Female address on music television
Being discovered

by Lisa A. Lewis

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 2-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

Since MTV began broadcasting in 1981, both popular and academic critics writing about music television have insistently raised the issue of MTV's sexism.[1] [open notes in new window] Indeed, a "jump on the bandwagon" critical momentum has fashioned that assertion of sexism into a basic analytical assumption. Although the charge of sexism rightly foregrounds issues of textual politics, critics too frequently treat MTV as a monolithic textual system and sexism as a static, ahistorical mode of representation written into media texts.

Music video does bring together two cultural forms which have notoriously promulgated female objectification — rock music and televisual imagery. Critics can certainly bring up specific examples to justify such claims — such as women in chains or cages, strewn across sets in skimpy leather outfits. But if criticism focuses exclusively on sexist representations in male-addressed videos, it will overlook how numerous videos have emerged which are produced to songs sung by female musicians and it will ignore these videos' enormous popularity among female fans.


In the years leading up to the start of music video promotion, female rock musicians had struggled for recognition both as vocalists (the traditional female niche) and as instrumentalists and composers.[2] The contemporary women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided momentum for change, as did the early punk movement in Britain at the end of the 1970s. Although punk emerged essentially as a working-class male subculture, Hebdige (1983) makes the point that punk included a minority of female participants who aggressively tried to carve out a specifically female form of expression. On the punk scene, women musicians offered a sharp contrast to the way subcultures usually subsume women phallocentrically:

"Punk propelled girls onto the stage and once there, as musicians and singers, they systematically transgressed the codes governing female performance … These performers have opened up a new space for women as active participators in the production of popular music" (p.83-85).

Punk's advocacy of "defiant amateurism" (Swartley, 1982, p. 28) elevated the devalued status of the amateur musician, in the process granting women unprecedented access to musical information and audiences. The start of MTV represents another conjuncture of female pop and rock musicianship. The channel established a music video format and distribution mechanism; and these provided female musicians with an opportunity to gain industry backing, assert their subjective vision within the videos, and build audience recognition.

Under the capitalist economic system that operates rock and roll as an entrepreneurial enterprise, getting a record company contract largely defines professional musicians' goals. Most rock musicians, women included, aspire to gaining the largest audiences and the financial backing to produce and promote their music. For that, musicians look to commercial distribution.

In 1979, just when new female musicians were preparing to break into the music scene, the U.S. recording industry had gone into a tailspin. This was due to the combined effects of a sluggish economy, home-taping, and diversification of the home entertainment market. The years 1976 to 1978 had been boom years for record companies, but 1979 became known as "the year of the Platinum Goose's downfall" (Sutherland, 1980, p. 96). Any individual or group without a proven track record, which especially applied to women musicians, had a hard time obtaining a record company contract, that essential step in finding a large audience. The difficulty of getting a contract began to change, however, in the summer of 1981 with the introduction of music video programming.[3]

Six weeks after MTV went on the air in selected test markets like Tulsa, Wichita, Peoria, Syracuse, Grand Rapids, and Houston, record sales rose for certain musical artists getting heavy play on the channel. Retailers in these areas received requests for music which had not had radio airplay in their communities. By 1983, a Neilsen survey commissioned by MTV owner, Warner-Amex, showed MTV to be influencing 63% of its viewers to buy certain albums.

For every nine albums bought by MTV viewers, four purchases could be directly attributed to the viewing of the record- company-produced music videos (Levy, 1983, p. 34). Lee Epand, vice-president of Polygram Records, one of the companies originally reticent about turning over free copies of music video tapes to MTV, admitted that the cable channel had proven "the most powerful selling tool we've ever had" (Levy, 1983, p.78). Album and singles sales rose to all time highs, in some cases surpassing industry sales records. As a result, record companies renewed financing for new and unknown bands and vocalists, women musicians included.

In 1982, the Go-Gos became the only all-female vocal and instrumental group ever to make the top 10. Their first album, "Beauty and the Beat," also became the first album by an all-women rock band to hit number one on the charts. Cyndi Lauper's debut album, "She's So Unusual," remained in the top 30 for 60+ weeks, selling close to 4 million copies in the U.S. alone. That album produced four Top 5 hit singles, a new record for a female singer.

