Waveless: MTV and the “Quiet” Feminism of the 1980s

  • Kenneth L. Shonk
  • Daniel Robert McClureEmail author
Part of the Pop Music, Culture and Identity book series (PMCI)


The rise to prominence of MTV in the 1980s enabled the creation of a space in which feminist voices could be aired to a national audience. Such artists as Madonna, Blondie, Joan Jett, the Go-Gos, and Cyndi Lauper, among others, built off the intellectual positionality and energies of Second Wave Feminism in their efforts to ensure that the voice of the unconventional woman could be heard. Moreover, this chapter argues that the sex-positivity and diversity present among these select artists presaged and precipitated the rise of Third Wave Feminism at the end of the decade, in turn helping to give voice to Riot Grrrl and the artists associated with the Lilith Fair.

Women have always had a place within rock and roll, with roles ranging from: siren, bassist, girl group member, feminist stalwart, Riot Grrrl, groupie, “teeny-bopper,” and Madonna-wannabe. Women have also been the subject of music produced by men: object, idol, target of love and lust and longing, as well as icons onto which men could project anger, hatred, insecurity, and condescension. Fundamentally, however, women in popular music find themselves as the focus of the viewer’s gaze, as aesthetic representation of a society’s need to define and reify notions of femininity in service of patriarchy and the desire to reify societal gender normativity. 1 Though there are variations in the experiences for women in rock and roll, the one immutable commonality is the fact that women have been treated as commodities to be viewed and consumed, with sex and beauty being their key selling points. Of course, there have been numerous artists to challenge and resist this facet of rock and roll commodification. From Leslie Gore resisting having her womanhood defined for her or Helen Reddy reiterating her status as a woman, and therefore, a human, there have been spaces—and even an audience—for transgressive femininity and feminism within rock’s gendered constructs. 2 Yet, for every feminist voice in rock, there were dozens more women marginalized by way of objectification or as targets of misogyny, or as sources of male discord, or as poor creatures needing guidance or fixing. Indeed, not all music composed by men has been expressive of such enmity, yet there is no denying that rock music has been a consistent space where there occurred Western society’s predilection toward patriarchal oppression. However, women artists have increasingly utilized these same spaces in which to undermine and challenge structures of oppression.

Mimicking the rise of identity politics after the 1960s, the 1970s witnessed a splintering of rock and roll that channeled audiences into various myriad musical sub-genres. It is faulty to view the 1960s as a time of monolithic youth activism, with said youths pushing back against the injustices of the time. Nonetheless, there remained a general underlying disdain for power structures as expressed by Western youth. The seeming coherence of the 1960s counter-cultures as expressed in rock and roll had a generational situational distaste for certain power structures. Such coherence dissolved in the 1970s as pop musicians breached this now-outdated social rebellion, returning to rock and roll lyrics “characterized by emotional, sexual, or romantic” themes. 3 As Gillian Frank notes, “by the 1970s the politics of rock were divergent, and it no longer offered the political coherence that had been associated with 1960s social movements.” 4 Moreover, the intertextuality of the resulting sub-genres—such as punk, glam, disco, and post-punk—enabled and fostered the voices of women—feminist and not—within the scattered shards of popular music. Artists such as Grace Slick, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Suzy Quatro, among others offered important precedents that anticipated the social changes of the following decades. These artists, however, found themselves unable to breach still-confining cultural structures informing audiences who consumed and interpreted these artists’ messages. 5 In short, these artists still struggled against, and were defined by gendered structures that presented women in the centuries-long binary of convention and rebelliousness—Madonna or whore. Nonetheless, the cultural wilderness of the 1970s and the transgressive art of punk and post-punk provided an alternative aesthetic in which women could challenge the constraints of patriarchy and gender normativity. Facilitating this was the advent of a new visual medium for rock and roll; one that offered the space needed to advance an aesthetic that served to transgress traditional representations and expectations of women. This new medium debuted in 1981, and was broadcast under the guise Music Television (MTV).

In its first decade, MTV proved to be the most dominant force in shaping the listening—and viewing—habits of consumers of popular music. The major change brought by MTV was the addition, and resultant primacy, of a more nuanced visual aspect to the aesthetics of rock and roll. Indeed, MTV’s presence did much to reinforce the misogynistic vagaries of pop music. Also present, however, were varied and transgressive feminine and feminist voices—voices reflective of growing changes in how women viewed their place in Western society. MTV in the 1980s was a space in which certain aspects of feminism and femininity were advanced and given space to evolve, and, perhaps, more importantly—educate. A reading of women artists prevalent on MTV in the 1980s reveals signposts marking a transition, if not evolution, from the female/male dialectic espoused by second-wave feminists to the more fluid gender and sexual politics present in third-wave feminism. MTV’s relatively auspicious debut on August 1, 1981 belied the station’s chaotic nature and lack of musical direction. This “fly by the seat of their pants” nature, as well as the station’s desperation for programming, enabled edgy and visually “odd” artists to make air alongside safer artists like Rod Stewart and Billy Joel. Further, this same desperation for material led to more visually-focused new wave, punk, and post-punk artists to make it to air. Of course, the station’s early exclusion of black artists should not go unnoticed here. 6 Nonetheless, in its first few years of existence, MTV viewers witnessed a wide range of feminine voices that would not have received similar airplay without the intricacies associated with nascent MTV. Further, the fundamental nature of MTV’s visual presence mandated that the videos—and, often the artist—needed to be visually appealing.

Funded by numerous corporate interests and given the blessing by major record companies, MTV solidified the marriage between music and film. Though it took some time before the station was available in all American markets, the ubiquitous calls for potential viewers to ring their cable companies and demand “I want my MTV!” permeated popular culture. 7 For some artists, the video clip served to add a level of artistry or gimmickry to their repertoire, in turn resulting in the presence of artistically and culturally challenging artists. Most notable was American artpunkers Devo and New York City’s Talking Heads, who brought an avant-garde “weirdness” to the station. Either by sheer desperation for new and unique material, or by artistic choice, MTV aired a wide array of artists from established and emerging genres, including punk, post-punk, and new wave, and, after some hesitation, hip-hop. Women were relatively well-represented within these genres, and were thus present in MTV’s video rotation. As such, the cable channel created a national, and later international, audience for such artists as Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Blondie, the Eurythmics, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Salt-n-Peppa, as well as reinvented and reinvigorated Tina Turner. “The punk era of the mid-to late 1970s has often been identified as a moment of opportunity for women… [as a] music predicated on the spirit of transgression, the very presence of women—and especially of women who violated mainstream norms of feminine appearance and self-presentation—could be a major means of disrupting the cultural status quo.” 8

