clearly that of a woman, yet it was not a “feminine” voice—it was robotic, as Grace Jones’s was, or it was the ethereal, otherworldly siren song of Kate Bush.
But the SAFF’s physical image was hyperfeminized, caricatured. In the video for Missing Persons’s “Destination Unknown,” lead singer Dale Bozzio sported a floor-length white mane, a mylar-and-bubble wrap dress, and spike heels, and she sang in a high-frequency baby-doll voice while staring at her own bizarre face in a smoky mirror. This image plays into classic notions of woman as the infant-like, narcissistic other. But despite the contradictions inherant in the SAFF persona, she defined the future—unknowable, cloudy, and scary.
The Bad Girl
This MTV archetype was perhaps the most familiar one. As tough as the Androgyne but less masculine, earthier than the Future Freak, the Bad Girl was like a canny, fun older sister—smart and sexy and cut-the-shit direct. All her songs spoke directly to someone—presumably a guy—who was trying to mess with her, and she wasn’t having it. Pat Benatar, Toni Basil, the Flirts, the Waitresses, and Patti Smythe of Scandal all embodied a kind of fishnet-stockinged consciousness that allowed them to seem like slutty girls while harboring a clearheaded intelligence and the occasional subversive agenda. Toni Basil’s “Mickey” video exploited the whole good girl/bad girl cheerleader motif, with Toni cartwheeling around, pompoms in hand, while delivering the genderfuck line “Come on and give it to me, any way you can/ Any way you wanna do it, I’ll take it like a man.” Pat Benatar took the Bad Girl role one step further, using the video format to star in mini-movies in which she took on the persona of other bad girls. In “Shadows of the Night,” she portrays a 1940s Rosie-the-Riveter type who dreams of being a ruthless, glamorous double agent. And in “Love is a Battlefield,” probably the tour de force of her video career, Pat plays a teenage runaway whose foray into the big city leads to her working in a seedy dance parlor with other unlucky women. But Pat mobilizes the women into a line-dance uprising against their evil pimp, and liberation ensues. Go on with your bad self, Pat!
Sadly, these would turn out to be the salad days of the Bad Girl, because once MTV realized that their main audience was comprised of adolescent boys and their hard-ons, the marketing dynamic took over and these women all but vanished. Pat Benatar and Toni Basil were replaced by nameless inflato-breasted bimbos who writhed in videos by poufy-haired “metal” bands like Warrant and Poison, portraying groupies, porn actresses, and girlfriends. MTV wanted you to believe that this was what a Bad Girl was, but even those of us just graduating from our training bras knew the vast difference between a player and a plaything.
Little by little, the archetypes of early MTV disappeared from the screen, displaced by the ever-increasing popularity of the channel and its ability to create and crush images and fads with heartless precision. The use of women primarily as cheese-metal video ornaments made it necessary for those women who were actual musicians to protect themselves from winding up as yet another babe spread-eagled on top of a Camaro. So women like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and the Indigo Girls ushered in a new era of no-frills videos—no leather pants, no bubble wrap dresses, no Benatar-esque role playing. They played solid, admirable music that also happened to make boring-as-hell video viewing. Having experienced the myriad over-the-top moments of MTV’s first inception, there was no substitute. Well, there was Madonna, who aimed to amass all the aspects of the Bad Girl and the SAFF and the Androgyne into one package, but that’s a whole other essay, and Camille Paglia has got it covered.
Those early images and videos were powerful. They were novelty and stereotype and affirmation. They provided young girls with ideas of rebellion, sex, and self-sufficiency that couldn’t be found in the pages of Young Miss. They allowed us to think critically and find fault with other images of women that we saw not only on MTV, but in other media. They inspired us to rock out. If you turn on MTV today, in between segments of Beauty and the Beach and The Real World, you might—if you’re lucky—see something that reminds you of what MTV once was: that brave new world where the women talked tough and the men looked pretty. -az.