Madonna sold 3.5 million copies of her album, "Like a Virgin," in just 14 weeks. Her album was "triple platinum" before its artist had even set foot on a touring stage. By 1985, "Like a Virgin" became the first album by a female artist to be certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for sales of five million units. The 1985 winner of the top Grammy award, Tina Turner, had no record deal one year but a top hit single the next. Her album, "Private Dancer" has sold ten million copies around the world. Pat Benatar, Chaka Khan, and the Pointer Sisters all reached a million in sales with albums promoted by music video.[4]

When musicians enter the world of professional musicianship, they do not necessarily receive an invitation to create the music of their choice. Musicians who work within the record industry constantly negotiate contradictory roles. They work both as self-expressing artists and as paid workers within an industrial mode of production. Additionally, female rock musicians contend with their subordinate position as female social subjects; their promotion remains tied to sexist standards of representation and musical niches. When music video gained ascendency as a promotional vehicle and as a final stage in the song production process, however, this new form suggested certain strategies whereby female musicians could expand their struggle for authorship over both their image and their music.

MTV music video commonly uses two formal devices — a pit-recorded popular music song and the musicians' appearing in on-screen roles. Most conventionally, vocalists lip synch the song's lyrics while visually we see them featured as musical performers. Sometimes they also act in the video's narrative.

Female musicians' traditional musical role as vocalist gets turned into an asset in music video promotion. In their desire to broaden the spectrum of female musicianship, feminist critics have sometimes criticized the vocalist niche. However, in music video the prerogative rests most squarely on the vocalist. In narrative videos, the lyrics provided by the female vocalist can operate like a narrator's omnipotent voice-over to guide the visual action.

Commonly a selected lyrical phrase is lip synched as if it were dialogue. With this device, sometimes the female vocalist manages literally to put words in other characters' (sometimes male) mouths. In Cyndi Lauper's first MTV video, GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, the burly ex-wrestler Lou Albano, as Lauper's father, lip synchs Cyndi's lyric, "What you gonna do with your life?"; at this point, she pins his arm behind his back in a wrestling maneuver. To replace the father's scolding voice with the daughter's parodies and undermines the father's authority and by symbolic extension, patriarchy[5] itself.

When musicians appear visually in music videos, the video format allows them a greater range of performance than that does the concert stage. Eye contact and facial gestures seen only by a few concert-goers become equally accessible to video viewers. Role-playing is limited on the stage to costuming changes and the use of props. It can be intricately elaborated in music video through location shooting, use of sets, and interactions between musicians and actors. In other words, musicians in music video now can use the gamut of devices available to television producers. Many female musicians have proven adept at manipulating the visual elements of performance, utilizing music video's formal characteristics as authorship tools.

Cyndi Lauper was one of the first female musicians to achieve mass popularity as a direct result of her exposure on MTV. GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, released on MTV in 1983, resulted from an intricate set of initiatives Lauper designed to create a woman-identified image for herself and her music. When Lauper's producer, Rick Chertoff, first suggested Lauper sing Robert Hazard's "Girl's Just Want To Have Fun," she found the lyrics sexist and refused to consider the piece:"

"…he played me 'Girls…' and I said, 'Well, I ain't doing THAT song' … because it wasn't what it ended up to be — which is something that I'll never forget that Rick did for me. I was so headstrong and so set. It was basically a very chauvinistic song. He said, 'But wait, think about what it COULD mean, just think about it for a minute, forget all this other stuff, and think about what it could mean.' I said, 'Well, how could I do that? Look at this and look at that.' He said, 'So change it.'" (Meldrum Tapes, 1986)

Hazard's original lyrics had offered only an inflated male fantasy of female desire:

My father says, "My son,
what do they want from your life?"
I say, "Father, dear,
we are the fortunate ones.
Girls just want to have fun."

But Lauper altered the lyrics to make them a custom-made vehicle by which she could express her views on female inequality:

My mother says,
"When you gonna live your life right?"
"Oh, Mother, dear,
we're not the fortunate ones.
And girls just want to have fun."

The video's design affirmed the way Lauper appropriated Hazard's song. The change subsequently became the cornerstone for the video narrative. Lauper even had her own mother play a leading role. She used the video as a means of extending her authorship, and her mother's appearance encouraged an autobiographical interpretation of the lyrics.

On Lauper's album, Hazard receives songwriting credit, an indication he was duly compensated. In the informal notes Lauper includes in the album's jacket, she thanks Hazard "for letting me change your song." Essentially, Lauper traded in "owning" the song for the right to be its author. As it turns out, her commercial success translated into dollars down the line. Hazard was put in the somewhat embarrassing, although financially rewarding, position of accumulating royalties from the sale of a song which no longer spoke his creative vision. He maintains ownership, but is robbed of authorship. While songwriters often remain all but invisible in the wake of a vocalist's rendition, the case of "Girls" represents an extraordinarily political intervention by Lauper, one which clearly worked to her benefit.