Though clichéd and obvious, the selection of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” as the first video played on MTV did indeed precipitate the cable station’s role in fomenting a cultural shift within rock and roll. During its heyday between 1981 and the early 1990s, MTV offered a space where certain artists transcended the older prescriptive definitions of femininity, thereby advancing and complicating—in a positive sense—the place of women within rock and roll. Such was not necessarily done explicitly or collusively, rather, individual MTV artists embodied a collage of the varieties that anticipated the fluidity espoused by third-wave feminism. Whereas second-wave feminists worked toward creating friendly and separate spaces for women and favored art that identified the sources of socio-economic inequality, third-wave feminists advocated a more fluid and less prescribed vision of femininity, especially as it related to sex and sexuality, and inclusivity. For third-wave feminism, MTV represented an education that both brought validity to the arguments of second wave while elucidating the need for an evolved feminism that allowed for a wider definition of femininity to include race. The fluidity of feminine and feminist sound and image on MTV demonstrated just how nuanced and self-revelatory femininity could be, signaling the clear possibilities for breaks away from both masculine and feminine conventions. A woman could be sexual but not necessarily sexualized; that a woman could be independent from the patriarchy but also enamored with a man (or men); that a woman could defy convention at the same time that she embraced aspects of that same convention; that a woman could situate herself on a fluid spectrum of sexuality, sometimes even vacillating one’s self-positioning on it; that a woman could play guitar, drums, bass, and sing, and write and produce the songs; that a woman could enjoy sex as she defines it; and that a woman could—and should—be an equal partner in any relationship. Through the intertextual spectacle of MTV, these fluid definitions found expression in MTV’s first decade. Though not necessarily feminist, these artists were also not explicitly working to theorize a new feminism. Rather, the performances of these artists provided young women and young men with novel ways to envision a new feminism—a feminism in which sexuality was not constrained by hetero- or homonormative definitions; where individuality did not necessarily construe disunity; where diverse voices were included. Indeed, these ideas were envisioned, but they were not necessarily realized. MTV offered a visual medium in which this evolutionary “quiet” feminism was negotiated and codified into a signifying language to be read by viewers.

Attitudes toward sex and the body inform one of the most fundamental differences between second- and third-wave feminisms. As discussed below, second-wave feminists viewed the objectification of the body, as well as most aspects of heteronormative sexuality, as repressive outcomes of the patriarchy. Third wave feminists sought to affirm a more sex-positive identity that enabled the individual to determine her relationship with sex and sexuality. During this “quiet” evolution from second to third-wave feminism, MTV provided the space through which women could hasten this transition. Writing in 1990—with nearly 10 years of material upon which to reflect—Robin Roberts noted “the depiction of female sexuality by some female performers illustrates the ways in which the music video can be appropriated for explicitly feminist concerns, such as the right of women to determine their own sexuality and their right to express pleasure.” 9 This notion of appropriation, or co-option, of the music video for the advancement of feminism was evident in the manner in which women artists expressed a wide-array and fluid depiction of sex and sexualities during this period. From the playful sexuality of Cyndi Lauper to the androgyny of the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Grace Jones to the voraciousness of Blondie’s Deborah Harry to the ironic and consciously contradictory message of Madonna to Salt-N-Pepa’s message that women must take control of a sexual relationship through “safe sex,” women’s relationship to sex and sexuality transgressed from the heretofore conventional role for women in rock.

Many of the artists examined in the early part of this chapter might not necessarily fit within the traditional definition of what many consider to be alternative music. 10 Moreover, the artists that were central to the place of women in early MTV found tremendous economic and critical success. To some, these facts might disqualify them from inclusion within the “alternative nation”—at least not in the more contemporary definition. Yet, when contextualized within the transition from radio and network television to cable television as the primary medium for breaking new artists, not to mention that many early MTV artists bridged alternative “scenes” with the pop mainstream, the mere presence of women on “video radio” enabled a wide array of transgressive acts. Institutionally—or systematically—the performances of women on MTV offered a radical cultural breakthrough for expressions of women in the public sphere: a struggle centuries in the making, and resulting in similar backlashes from reactionary voices concerned about assertive women. 11 Though it is problematic to declare women artists as being the “first,” as so-called “girl groups” dominated the charts in the 1960s, and disco starts such as Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summers offered space for women, the MTV generation—and the money accrued by individual artists—allowed women to gain more control over their image. 12

While certain women artists of MTV espoused an aesthetic closely linked to second-wave feminism as well as anticipating the third wave, none could be said to be adherents or harbingers of past or future. Rather, these artists were part of a “waveless” 13 era that built upon the advances and ideologies of second-wave feminism while it anticipated, if not influenced, the fundamental aspects of the third wave. This transitional period follows a “LoudQuietLoud” pattern evident in late 1980s alternative rock: the nuances and revolutionary ideas contained within were subdued by the ostentatiousness and dissonance of the outward message; that is to say that the artists explored here were not explicitly fomenting changes in feminist thought, but the luxury of historical hindsight enables us to see the endpoint of the trajectory they forged. Though not explicitly a bastion of feminism, MTV’s experimental early years offered a space for women artists to negotiate and express a more fluid expression of femininity, both building the baseline for third-wave feminism, while also undermining—in a limited fashion—various aspects of masculine rock tropes. MTV provided a new way for feminist voices to be expressed via popular culture to an audience that grew in numbers as cable television became more ubiquitous in American households. In this regard, the language formulated and transmitted by way of visual and sonic means helped articulate the wider and less exclusive nature of the second wave. 14

Much like alternative masculinity, the alternative femininity displayed on MTV in the 1980s presented a sonic and visual aesthetic that embraced popular culture and the visual medium as an intertextual space for transgression. Such was a fundamental aspect of feminism, as Rita Felski notes, “One of the most important achievements of the women’s movement has been to repoliticize art on the level of both production and reception.” 15 The centrality of the music video ensured that the signifying practice of this alternative femininity could be reified and negotiated in what proved to be the nexus of 1980s popular culture. In this space artists offered an alternative to not only the gendered—heteronormative, anti-sex, prudish—conventional woman but also to certain aspects of second-wave feminism. 16 Thus, the purpose of the chapter is to demonstrate the fluid and multi-faceted feminine and feminist voices portrayed on MTV from its inception in 1981 up through the early 1990s. Such was evident in three major areas: the first being a fluid expression of sexuality and sex-positivity that defied aspects of both conventional femininity and second-wave feminism; secondly, the subversion and appropriation of masculine rock tropes by “girl groups”; and finally, the elevation of the individual, confessional feminine voice. All three facets draw upon or alter facets of second-wave feminism and anticipate the fluidity and intertextuality of third-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism emerged during the 1960s and paralleled movements regarding rights in the United States and abroad. The phrase second-wave was utilized both as a way to honor the previous generations and to distinguish theirs as a distinct and unique movement. First-wave feminists fought for suffrage and equal treatment under law—in essence, it was a struggle for identity and agency within Western “democracies.” 17 Following relative advances for women in the public sphere during the world wars such as greater access to higher education, suffrage, generational/demographic shifts, and the general push for changes in fundamental civil rights, the women that constituted the second wave began to view their relationship to men—namely, patriarchy—through a dialectical lens. Central to the second-wave feminist ideology was the rather Marxian notion that a dominant masculine—patriarchy—was contingent upon the construction and maintenance of structures in which power was contingent upon its ability to repress the feminine.

Our modern variant of patriarchy evolved out of the framework of the “Cult of Domesticity,” the middle-class ideal for womanhood circulated through literature in the early nineteenth century as the United States shifted from household economies to wage labor. As men no longer assumed the role of master over their labor, and were consigned to work in factories under a master—the owner or manager—the household became a site where men retained their mastery over their women and children. The logic naturalized through an imagined binary between “public” and “private” spheres, with the latter becoming the acceptable space for men to assume their duties as a breadwinner, and the former—the “private” sphere—imagined the space where women’s purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness could be protected from the dangers of the outside world. Rooted in Western notions of the intertwined processes of culture and economics, this patriarchy created the normalized world still in need of challenging.

Accordingly, mainstream society through the twentieth century buttressed male privilege and entitlement for men in such a manner that a woman—regardless of talent—could not succeed or attain equality with men. Through all facets of modernity, including family, work/labor, economic structures, education, and even language, these processes found reification. Moreover, the violence related to the maintenance of patriarchy found critique too, leading in the 1970s to theories of understanding the relationship of controlling the bodies of women—particularly their reproductive capacities—to the idea that men “owned” women, including the prerogative of sexual assault that still embodies a massive burden on women to prove they did not “ask for it.” 18 The debates surrounding the centrality of the advent and accessibility of the birth control pill in advancing women’s rights of control over their sexuality—at the expense of centuries-old male rights of control over women’s bodies—tore at the core of these 1960s debates, and set the stage for post-1970s debates over abortion. Thus, the important tasks for second-wave feminists included identifying and naming these power structures as sexism and misogyny. Moreover, second-wave feminists sought to establish networks by and for women including a “variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places.” 19

Though second-wave feminists viewed popular culture with disdain, aspects of feminism did creep into film and music. Jonathyne Briggs notes, “earlier transgressions regarding sex and sexuality were limited in scope and posed little threat to the sexual order, since they were accessible only to a limited and mostly adult audience.” Film offered a Janus-faced paradox for feminism. For the most part, filmmaking was an exclusive male space, though women’s voices often broke through this structure in films such as Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Although Scorsese directed, actress Ellen Burstyn (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress) was instrumental in setting the project in motion, selecting the script and requesting a young director. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977) also displayed some of the energy of second-wave feminism, as it was the first television depiction of an independent career woman who has never been married. Music, however, offered more space for expressing the sentiments of second-wave feminism, as it was consumed within more of a private space of radio or LP. Cultural expressions of modernity serve as one of the primary conduits of gender, as popular music, film, television, and sports, among others, offer widely accessible and easily consumed tropes. Jonathyne Briggs discusses how women singers in 1960s France transgressed sexual norms for music, noting “Popular music was sexually threatening in the postwar period, and the tension between the image of the copines [gal pals] as being both innocent and sexual reveals the broader tensions created by the transformation in social and sexual attitudes in France during the 1960s as part of what historians have termed ‘the long sexual revolution.’” 20 Briggs adds, “In many ways, however, these elements of music posed little threat to the sexual order, since they were accessible only to a limited and mostly adult audience.” 21 MTV changed this, taking the scattered voices of the modern copines and bringing it to the fore of popular music, situating it alongside the range of sexual messages inherent to rock and roll. The traditional role for women in music was that of a vocalist, and their “opportunities and achievements have been disproportionately concentrated in musical forms that highlight individual vocal performance.” 22 Women in rock have been viewed as a “perpetual novelty, and each new group of successful female performers is heralded as the first.” 23

MTV offered an education for its viewers. It was a pedagogy of varied and mixed messages in which viewers could craft their own conclusions. Linda Kalof notes that on MTV “there [were] gender and racial differences in how the scenarios are received by viewers.” 24 Kalof argues that videos featuring women had a great deal of influence due to rigidity of masculinity and fluidity of femininity, noting

there were more diverse, contradictory readings of the image of femininity than of masculinity is intriguing. Perhaps the respondents constructed clearer images of masculinity and power because masculinity has clearer and more defined boundaries in our patriarchal culture, while the boundaries of femininity are unclear and ambiguous… Since femininity is not constructed around dominance over the other sex, there is no pressure to subordinate or negate other forms of femininity in the way hegemonic masculinity must subordinate other masculinities. 25

MTV was continuously accessible, and its array of mixed messages regarding femininity allowed for a wide-ranging and meaningful education for its viewers. Ambiguous expressions of femininity helped foster a space in which a viewer’s education was rife with juxtaposition. In one video “block,” viewers might see myriad depictions of women: the conventional woman presented in a domestic or subservient role; the woman as sexual object; the chick; the feminist. Viewers might experience what Chris Holmund refers to as the “Postfeminist C,” or “chick”: “hostile to the goals and gains of second-wave feminism; others simply take these gains and goals for granted. Some like to party, dress up, and step out, taking breaks from work to date or shop; others stay home, tending hearth, hubby, and kids.” 26 In contrast to the “chick” was the “grrrl”: “politically engaged yet playful. They are happy to acknowledge the diversity among women that ‘chick’ postfeminism ignores, and they are eager to carry on first- and second-wave feminist struggles.” 27 Thus, the viewer had the ability to choose who they wanted to emulate: the conventional or the transgressive; the sexually repressed or the sexually liberated; the loud or the quiet.

Three videos/performances serve to embody the way transgressive sexuality were on display in MTV’s first decade: Blondie’s 1981 number one hit “Rapture,” Madonna’s live performance of “Like a Virgin” from the 1984 Music Video Awards, and Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.” It is important to note here that each of these artists emerged from three distinct music scenes, in turn bringing the ethos of punk, post-punk/no wave, and retro rock to the fore. That is, these artists were representative of larger art-music movements that had their origins in the late 1970s. Each of these movements were transgressive in nature and actively and explicitly sought to comment and critique constructs of modern society, including gender. Each video is representative of how women artists appropriated, and thereby subverted, the gendered concepts of femininity that were often present in mainstream popular music. The visual medium of the music video enabled these artists the opportunity to offer an alternative representation of women.

An early example of an artist expressing an unconventional form of sexuality can be found in Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture.” Founded in 1974 and fronted by singer Deborah Harry, Blondie were part of the nascent New York City artpunk scene, and were contemporary to Talking Heads and Television, among others whose brand of punk was more about aesthetic than anger and dissonance. This latter point enabled the band to delve into different styles of music including dance, new wave, and, rather unfortunately, hip-hop. Such is evidenced in the band’s video for the song “Rapture.” In the video a halter-top adorned Deborah Harry walks into a sound stage version of a dance club populated by various white men—most of whom are the male members of the band—and black women clad in all-white. 28 As Harry walks into the club the men are lighted and positioned so as to appear as fashion dummies, but quickly become animated once Harry’s presence brings “life” to the room. Harry then approaches each of the men in the club, briefly dancing with each one. This is seemingly innocuous, but subtly transgressive in that Harry seems to be “trying on” each of the men, touching or flirting with each. Further, she is the one making a choice in a setting—a disco-like club—that was far more bacchanalia than the formal dance club or the soda shop. Audiences in 1981 would be able to “read” the club as a place where people danced, imbibed substances legal and illegal, and engaged in what mainstream Western society would deem to be deviant sexual behavior. Nonetheless, the most radical aspect of the video is the fact that Harry was the chooser—that is, the active agent of a sexual appetite more associated with men. The men are the objects—passive, glamorous, and sexualized. This aggressive heterosexuality in which a woman appropriated masculine sexual norms worked to subvert accepted notions of a Western woman’s sexuality. The second half of the video borders on the surreal, as the rap portion of the song finds Harry dancing amongst varied, rather surreal figures including a black man dressed in an all-white tuxedo whilst Fab 5 Freddy “tags” a graffiti mural on the wall behind her. Of further interest is the male and female dummies that are situated in a shop window on the “street set.” In it, the dummies are adorned in fashions more suited to the 1930s or 1940s and are positioned in a more traditional dance pose where the male is clearly the lead. This “relic” of the past serves to juxtapose the more modern and subversive form of dance espoused by the dominant Harry.