Lauper also participated in producing the video, although she did not officially direct it. In Shore's (1984) day-by-day account of the making of the video, Lauper's name appears over and over as a contributor at virtually every stage of production. It is "Cyndi" who picks the video's producer, Ken Walz, and director, Ed Griles. She based that decision on her prior experience of working with them on videos for her first (commercially unsuccessful) band, Blue Angel. "Cyndi" suggests the video's concept, picks location sites in New York City, brings in choreographer Mary Ellen Strom and finds extras to appear in the video. The construction workers, who serve as pivotal symbols in the video's snake-dance sequence, were actual workers that Lauper coaxed into the on-camera action. Shore (1984) describes her coaching of the other passers-by she drew into the scene:

"Cyndi, who appears to be doing as much directing as Griles or anyone else, runs them through their paces several times while waiting for the new chorus-line members to return to the location" (Shore, 1984, p. 171).

As the account eloquently demonstrates, the usual cinematic division of labor suggested by the official title of "director" did not preclude Lauper's collaborative accomplishments.

Shore's (1984) story of Lauper's involvement in the shoot continues. "Cyndi" suggests the antique boutiques where campy items used in the creation of interior sets were purchased. She spends hours splatter-painting furniture for the bedroom scene. Her input even extends to post-production work, as she screens rushes, approves the rough cut, and checks in on the progress of the time-consuming special effect that appears midway through the video.

In his diary-like chronicle, Shore (1984) is attentive to Lauper's many initiatives and interventions, and he even includes snatches of interviews that allow her to voice her intentions:

"Finally, there is the artist herself: Cyndi is not just a pretty face onstage, a pretty voice on record. She's an experienced actress as well … Cyndi plays an unusually large creative role in the conceptualizing and staging of the video itself, from start to finish … says Cyndi … "I know what I want and don't want — I don't want to be portrayed as just another sex symbol" (p. 167).

Lauper has a vital self-consciousness about representation. She has proven her ability to use visual language to overturn staid images, create song authorship, and build a musical career. Her taking charge of the video idiom indicates new directions for female musicianship and the important role played here by music video.

MTV has also facilitated different, new relations between female musicians and female audiences. The distribution of music video into cable-wired homes has created a domestic outlet for musical promotion. Prior to the advent of MTV, rock musicians had mainly depended on the concert tour for promotion, and going to rock concerts was overwhelmingly identified as a male adolescent cultural activity. As MTV promoted musicians on its home-based television distribution channel, it brought musicians a larger female audience and helped sponsored female entry to concerts. According to Pat Benatar, who performed on concert stages both before and after the start of MTV, a clear shift in female concert attendance occurred once MTV began distributing her image into the home:

"When we first began, most of our concerts were probably 80/20 male-oriented. There were very few women. Very few women used to go to concerts no matter who was playing, male or female. I saw that really change about 1982. It became like 60/40, and the next thing I knew, it was 50/50, then 60/40 the other way. Now there are more women in the audience than men" (Benatar, 1987).

The opportunity to build a female audience through music video promotion was seized by female musicians as an occasion to develop an address to girls and women.


Although the formal characteristics of music video and its distribution on MTV enhanced female musicians' authorship, it is to the credit of female musicians such as Lauper and Benatar that MTV became a touchstone for female address. Overall, the textual system of address developed by MTV did not accommodate the rising number of female musicians' need for a vehicle for self-representation, nor was the channel geared to female audiences. By the time GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN played on MTV in 1983, the channel's system of discourse had largely solidified around representing male adolescent experiences and desires.

MTV specifically resulted from market studies based on demographic thinking (Marc, 1984). It was conceived with a specific target audience in mind, the broadly stated age group of 12-34 year olds (Wolfe, 1983). In translating its perception of youth into a textual address, MTV chose the path, not surprisingly, of reproducing the culturally salient and ideological category "adolescence."

Hudson (1984) describes adolescence as a system of discourse which fundamentally incorporates the assumptions and definitions of male experience, activity, and desire. The attitudes and practices typically associated with adolescence include socially sanctioned retreats from parental surveillance and domestic constrictions, aggressive leisure practices and associated peer activities, pursuit of sexual experiences, and experimenting with social roles and norms. Such activities help boys assume their position in patriarchy. Adolescence and masculinity are ideologically united to support the social system of male privilege. The social authorization of adolescent license remains tied to gender and does not fully extend to girls.

Textually, MTV enacts male adolescent discourse through a broad system of images that evokes boys' privileged position both in relation to their female adolescent peers and to the adult male role. Symbolic representations of adolescent boy culture celebrate the distinctiveness of male adolescence by depicting boys' distinct peer relations, leisure activities, sexual fantasies, and on occasion, contradictory experiences. Towards this end, music video uses the image of the street as an overarching sign system. Male musicians are shown loitering on sidewalks, strolling along avenues, and traveling in cars, in keeping with male youths' attachment to the street. The visual representation of street corner activities valorizes leisure, the arena in which adolescent boys carve out their own domain in the world (McRobbie, 1980).