Cyndi Lauper’s 1984 video “She Bop” offers a similar, but more nuanced, take on feminine sexuality than Blondie’s “Rapture.” The song raised the ire of cultural conservatives with its obvious paean to female masturbation. Featuring references to “going blind,” “vibrations,” and wanting to “go south,” Lauper expresses some concern with how society might view her form of self-pleasure, yet she ultimately concludes that she can continue as there “ain’t no law against it yet.” 29 The video for the song has some subtle coding that visually expresses some of the song’s themes. The video begins with mindless consumers marching through a colorless McDonald’s-like fast-food restaurant—an obvious symbol of blandness, uniformity, and convention—where customers are served machine-maufactured hamburgers. In the parking lot is a car with windows clouded by steam—a clear indication that somebody is engaging in some form of sexual behavior. Viewers conditioned by shows such as Happy Days in which teenagers steam up car windows while engaging in “necking,” would undoubtedly expect a (heterosexual) couple to emerge from the vehicle. Instead, Lauper alone tumbles out the open door with a “beefcake” magazine in her hand–a clear indication that she had been masturbating. Aspects of the song’s lyrics are visualized, including a vibrating motorcycle and a suit in which Lauper is adorned that can be read as being that of a male dancer (tuxedo, top-hat, cane) or that of a blind person (glasses, cane). Further, clever puns of the song’s theme are evident: a station offering “self-service” as well as the automaton consumers going from bland to colorful once they embrace Lauper’s vision of self-love. Though there are some clear connections to the second wave—a sense of agency of one’s body through a responsibility for one’s own sexual pleasure, a rejection of conventional heteronormative sexual practice—Lauper is clearly singing from a heterosexual viewpoint, as an unnamed “Blue Boy” serves as the basis for her masturbatory fantasy. Moreover, Lauper expresses hopes that what is assumed to be her boyfriend “will understand.” In this sense, a man could indeed assist a woman in her desire for sexual pleasure, but a woman still maintains the right to bring about her own gratification. Further, the presence and popularity of the song and video on MTV added an additional level of nebulousness regarding the expectations and realities of feminine sexuality.

One of the more famous performances in the channel’s history occurred at the first edition of the MTV Video Music Awards held at Radio City Music Hall in September 1984. Born Madonna Ciccone in Michigan, the future MTV stalwart moved to New York City and became involved with the city’s nascent post-punk/no-wave dance scene. Madonna’s 1983 eponymous debut gained her airplay on MTV; in 1984 she was on her way to becoming something of a phenomenon by the time she performed her hit song “Like a Virgin” to the still largely corporate MTV Awards audience. 30 Madonna entered the stage without a backing band, standing atop an outsized wedding cake next to a dummy groom, and was adorned in a virginal white, yet quite revealing, wedding dress. With a slightly shaking vocal, she descended the cake and worked to seduce the audiences in RKO and at home. Madonna writhed on stage and deliberately sought out which camera was “live”, quickly ensuring that she was looking directly into the camera that was providing the feed to the audience at home. It was clear that “like” a virgin meant that was not a virgin. As Madonna danced in white high heels and bared her stockinged thighs, she dared the audience(s) to see in her, the bride, an unbridled and unabashed sexuality. Unlike Lauper’s “She Bop” and Blondie’s “Rapture,” Madonna’s message was nebulous and almost contradictory. Of course, this is probably what Madonna was aiming for—the former post-punk dance artist was toying with convention and quite literally playing out on an international stage the role of both the Madonna and the Whore. She was both Western society’s highly prized virginal bride while also the highly sexualized, objectified, Western woman. Madonna was daring the audience to either view her as one or the other or to decide if they were willing to accept the fact that a woman could be both. Was the audience to be outraged? Titillated? Scared? Or, was the audience to understand that a woman could be sexual and “pure” at the same time. What made the performance so brilliant was Madonna’s ability to navigate both extremes—and thereby limitations—of the gendered definition of feminine sexuality. Of course, Madonna’s somewhat symbiotic relationship with MTV made her an ubiquitous presence throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Yet it was this 1984 performance that broke the seal of her ever-present transgressive sexuality.

The three brief, but representative, expressions of feminine sexuality put on display, for public consumption, a heretofore unseen level of explicitness from a woman pop star. Indeed, there had been performers that had challenged norms, but not to the same level as during the MTV age. Certainly no level of transgression was seen on a consistent and incessant loop as what was available to viewers all day, every day on MTV. More important, however, for the development of third-wave feminism was the understanding that the visual media associated with popular culture could be appropriated for feminist purposes. Conversely, as the audience viewed and thus consumed the quiet feminism of 1980s MTV, so too did they ingest conventional—if not regressive—images of women as mindless, voiceless, objects. These representative videos provided an alternative for viewers watching MTV, which, as Sara Marcus notes “meant being hit with video after video of male performers mugging amid cleavage shots, ass shots, [and] phalanxes of inert robotic models.” 31

As the seemingly contradictory levels of objectification of and self-objectification by women artists on MTV could be viewed in consecutive videos, so too could the juxtaposition of women subsuming rock roles traditionally held by men. Musicians of the early MTV era sought to subvert gendered tropes regarding the role of women and men in popular music. The presence of such bands as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Go-Go’s, and the Bangles upended a tradition in which “the rock band is, as a unit, a masculinizing institution, then its most visible and flamboyant instrument, the electric guitar, is understood as the masculine instrument par excellence.” 32 The incessant visual signal of MTV marked a new age for women artists, as they had opportunities that differed from the musicians of previous decades. Moreover, the simple presence of videos in which “feminine” women played guitar, drums, bass, and—in some instances—composed their own music and lyrics was an act of transgression against the staid and conventional role assigned to women within rock and roll. Though not all the artists were inherently feminist, their subversion and appropriation of rock masculinity taught a generation of girls that they, too, could someday rock like the boys. Put simply, they brought to MTV “punk’s female avant-garde.” 33

Joan Jett and the Go-Go’s had their origins in Hollywood’s late 1970s punk scene. Before embarking on a solo career, Jett started out as guitarist and singer for the all-girl proto-punk group the Runaways who had a hit with the song “Cherry Bomb”. The Go-Go’s were an amalgam of various Hollywood punk scenesters—including former members of seminal Los Angeles punk group the Germs—and began their careers playing punk before adopting a sunnier, pop sound. Indeed, Jett produced the Germs’ 1979 debut, (GI). 34 Though both sets of artists abandoned certain aspects of their punk days, their music and aesthetic retained an element of punk subversion, including aspects of do-it-yourself (DIY) and a willingness to ignore conventions of gender. For Jett, this manifested itself in her rock aesthetic, in which she played guitar, provided lead vocals, and sang first-person lyrics that expressed tropes associated with male rock sexuality: dissatisfaction, the search for pleasure, and the need to “rock”. Jett appropriated the angst fundamental to the male rock experience by making it first-person female. This was done while adorned in black leather, punkish hair style, and a sneering, defiant demeanor not often expressed by women performers. These bands differed from earlier machinations of second-wave feminism—and in turn precipitated the development of third-wave feminism—in that they composed songs that maintained themes of heterosexuality while they appropriated male rock convention. In short, they sought social equality with the rock establishment, rather than challenging the patriarchy and misogyny of the structure.

Jett’s punk-tinged feminine transgression is most apparent in the video for the song “Bad Reputation” from her 1981 debut of the same name. 35 The song is an upbeat rocker that featured the Ramones as her back-up band. Indeed, the song’s lyrics point to feminist disregard for society’s views of an independent woman with a disregard for an old generation that cannot abide her “deviation.” 36 The video for the song adds greater levels of nuance to the song’s lyrical themes, as Jett identifies the old generation as record producers—and she names (record label) names. The video opens with Jett—ever the punk rocker—dressed in black leather, jeans, heavy eye makeup, and jet-black hair, leading her back-up band’s performance in studio backlot made to look like a dingy alley. This standard depiction of the band miming the video’s song is offset by black and white video of Jett engaging with club promoters and record company executives. The black and white was an obvious nod to an old-fashioned mind-set, a point further buttressed by silent-era movie dialogue present on interstitial cards. In the first instance, Jett is tossed out by a male club promoter and is told “We don’t want your kind in here.” 37 She is then removed from a restaurant and told “Come back when you’re dressed like a lady,” 38 whereupon she offers the restaurateur a middle finger. The video then cuts to a montage of various record label executives—Island, Warner Brothers, Chrysalis, EMI, Virgin, and Magnet—rejecting Jett for not being able to sing. Rejected, Jett posits that she and her bandmates should start their own record label named “Blackheart Records”—an act rooted in fact, as Jett released Bad Reputation independently on her own label Blackheart Records. 39 This act of DIY punk meshed feminism with rock and roll, was aired on MTV, and “taught” its audience—male and female—that a woman could indeed do it herself. As the song transitions into a guitar solo the camera pans into a close-up of Billboard’s Hot 100 featuring Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” occupying its position at number one. The tone then shifts, as the same record labels begin begging for her to join their respective companies. The video then cuts to Jett singing and playing guitar atop a table in fancy restaurant, surrounded by those who had previously rejected her, and they are all dancing to her song. Further, the video transitions to color at this exact moment, tonally marking the difference between past and present. In short, the video offers a history lesson of sorts, showing the trajectory—or path—available to women in rock and roll.

Though not as overtly feminist and combative as Jett, Los Angeles’s the Go-Gos brought a different aspect of punk rock to the mainstream: the all-girl rock group. Not only did the entire band comprise of women, but they wrote and performed most of their own music. Steven Thomas Erlewine notes, “Even as they became America’s darlings, the Go-Go’s lived the wild life of rockers, swallowing as many pills and taking as much cocaine as possible, trashing hotel rooms and just generally being bad.” 40 The Go-Go’s were in constant rotation on MTV in the early 1980s, as singles from 1981’s Beauty and the Beat and Vacation from the following year received heavy airplay. On the surface, the band produced ebullient tunes that drew upon punk, surf, and 60s pop. Further, the relative novelty of five young women playing rock and roll allowed girls and (mostly) boys to choose their “favorite.” But as Erlewine noted above, the band had a rough edge that extended to their music. Indeed, their mere presence on MTV, playing music of their own composition, was transgressive enough, but a brief study of a selection of their videos demonstrates that their music also had a rougher edge. 41 One such example is the video for the song “Our Lips are Sealed,” a song co-written by guitarist/vocalist Jane Wiedlin with ex-lover Terry Hall from the English second-wave ska group the Specials. The video features the band cruising around sunny Los Angeles in a large, 1960s-era convertible, top down. Seeing the group mime the lyrics highlights the song’s harmonies. Superficially, the song and video might be construed as a typical song of love and jealously under-scored by video of post-feminist “chicks” eschewing feminism during a day of shopping. The video does indeed show the band stop at a store, but a close examination reveals that driver Belinda Carlisle has stopped in front of a store that sells “trashy lingerie.” All but one of the women rush out of the car and into the store save for Jane Wiedlin, whose high-pitched near-lullaby implores her darling to be quite and to “forget their lies.” 42 The irony is that while it appears that Wiedlin is the innocent, choosing not to shop for trashy lingerie, she stays in the car to sing about her affair with Hall, who was married at the time. As such, the song and video are far less innocent in that they serve as a confession for an illicit affair and a celebration of women who willingly and gleefully choose to adorn trashy lingerie.

The video for the Go-Go’s 1984 hit “Head Over Heels” from the album Talk Show offers a subtler expression of feminine rock and roll transgression. “Our Lips Are Sealed” and other videos by the band, including “Vacation,” highlight the band’s fun and cheery manner. However, the video for the latter can be read in a different way: a depiction of the band’s musical prowess. Videos by male artists—especially those by hard rock groups—tended to portray the bands as musical virtuosos, focusing on their musicianship by showing close-ups of their guitar or piano fingering or skillful drumming. Rarely did videos that featured women artists show them do anything more than singing or, like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” engaged in post-feminist activities. “Head Over Heels” upends this, and like Joan Jett, it shows women appropriating the role once held by men. The video features solo shots of each band member ably playing their instrument, in turn highlighting the song’s rock edge. 43 Further, the band is shown enjoying themselves and though they are miming playing, it is obvious that they actually know how to play their instruments without trouble. Indeed, these are women appropriating masculine rock and roll tropes, but the band members do not sacrifice their femininity to do so.

By 1985 both Jett and the Go-Go’s were no longer in constant MTV rotation. Nonetheless, Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle had a successful solo career up through the end of the decade, and was a constant presence on MTV, as well as MTV’s baby-boomer sister station VH1, 44 while Jett had a hit or two over the ensuing decade. In short, both had become nostalgia acts. The days of the Jett-like female rocker and the Go-Go’s-like girl group were far from over, however. The mid-1980s brought the rise of such groups as the Bangles, hair metal rockers Vixen, and former Jett Runaways bandmate, Lita Ford, among others. 1970s rock stalwarts Heart had a brief run of hits during this time, though nothing they recorded had the feminist edge of their 1977 hit “Barracuda.” These artists were largely successful in progressing the punk rock underground’s promise of a less gender-restrictive rock aesthetic. Though they had mostly eschewed the punk aesthetic of a loud, fast, anti-establishment ethos, they did maintain a continuity with punk transgression by ignoring rock’s prescribed roles for women. Moreover, the energy of punk continued with the rise of “college” music of the 1980s and 1990s (as it became “alternative” music). With the presence of such shows on MTV as Alternative Nation and 120 min, women artists were afforded a presence, albeit limited—on the cable channel. Such artists as Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor, Sonic Youth, Elastica, Luscious Jackson, Veruca Salt, Mary’s Danish, Danielle Dax, Liz Phair, the Breeders, Cibo Motto, and many others had videos aired on MTV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. More important was the direct line connecting Jett and the Go-Go’s to the Riot Grrls who worked their way into the zeitgeist of the early 1990s. Such is evidenced by the fact that Joan Jett produced songs by Riot Grrrl stalwarts Bikini Kill. 45 By helping to bring aspects of punk transgression to the mainstream, Jett and the Go-Go’s helped teach women that girls could write, record, and perform rock and roll. And like Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, and Blondie’s actions added sexual agency and sexiness as a trait that could indeed be feminist. Such is evidenced by Joan Jett, who related, “I felt like a feminist… you’re saying women can’t have sex? You don’t tell me that girls don’t get horny and don’t wanna fuck! You know why girls ‘can’t play guitar’ and ‘can’t play rock ‘n’ roll? Because rock ‘n’ roll is sex. That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I wanted to make. So meeting people like [Bikini Kill members] Kathleen and Allison and all those girls, it was really incredible, because I felt like maybe people were starting to get it.” 46