The image of the street allows the videos to celebrate the expansive parameters of rebellious play and male adolescent license, which only in the extreme becomes socially classified as deviant. Even when the image of the street is physically absent from an individual video, it remains an implied presence. As a sign system, it perfectly summarizes boys' quests for adventure, rebellion, sexual encounter, peer relations, and male privilege. Male adolescent viewers formulate a symbolic equation between the representation of the street and their own privileged access to public space and patriarchal prerogatives. By playing on such an equation, music video empowers boy viewers by its specific form of adolescent address.

Male address videos draw fundamentally on the connection between male adolescent license and adult male rule by activating textual signs long common to patriarchal discourse. Reproducing coded images of the female body and conventionally positioning girls and women as objects of male voyeurism remain effective visual strategies for associating male adolescent desire with male dominance. Representations of females in music video become inflected in ways that facilitate their integration into the specific vision of male adolescent discourse. Girls, when they appear, are not represented as equal participants in the symbolic system, "the street," but function instead to delineate male adolescent fantasy.

MTV's textual enactment of gender ideology and social discourse is what feminist and moralist critics have observed when they raise objections to sexual stereotyping and misogynous imagery in music television. These critics, however, never directly relate charges of sexism to the channel's notion of target audience or to its ideological privileging of male adolescence, which pervades MTV's interpretation of its target audience. This is alarming, since MTV spokespersons constantly defend its policies as resulting from its need to cater to a youth audience. Bob Pittman, MTV's concept originator, consistently responded to allegations of sexism by naturalizing the highly ideological category of "adolescence" which MTV's format attempts to reproduce:

"It's not the Barry Manilow channel … Some songs are unhappy. Some have a dark message. It's the essence of rock. It mirrors the issues of people moving from adolescence" (Levy, 1983, p. 76).

His response illustrates the disparity between MTV's rhetoric (that it was enacting an address to a broad demographic category of youth of both genders), and its textual practice (the representation of male adolescence). It also reveals how problematic the social complexities underlying certain demographic categories can become for producers of televisual content.

By identifying a "preferred" textual system of male address on MTV, I, too, raise the issue of "sexism in the text." But I wish to analyze that sexism in the broader terms of hegemonic preference discussed by Stuart Hall (1980, 1982). Applying Antonio Gramsci's (1971) theory of hegemony to signification practices, Hall (1982) argues that the power to signify, to control "the means by which collective social understandings are created" (p. 70) fundamentally aids the ruling power in maintaining consent over subordinates. In the case of male address on MTV, the hegemony of gender inequality and male adolescence becomes manifest in the way MTV excludes girls from male discourse, and in their coded and semiotically impoverished representation.

In Hall's (1982) terms, MTV's male adolescence discourse has become "the primary framework or terms of an argument," requiring parties interested in creating a female voice (select female musicians and audiences) "to perform with the established terms of the problematic in play (p. 81)." A number of female musicians have taken up the challenge of rearticulating the text, appropriating MTV's male youth address, and producing a new address to female adolescents. Their videos engage in "struggle over meaning" by offering representations that resonate with female cultural experiences of adolescence and gender in Britain and the United States.

Female address began to coalesce on MTV, in my estimation, around the year 1983, with the release of Lauper's video, GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN. The music videos of a number of female musicians cohered in this and following years to establish a new and distinct textual practice. Their videos represented female adolescence within the more general social condition of gender inequality.

To accomplish this, female address videos use two interrelated textual sign systems, which I call respectively access signs and discovery signs.[6] Access signs visually appropriate the privileged experience of boys and men. The female video texts enter the male domain of activity and signification. Symbolically they execute take-overs of male space, erase sex-roles, and demand parity with male privilege. In this way, the video texts challenge assumptions about the boundaries which gender, as a social construct, draws around men and women.

Discovery signs coexist and interact with access signs. They refer to and celebrate distinctly female modes of cultural expression and experience. Discovery signs attempt to compensate in a mediated form for female cultural marginalization as they depict those activities which females tend to engage apart from males. In female address videos, access signs open out into discovery signs that rejoice in specifically female forms of leisure and cultural expression and female sources of social bonding to which adolescent boys have little access. By representing girl practices, the videos set a tone that celebrates female resourcefulness and cultural distinctiveness.

Music videos from four women musicians, appearing in the years 1983 and 1984,[7] serve as examples of the textual strategies of female address. The videos of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Pat Benatar, and Tina Turner all have a similar visual treatment of gender experience and a nuanced, yet consistent, use of both access and discovery signs.