As established above, programmers in the early years at MTV were slow to acknowledge the growing audience for hip-hop. The rap that did appear on the station was largely performed by white artists such as Blondie (“Rapture”) and the Beastie Boys. The ubiquity of Michael Jackson, and Prince on MTV, did assist in widening MTV’s playlists to include more black artists. African-American women found little airplay on MTV, save for Tina Turner in the early 1980s and Janet Jackson in the mid- to late 1980s. The process was slow, but the station’s programming expanded to include Run-D.M.C., Salt ‘n’ Pepa, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. This torpid pace prevented such seminal female rappers as MC Lyte and Roxanne, among others, from receiving the same amount of attention given to Salt-n-Peppa, J.J. Fad, and Queen Latifah. “Yo! MTV Raps” debuted on USA MTV in 1988, 1 year after the show began running on MTV Europe. 47 The show proved to be one of MTV’s most popular, in turn adding another layer to MTV’s inadvertent pedagogy on race and gender.

Confession—either as jeremiad or introspection—is a central facet of hip-hop. Similarly, confession and introspection are central elements of third-wave feminism. 48 Further, third-wave Feminism was marked by a critique of second-wave feminism’s inability to incorporate racially and economically diverse voices as well as their oversight in failing to recognizing “the cues taken from Black women involved in antislavery, antilynching, and suffrage work [that] were instrumental to the evolution of the first wave.” 49 Further, Alyson Bardsley notes, “Some of the critiques of second wave feminism are its ignoring of women of color and issues of socioeconomic class…. One of the repeated critiques of third wave feminism is that it depends in unacknowledged ways on the accomplishments of the second wave, either taking them for granted or re-inventing the proverbial wheel.” 50 Hip-hop brought to the waveless movement a means by which to more directly express the inner thoughts of the artist as transgression against the conventional, white woman. These themes of outward introspection and confession were central to the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s, where ’zines, websites, art, association meetings, and music became exemplars of third-wave feminism. Central to third-wave feminism was the propensity and, indeed, space in which to infuse into feminist media a personal story—that is, to turn each ’zine, essay, blog, song, or work of art, into a confessional act. Keenan notes that “the Third Wave has often focused on the individuality of experience, personal narrative, and an intersectional view of identity that stresses difference.” 51 Though it would be impossible to draw a direct line connecting 1980s feminist hip-hop with Riot Grrrl, one cannot discount the former’s importance in helping to articulate and evolve depictions of women on MTV. In this third, and final, manner MTV provided a site by which viewers could learn about more varied perspectives on race, sex, and gender. 52

MC Lyte was the first woman rapper to write and release her own music. Her 1988 debut Lyte as a Rock features songs that serve as a confessional jeremiad—offering insight into her perspective on being a woman in 1980s New York, and hip-hop writ large. Lyte as a Rock featured the song “I am Woman,” an homage and update of Helen Reddy’s song of the same name. 53 The video for the song “Paper Thin” offers a feminist restructuring of sexuality, as Lyte positions her agency within the male/female dialectic, especially as it relates to the way women are treated in public spaces. Like Joan Jett, MC Lyte appropriated a traditionally masculine aesthetic and subverted it by making it feminine and feminist. Moreover, like Jett, MC Lyte was far from a novelty—her skills as an MC are evident in both her delivery and her lyrical content. MC Lyte’s videos were mainstays on “Yo! MTV Raps” up to the early 1990s. J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” was the first video played on “YO! MTV Raps” that featured a group fronted by women MCs. As was true of the Go-Go’s, J.J. Fad’s transgression occurred as the band appropriated the rhythmic and lyrical structures endemic to male MCs hidden under the guise of playful female sexuality. As such, the video offered two “readings”: first was the titillation of seeing three attractive and relatively scantily-clad women “play” MC; second, was—like the Go-Go’s and the Bangles—that women could write and perform music on par with men. There is no doubt that the band’s members—Baby-D, MC JB, and Sassy C—were skilled rappers, and the interplay between the three as well as the sheer speed by which they rapped certainly elevated the group beyond mere novelty. 54 After all, they were not the first women MCs. However, two other artists appeared on MTV during this period and espoused messages that precipitated the evolution toward third-wave feminism.

The first of these bands was a trio from Queens named Salt-N-Pepa, who received MTV airplay on the back of its 1986 hit “Push It.” 55 The song was somewhat provocative in how the band’s MCs espoused a positive and voracious sexuality. Moreover, the sexuality was clearly heterosexual, as the song features the MCs Salt-N-Pepa demanding “You come here, give me a kiss…/Can’t you hear the music pumping hard like I wish you would?” 56 Like J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic,” the video features the band appropriating tropes of the traditionally masculine MC. Moreover, the video depicts the band gleefully expressing their joy in heterosexual sex—a position somewhat antithetical to the positionality of second-wave feminism. The band’s 1990 release Black Magic saw the band evolve toward presenting “a stronger group identity than ever before, projecting a mix of sassy, self-confident feminism and aggressive—but responsible—sexuality.” 57 The album spawned a handful of hits, including “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which progressed the band’s sex positivity to include the notion that sex was something to be discussed, enjoyed, and viewed in positive terms. The song was released amidst growing calls for women to have greater agency as it related to matters of birth control. More significant was the idea that a woman could initiate a conversation about sex—another inversion of heteronormative gender roles. Finally, the song features a verse that encourages women to demand that their (male) sexual partner wear condoms, for the need to avoid sexually transmitted diseases was equal to the desire to enjoy sex as a means of pleasure and not procreation. In this song, we find a direct connection to second-wave feminism’s assertion that women should have control over their decision to have children—or, by extension, to terminate a pregnancy—as well as precipitating the sex positivity espoused by the third wave.

An amalgam of second-wave feminism, black feminism, and black nationalism, New Jersey’s Queen Latifah (née Dana Owens) emerged as the female voice during hip-hop’s “golden age” from 1988–1993. Steve Huey notes, “She had more charisma than her predecessors, and her strong, intelligent, no-nonsense persona made her arguably the first MC who could properly be described as feminist.” 58 The rejection of “nonsense” does not make one a feminist; however, Latifah’s willingness to speak honestly about issues regarding black women adds greater depth to her message and, in turn, reveals connections with the message of the third wave. Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley notes the significance of Latifah’s usage of the title Queen: “The ‘queen’ and the ‘whore’ are placed in dialectical opposition to each other. ‘Real’ black women are constructed as ‘queens,’ or women who are deserving of respect… For black women, the ‘queen’ identity provides an opportunity to resist dominant stereotypes that position black women as unable to access this pedestal because of their racial difference. Thus, resistance to the image of the jezebel or the whore results in the oppositional image of the ‘black queen’ who represents the ‘good’ black woman.” 59 Moreover, her adaptation of Queen is meant to under-score her authority—the queen, ruler of a (black) realm influences and leads a people, and, as was true throughout history, had the ability to initiate lawful action to bring about change. Put simply, her word is sacred and should be followed.