The image of the street, exploited as a textual strategy in MTV's male adolescent discourse, summons up different and distinct connotations for female adolescents. Female socialization leads women and girls to avoid streets for fear of harassment and rape. They expect to become objects of the male gaze if they make themselves too visible by loitering or even walking slowly. Girls are discouraged from participating in much of the leisure activity, social bonding practices, and subcultural formations associated with the male street culture. McRobbie (1980) describes gendered standards of leisure within youth culture as resulting from the broader social system of gender inequality. Female address videos rework the ideological representations of male privilege by appropriating the image of the street for to produce female-oriented access signs.

In GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, the bouncing Lauper leads her band of girlfriends through New York city streets in a frenzied snake dance that turns women's experience of foreboding streets upside-down in a carnavalesque display. Their arms reaching out for more and more space, the women push through a group of male construction workers, who function as symbols of female harassment on the street. The lyrical refrain, "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," enacts a powerful cry for access to the privileged realm of male adolescent leisure and fun.

Madonna's BORDERLINE immerses the star and female extras in male street-corner culture. Madonna is shown street dancing, spraying graffiti on urban walls, and loitering on a street corner with female peers. She blows kisses and initiates flirtation with street boys, and leads her girlfriends into the male turf of the pool hall. In short, she appropriates activities and spaces typically associated with male adolescence.

Pat Benatar's video, LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD, presents a more militant version of the street take-over. The video begins by referring to women's usual experience on the street. Benatar, playing a homeless teenager, is shown being bumped and harassed by male passersby, a scenario extended to the male space of the bar. At a turning point in the video, we hear the scream of a woman as she is physically reprimanded by her pimp. Her voice, laid unconventionally over the musical soundtrack, shrieks out, "Leave Me Alone!" Thus, the call to access begins. With lyrics sung by Benatar on the sound track, "We are strong, no one can tell us we're wrong," the visual track shows Benatar and the other women in the bar bursting forth with aggressive chest thrusts and kicks, forcing the pimp back against the bar. Benatar violently splashes a drink in his face, a moment formally prioritized by sound effects. Retreating to the street, Benatar and her female companions demonstrate their solidarity and celebrate their defeat of the male ego. Benatar turns and saunters down the street, at last its rightful owner.

Tina Turner enacts signs of access in the video, WHATS LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? by taking a long, slow walk down a New York city street. Unlike the other videos, Turner's does not amass a group of females for a final scene of appropriation of male space. It is as if this has already happened. Rather, the video picks up where the Benatar video ends. Turner from the beginning walks alone on the street, already at one with it. Proceeding down the avenue, she encounters a male onlooker's gaze. Far from averting her eyes, Turner matches his gaze with one of her own, and they circle momentarily in an equal exchange of looking. She comes across a group of men shooting craps on the sidewalk, a representation of male street-corner culture. Pushing them aside, she recalls a similar action by Lauper in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN. Magically, Turner has acquired the status and power to transcend the female experience of streets.

Female address videos take advantage of another code of male adolescence that the image of the street allows to surface — that of delinquency. Brake (1985) has testified to discrepancies in the ways male and female youth become articulated as social problems.

"Males have usually been involved with illegal activities such as theft or violence or vandalism, and females with sexual misbehavior…"(p. 23).

The perception that girls are somehow "less delinquent" than boys has generally resulted in the governments' and social agencies' providing more social programs to male youth (Nava, 1984). Prostitution is considered the predominant mode of female delinquency, a form of behavior less visible than many male delinquent activities and easily misidentified. Girls who engage in street loitering or walking, so called "normal" behavior for boys, can become associated with delinquency, even find themselves institutionalized.

Female address videos focus on the attention and resources that male youth, who are perceived as social problems, have historically received. The videos challenge the double standard that regards female adolescent delinquency primarily in terms of sexual transgression, and they appropriate the richness of signification that the image of the street holds out to boys and men.

GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN explores common social responses to the "problem girl." Lauper's character bounds home one morning after apparently staying out all night. When she gets home, she finds her mother (played by Lauper's own mother) hard at work preparing food in the kitchen. The lyric, "When you gonna live your life right?" speaks for the mother. Her distress over the daughter's flagrant disregard for appropriate feminine behavior is expressed visually as she breaks an egg over her heart.

BORDERLINE places Madonna squarely in the role of (male) delinquent by showing her defacing property, loitering in "bad neighborhoods," and entering the pool hall. As the video combines images of street corner loitering and flirtation, it confuses the prostitute icon. In the way that the video builds tension between the two representations, it implicitly raises questions about how the code of prostitution is usually socially elaborated and about how representations of females on the street might be re-visioned.

LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD investigates the code of the prostitute by placing Benatar's character in the situation of a teenager, cast out onto the street by an angry father. Unlike Madonna, she remains unassociated with the activities of male youth street culture. When we see her as merely a young woman walking the street, she seems visually close to the coded prostitute image. But because the street reappears in the video as a site for female camaraderie and displays of female style, the narrative redirects audience expectations. The access sign seems to say, "If women could share equally in the male adolescence discourse, then the code could be rewritten."

In WHATS LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? Tina Turner challenges the prostitute code head on. Strutting down the street, her miniskirt, show of leg, and spiked-heeled shoes could operate to code her as a spectacle of male desire. Instead, the image she projects struggles for a different signification. It is easier to imagine the spikes as an offensive weapon than as a sexual lure or allusion to her vulnerability. Turner's control over her own body and interactions with others in the video, particularly with men, encourages revaluating her clothes and high heels; they seem less indices of her objectification than signs of her own pleasure in herself.[8]

Overall, the system of representation that constitutes access signs — female take-overs of streets, men pushed aside and out of the way, equal exchanges of looks, and co-participation in leisure practices among boys and girls — makes reference to the differences girls experience publicly as a result of gendered social inequalities. Textually, such access signs propose solutions. In isolation, access signs argue in the language of role reversal and utopianism for equal rights and recognition. In combination with discovery signs, however, the politics of music videos' female address are made more complex. The videos push beyond merely transposing sex roles and practices to accommodate and valorize the specific culture of female adolescence.


Girl culture is often described in terms of a negative relation to male street culture and as having a functional relation to female gender oppression. It is rarely treated as a distinct cultural form in its own right. Frith (1981), for example, in the following passage, acknowledges girl culture modes of dancing and dressing up, but only as these activities reveal girls' socially objectified position:

"…all this female activity, whatever its fun and style and art as a collective occupation, is done, in the end, individually, for the boy's sake. It is the male gaze that gives girls' beauty work its meaning" (p. 229).

However, "fun and style and art as collective occupation" speak to girl culture's expressiveness and the world of leisure and social bonding it creates for girls. When social critics reduce these activities to girls' overdetermined desire to please boys, they reproduce male bias in cultural criticism.

McRobbie (1984) describes dance as an activity of control, pleasure and sensuality for girls. Dance, she suggests, offers girls "a positive and vibrant sexual expressiveness and a point of connection with other pleasures of femininity such as dressing up or putting on make-up" (p.145). The girl practice of learning and teaching specific dance steps indicates girls' wider participation in orchestrating body movements. Girls often spend hours with girlfriends practicing cheerleading routines, synchronized swimming moves, jump rope patterns. Choreographed movement provides a critical bond between girls and a means for negotiating common social restrictions on how they present their bodies and what the female body restrictively signifies. Discovery signs in women's music videos contribute to female address by referring back to and revaluing such female modes of cultural expression.

In GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, Lauper and her girlfriends chat on the phone in shots of luxuriously long duration. The video summons up the pleasure that many girls find in choreographed movement with a shot of Lauper and friends swaying rhythmically to music, wrapped in intimate arm embraces. Dance is the mode through which Lauper and her female followers accomplish their symbolic take-back of the street. And at the video's end, the men encountered on the street, their threatening status alleviated, come to the Lauper character's home to experience female fun: dancing with wild abandon to records in one's bedroom.

In LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD, dance represents a vehicle for the women's militancy. The women's choreographed chest thrusts and kicks combine a wild sexual energy with self-defense moves to mock and threaten the pimp figure. And in WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT? Tina Turner adds to the sense of control she has over her body through distinctive steps and a calculated mix of gestures. The video also includes a shot of girls doing the "double dutch," a jump rope pattern, to complement a shot of men shooting craps.

McRobbie (1984) has also commented on the irony in subculture critics' preoccupation with style as male expression, given girls' historical investment in style and fashion. Female address videos reclaim style for girls and richly articulate style as a symbolic vehicle for female expression. Madonna's video, BORDERLINE, moves into discovery signs as it presents a common female fantasy of becoming a fashion model. In the video, a fashion photographer "discovers" the character played by Madonna during the first street dance scene. She participates in the excitement and pleasure of wearing glamorous clothes and make-up until the male photographer begins to assert his authority over her "look." Desiring to manage her own image, she returns to participate with boys in street culture.