Videos from Latifah’s first two albums All Hail the Queen (1989) and Nature of a Sista (1991) were mainstays on the playlists for “Yo! MTV Raps.” Latifah’s strongest and most recognizably feminist message came through in her song “U.N.I.T.Y.” from 1993’s Black Reign. The song and video are unmistakably third-wave feminist, as the song’s lyrics feature a deconstruction of the word “bitch.” Bardsley notes, “Latifah’s Black Reign refrain, ‘Who you calling a Bitch?’—in a song whose foretitle is ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’—savages all opponents, male and female, of her successful self assertion; it draws on reggae for its beats, which… was originally (and remains in some cases) a protest genre, before being appropriated and evacuated of its meaning by white frat boys.” 60 The video contains a handful of vignettes depicting various acts of mistreatment by men: domestic violence, catcalling, and objectification. In each instance, Latifah pushes back against the sources and oppression and asserts a woman’s right to exist free from external suppression. Interspersed between these vignettes are shots of Latifah riding in the lead (queen’s) position in a group of motorcyclists comprised of women and men; shots of Latifah as the confident MC (griot) adorned in clothing with a distinctive African aesthetic; as the clarion voice leading the call (chorus) for social change. The intertextuality of the message espoused by third-wave feminists.

The transgressive nature of women artists from the early phase of MTV to the Riot Grrrls and Lilith (see below) was tantamount to a subversion of the conventions associated within the genre of women in rock. The actions described in this chapter reveal the dissolution and shifting of the frameworks for women in popular music. This shift was the result of anti-genre constructions of feminine alternativity and was facilitated by the post-modern and deconstructive nature of MTV’s adherence to the consumption of the aural and the visual nature of rock and roll. To an extent, certain aspects of the rhetorical frameworks of feminism—both second- and third-wave—were codified in the aural/visual MTV spectacle. Moreover, MTV was tantamount to a subtle and fluid pedagogy on 1980s femininity, where viewers witnessed a wide array of feminist and post-feminist messages that widened definitions of feminism to include more diverse voices. Most important was the way in which MTV affords us a way to explicate and identify a transitional period between second- and third-wave feminism, the latter which would be manifest in MTV’s 1990s association with the “alternative nation” and the artists connected to the late 1990s Lilith Fair—a variant of the Lollapalooza festival that featured a line-up comprised entirely of bands fronted by women.


  1. 1.

    The American Psychological Association defines gender as “attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.” American Psychological Association, Definitions Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in APA Documents,

  2. 2.

    The choice to use the lowercase here and through the rest of the chapter is stylistic and not—as it is hoped will be quite evident—a marginalization of feminism. The authors have great esteem for feminism and feminists.

  3. 3.

    Gillian Frank, “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash against Disco,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15, no. 2 (May 2007): 280.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., 282.

  5. 5.

    Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán, “Introduction: The 1970s,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, nos. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2015): 14–30. For a general history of women in rock and roll, see Gillian G. Gaar’s She’s a Rebel, The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seattle: Seal Press, 1992).

  6. 6.

    Indeed, MTV did include black artists in its early rotation, but it was not until the mid-1980s did the station regularly program hip-hop artists, and it was not until 1988 that MTV fully embraced hip-hop. Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, eds., I Want my MTV , The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (New York: Plume, 2012): 379.

  7. 7.

    One should not conclude that MTV created the music video. The marriage of popular music and film—or videotape—date to the advent of cinema as an artistic medium. “Promotional clips” were utilized by artists to promote their albums in markets too small or too remote to tour. The most famous example of this was the Beatles, who produced numerous “clips” following their decision to cease live performances in 1966. Ibid., xxxvii–xlv.

  8. 8.

    Mary Ann Clawson, “When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music,” Gender and Society 13, no. 2 (April 1999): 197.

  9. 9.

    Robin Roberts, “‘Sex as a Weapon’: Feminist Rock Music Videos,” NWSA Journal 2, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 1.

  10. 10.

    Gayle Wald defines alternative music as often being, “defined in terms of an aesthetic that disavows, or evinces critical mistrust of, earlier rock subjectivities as well as the music industry itself. And yet ‘alternative’ is also, for my purposes, a corporate demographic and a new set of industry practices spurred by the discovery that independent labels could effectively serve as major-label artists-and-repertoire departments, according to the logic of outsourcing.” Gayle Wald, “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth,” Signs 23, no. 3 Feminisms and Youth Cultures (Spring 1998): fn., 588.

  11. 11.

    See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  12. 12.

    Helen Davies, “All rock and roll is homosocial: the representation of women in the British rock music press,” Popular Music 20, no. 3 (2001): 302.

  13. 13.

    The term “waveless” comes from two scholars. The first is Amber E. Kinser, who declares “I am the Mid Wave,” to distinguish herself as being “transformed by the labor of the ‘second-wave’ feminists,” but also as pre-dating the third-wave. Amber E. Kinser, “Negotiating Spaces for/through Third-Wave Feminism,” NWSA Journal 16, no. 3 (Autumn 2004): 124. The second is Alyson Bardsley who wrote “I felt myself between the waves, waveless in fact.” Alyson Bardsley, “Girlfight the Power: Teaching Contemporary Feminism and Pop Culture,” Feminist Teacher 16, no. 3 (2006): 200.

  14. 14.

    Of course, this chapter is not meant to be a criticism of the second wave, as we acknowledge the efforts and achievements gained by feminists—academics and non-academics—in working toward a more equal and just society. The point here is to explicate the way a generation raised on MTV worked toward the progression, or evolution, of feminism to embrace a more pluralistic view of femininity. Amber E. Kinser, “Negotiating Spaces for/through Third-Wave Feminism,” NWSA Journal 16, no. 3 (Autumn 2004): 133. See also E. Ann Kaplan, “Whose Imaginary? The Televisual Apparatus, the Female Body and Textual Strategies in Select Rock Videos on MTV,” in E. Deirdre Pribram, Female Spectators Looking at Film and Television (London: Verso, 1988): 132–155.

  15. 15.

    Rita Felski, “The Dialectic of ‘Feminism’ and ‘Aesthetics,” in Feminisms, eds. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 423.

  16. 16.

    Susan Alexander, “The Gender Role Paradox in Youth Culture: An Analysis of Women in Music Videos,” Michigan Sociological Review 13 (Fall 1999): 46–64.

  17. 17.

    Indeed, this is a very basic and general description of first-wave feminism, and it should not be construed as a slight to everything accomplished by the generations of activists and scholars. Academically, many first-wave scholars worked to justify a woman’s place in public and political life by identifying women in history that succeeded in positions of power. Joan Wallach Scott, “Feminism and History,” Feminism and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996): 1–13. See also Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires, eds., Feminisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  18. 18.

    See Maria Mies, Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1986).

  19. 19.

    Elizabeth K. Keenan, “If Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville Made You a Feminist, What Kind of Feminist Are You? Heterosexuality, Race, and Class in the Third Wave,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 14 (2010): 47.

  20. 20.

    Jonathyne Briggs, “Sex and the Girl’s Single: French Popular Music and the Long Sexual Revolution of the 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, no. 3 (September 2012): 523.

  21. 21.

    Ibid., 528.