Later Madonna videos rely on discovery signs to a greater extent, dwelling on the recognition that fashion and made-up faces achieves for women. MATERIAL GIRL, a peak performance by Madonna draped in jewels and male attendants, rewrites the tragic Marilyn Monroe image she references into a decidedly female image of recognition and power.[9]

Appearance, style and fashion have long been arenas of female cultural production and knowledge in the United States. From a child's birth, parents impose a gendered appearance, largely in the form of clothes, as they construct and enforce gender identity. Purchasing and dressing up in feminine clothes accompanies every major event in a girl's life from confirmation to prom night, until the arrival of the most fussed over ritual, the wedding with its expensive and rigidly defined attire. Dress codes and social restrictions on hairstyle and make-up often first exposes girls to gender contradictions. They learn that wearing particular clothes is a highly charged activity which pits their own desires against a host of social-approval ideologies.

The desire to dress like a boy is an early form of resistance to physical and mental restraints that gender definitions impose on girls. As girls age and experience physical body changes, they discover additional relations between modes of displaying the body and social responses. They learn not only to please and to placate by manipulating their appearance, but also to shock and to subvert. In Interview (1985) magazine, Madonna reveals that as a young girl, she adopted strategies of subversive self-presentation. She describes how she and a best girlfriend developed a sexual persona in order to subvert their parents' authority, an image which interestingly enough was inspired by their identification with a female musician:

"M: …it was a private joke between my girlfriend and me, that we were floozies, because she used to get it from her mother all the time, too…

[Interviewer]: So somewhere you did like the floozy look.

M: Only because we knew that our parents didn't like it. We thought it was fun. We got dressed to the nines. We got bras and stuffed them so our breasts were over-large and wore really tight sweaters — we were sweater girl floozies. We wore tons of lipstick and really badly applied makeup and huge beauty marks and did our hair up like Tammy Wynette." (Stanton, 1985, p. 60).

Madonna's distinctive star style refers back to the resistive stance she practiced as a girl. Her visual image engages with and hyperbolizes the discourse of femininity. Barbara Hudson (1984) asserts that this is a familiar tactic devised by girls to undermine the discourse of femininity, in particular, those social expectations that attempt to restrict girls' behavior and choices at the time of adolescence.

In her early videos, Madonna combines the contradictory accoutrements of a feminine presentation with the affected attitude of a cinematic vamp. Bleached blonde hair proudly displays its dark roots. Glamour eye make-up and lipstick create a look that is linked to Marilyn Monroe's. But Madonna's cocky demeanor exudes a self-assuredness and independence to counter Monroe's outdated, naive image. Skintight, lacy undergarments and crucifixes add up to a blasphemous, "bad girl" affectation, particularly apt for a woman who, we are told in the promotional press, hated the uniforms at her own Catholic school.

Lauper's image in her early videos is more an ode to the adolescence discourse, enacting an alignment girls make in yet another attempt to counter a restrictive femininity discourse. She presents a rebellious, anti-feminine, "she's so unusual" image. Her display of odd color combinations in dress and hair, wearing of gaudy fake jewelry, and application of striped and sequined eye make-up mock socially appropriate modes of female attire and behavior. It is this sense of bucking the norm that Ms. magazine applauded by awarding Lauper a "Woman of the Year" citation in 1985, in explanatory notes characterizing her rebellious style as a feminist stance.

Girls' stake in their appearance involves them intensely in shopping and consumer culture. Critics have been reluctant to consider consumption practice as a sign of cultural production. Many analysts have demonstrated a distinct aversion to most forms of commercial culture, coding the marketplace as the antithesis of authentic cultural expression, as essentially a mechanism of capitalist economic reproduction.

Such assumptions proved obstacles when looking at girl cultural forms. They reduce girls' participation in consumption to a kind of false consciousness, useful only in preparing girls for reproductive social roles. Carter (1984) develops McRobbie's (1976, 1980) critique of male bias in the theoretical work on youth subculture,[10] citing the way culture critics have aligned commercialism and female gender and depreciate both:

"Like the phenomena which they examine, the analyses themselves are founded on a number of unspoken oppositions: conformity and resistance, harmony and rapture, passivity and activity, consumption and appropriation, femininity and masculinity" (p.186).

If we look closely at the overlap between consumption practice and female gender, we could find far more complicated patterns of use and more activity between the seemingly opposed characteristics that Carter (1984) has identified in the cultural critics' pejorative assumptions. In the United States, consumer culture helps define and support female adolescent leisure practice, and it forms a basis for girls' experience in common. The shopping mall functions as a popular female substitute for the streets of their male counterparts. Like the street, the mall offers an active, semi-anonymous site for adolescent loitering and friends' gatherings, but within a more restricted and supervised setting. Girls at the mall can retreat into stores, which offer the added attraction of shopping, an activity girls like to do together. For some girls, knowing what looks are in vogue, tracing cultural influences on designs and designers, and participating in the popularity of certain fashions becomes a form of private communication much like male sports talk. Fashion talk circulates as a kind of female knowledge at which boys and men are typically less competent.