  22. 22.

    Mary Ann Clawson, “When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music,” Gender and Society 13, no. 2 (April 1999): 194.

  23. 23.

    Helen Davies, “All rock and roll is homosocial: the representation of women in the British rock music press,” Popular Music 20, no. 3 (2001): 302.

  24. 24.

    Linda Kalof, “Dilemmas of Femininity: Gender and the Social Construction of Sexual Imagery,” The Sociological Quarterly 34, no. 4 (1993): 641.

  25. 25.

    Ibid., 647.

  26. 26.

    Chris Holmlund, “Postfeminism A to G,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 3 (Winter 2005): 116. Postfeminism is the espousal of any variant of second-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism is one such example.

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    The video holds a somewhat infamous place within the history of MTV, as it is recognized as the first rap video to make air. The rap portion of the song comprises the second half of the song and is a marked change from the lighter, dancier tone of the first half. “Rapture” was a number one hit song for Blondie—as was “The Tide is High”—and marked a further transition away from the band’s punk roots as well as a general trend by punk bands to evolve their sound through cultural appropriation of black music.

  29. 29.

    Cyndi Lauper, “She Bop,” She’s So Unusual, 1984. The video can be found at

  30. 30.

    Liz Rosenberg, record executive noted, “People were stunned and speechless that Madonna behaved in such a shocking fashion. People came up to me and told me that her career was over before it started.” Liz Rosenberg in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, eds., I Want my MTV , The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (New York: Plume, 2012): 225. For more on the first MTV Video Music Awards, see ibid.:222–226. For more on Madonna and her relationship with MTV, see ibid.: 159–166.

  31. 31.

    Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front, the True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (New York: Harper Perrenial, 2010): 49.

  32. 32.

    Mary Ann Clawson, “When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music,” Gender and Society 13, no. 2 (April 1999): 201.

  33. 33.

    Caroline O’Meara, “The Raincoats: Breaking down Punk Rock’s Masculinities,” Popular Music 22, no. 3 (October 2003): 303.

  34. 34.

    The Germs, ( GI), Rhino, 1979.

  35. 35.

    It is likely that the production of the video for “Bad Reputation” took place after the recording of her 1981 sophomore effort I Love Rock ‘ n’ Roll . Such is evident in the fact that the video references the success of the album’s lead single “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Jett’s website lists 1983 as the video’s production date.

  36. 36.

    Joan Jett, “Bad Reputation,” Bad Reputation, Blackheart Records, 1980.

  37. 37.

    Joan Jett, video for “Bad Reputation,”

  38. 38.


  39. 39.

    Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Joan Jett,”

  40. 40.

    Steven Thomas Erlewine, “The Go-Go’s,”

  41. 41.

    Such is evident on several songs that were not released as videos. Their early singles from their early career reveal their punk rock roots, as well as their willingness to sing about love and sex in explicit terms. These themes continued into their major label releases and can be heard in the songs “Skidmarks on My Heart” and “Lust to Love” from Beauty and the Beat and “He’s so Strange” and “Cool Jerk” from Vacation.

  42. 42.

    The Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Beauty and the Beat , A&M/I.R.S., 1981.

  43. 43.

    The Go-Go’s, “Head Over Heels,” Talk Show , 1984.

  44. 44.

    VH1 (Video Hits 1) was created by MTV’s ownership group to counter an effort to create a cheaper alternative by American media mogul Ted Turner. The station was designed to be more “family friendly” by playing older, familiar videos from the early 1980s, as well as music geared toward an older demographic. Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, eds., I Want my MTV , The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (New York: Plume, 2012): 229. In its original incarnation, VH1’s aesthetic was much less edgy and the musical choices were far less transgressive than anything appearing on MTV. Like MTV, VH1 still exists, but after many different incarnations, the station has evolved into airing nostalgia for aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.

  45. 45.

    For more on the relationship between Jett and Bikini Kill, see Marcus, Girls: 266–267, 270–271.

  46. 46.

    Ibid., 266.

  47. 47.

    For an oral history on the creation of “Yo! MTV Raps,” see “People in the Hood Rushed to Get Cable, How Ted Demme Did, Didn’t, Maybe Did, and Absolutely Did Create Yo! MTV Raps ,’ in I Want my MTV , The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, eds. Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks (New York: Plume, 2012): 378–395.

  48. 48.

    James B. Stewart, offers a typology of political commentary within black popular music, noting the propensity of artists to create music that is far less insular and introspective than traditional, white rock and roll. That in black political music there is a sense of confession and documentation ranging from “Awareness Raising Self-Criticism” to “Revolutionary Manifesto,” directed toward an external (white) and/or internal (black) audience. Included within this rubric is the “Jeremiad,” which “challenges outsiders to implement humanitarian beliefs and values.” James B. Stewart, “Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music from Rhythm and Blues to Early Hip Hop,” The Journal of African American History 90, no. 3, The History of Hip Hop (Summer 2005): 204.

  49. 49.

    Kimberly Spring, “Third Wave Black Feminism?,” Signs 27, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 1061.

  50. 50.

    Alyson Bardsley, “Girlfight the Power: Teaching Contemporary Feminism and Pop Culture,” Feminist Teacher 16, no. 3 (2006): 194.

  51. 51.

    Elizabeth K. Keenan, “If Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville Made You a Feminist, What Kind of Feminist Are You? Heterosexuality, Race, and Class in the Third Wave,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 14 (2010): 48–49.

  52. 52.

    For a deeper reading of women in hip-hop videos, including analyses of videos not featured on MTV see: Shelton, Maria L. “Can’t touch this! Representations of the African American female body in urban rap videos.” Popular Music & Society 21, no. 3 (1997): 107–116. Robin Roberts, “Music videos, performance and resistance: Feminist rappers,” The Journal of Popular Culture 25, no. 2 (1991): 141–152, Beverley Skeggs, “Two minute brother: Contestation through gender, ‘race’ and sexuality,” Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 6, no. 3 (1993): 299–322, S. Sanders, “From Video Hoes to Deathbed Divas: Black Woman as Portrayed in Music Videos,” Essence 2, no. 1 (1997): 160–161, Donna Troka, “You heard my gun cock: Female agency and aggression in contemporary rap music,” African American Research Perspectives 8, no. 2 (2002): 82–102, Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, “The essence of res (ex) pectability: Black women’s negotiation of black femininity in rap music and music video,” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 8, no. 1 (2007): 236–260.

  53. 53.

    MC Lyte, Lyte as a Rock , First Priority, 1988.

  54. 54.

    J.J. Fad, “Supersonic,” Supersonic, EastWest,1988.

  55. 55.

    Salt-N-Pepa, “Push It,” Hot, Cool & Vicious, London, 1986.

  56. 56.


  57. 57.

    Steve Huey, “Review of Black Magic ,”

  58. 58.

    Steve Huey, “Queen Latifah,”

  59. 59.

    Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley, “The Essence of Res(ex)pectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Black Femininity Rap Music and Music Video,” Meridians 8, no. 1, Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music (2008), 247.

  60. 60.

    Alyson Bardsley, “Girlfight the Power: Teaching Contemporary Feminism and Pop Culture,” Feminist Teacher 16, no. 3 (2006), 196.


Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Wisconsin–La CrosseLa CrosseUSA
  2. 2.Chapman UniversityOrangeUSA

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