Madonna and Cyndi Lauper have expertly created styles to address adolescent girls' involvement in fashion and consumer girl culture. Madonna manipulates the look of glamour and the codes of high fashion into appropriations and re-combinations. Her style of dress taps into viewer fascination with fashion models and the ability of celebrities to direct trends. Lauper wears thrift store and boutique renditions which re-circulate fashions from the past. They call attention to the consumption's circularity, point out ways to construct personal style on a budget, and suggest how to exercise control over the terms of prevailing fashion trends. The styles of the two stars articulate the tensions between conforming to and resisting codes of gendered appearance, between following marketplace dictates and innovating fashion trends.

Discovery signs, then, address girls by referring to modes of female adolescent fun and leisure, to the ways girls engage in peer associations, and to girls' methods for creatively negotiating the specific difficulties that result from being female at the time of adolescence. In this way, female address videos suggest to female spectators that access to the privileged realm of male cultural experience is partially a matter of discovering their own cultural agency.


Discussion of female address in music video is incomplete without some attention to how the videos are acknowledged and made meaningful as female address by an actual social audience of girls.[11] I have already suggested ways in which manipulating appearance affects many of girls' cultural exchanges and affective practices. Discovery signs in women's music video often incorporate style as a way of creating female address. Style is also a mode through which girls formulate their response to the videos and their associated female stars.

Dressing alike is a familiar practice in girls' lives before heterosexual desire has become rigidly channeled. It is also the time when girl friendships are most valued. Griffin (1985) describes how girls express "best friend" relationships by wearing "exactly the same clothes, shoes, hairstyles, even jewelry" (p. 61).

Female fans of female address videos extend the status of "best friend" to their favorite musician by imitating her dress and mimicking her mannerisms. When girls imitate their favorite stars' style, this activity relates to the broader practice of "fandom." Fans often make themselves into authorities of texts, not by research but through intensely engaging with those texts over time. When a fan copies a favored star's style, that demonstrates the fan's knowledge of intricate textual references. Girls in particular imitate style as a means of expressing textual competency; they learned some of their first lessons in producing and interpreting texts by studying fashion magazines. In this way when female fans imitate style, they both display a fan's characteristic display of textual knowledge and a girl's involvement in style as a form of female knowledge.

The shopping mall has become a site around which female fan participation in female address videos has coalesced. "Madonna is everywhere," writes one biographer. "There is even a mall in California that people have nicknamed 'the Madonna mall' because so many girls who shop there try to look just like her" (Matthews, 1985, p. 8).

In response to the popularity of the "Madonna Style," Macy's Department Store created a department called "Madonnaland" devoted to selling the cropped sweaters ($30), cropped pants ($21), and a variety of jewelry accessories such as crucifix earrings and outsize "pearl" necklaces ($4-$59) resembling those worn by Madonna.[12] The department mobilized Madonna fans in the summer of 1985 when Macy' s sponsored a Madonna look-alike contest to coincide with the star's New York concert date. To provoke attendance, Macy's ran this full page ad in the Village Voice with text designed to capitalize on fan familiarity with Madonna's video, "Material Girl," and the movie, DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN in which she co-starred and performed the song, "Into the Groove":

Join our Madonna Day contest, Thurs, June 6
in Madonnaland on 4, Macy's Herald Square.
If you're a brassy material girl, get into the
groove and prove it… ("JRS!" 1985, p. 24)

The overwhelming response was featured on both MTV and the ABC Evening News where Madonna "wanna-bes" reveled in their new-found fame. On camera, they gushed that they "wanted to be famous" and "to be looked at" like their idol, Madonna. For one magical moment, in front of Peter Jennings and ABC viewers, it came to pass.

The desire for fame and attention that girl fans express relates back to their experience of gender inequality, back to the fact that they are excluded from male forms of cultural expression and privilege. These are the conditions that access signs attempt to speak about and resolve symbolically in female address videos. Girls' desire for recognition as expressive cultural subjects in their own right is what discovery signs articulate and try to fulfill. Female fans of female address videos interact with the text in ways that are consistent with, and even celebrate, the system of address represented in the text. They demand access to male privileges of fun, money, and authority, which they find embodied in celebrities, but they also refuse to give up the expressive forms that female culture has provided. The popularity of female address video among girls has helped define and create a distinctive, gendered textual practice on MTV.

Within an industrial and textual system which prefers male musicians and male adolescents, female audiences have participated in the struggles of female musicians for authorship by providing audience consent and accepting the musicians as authors of a subjective textual voice. Fandom has provided an effective vehicle for girl audiences to organize in support of female musician authors and female address textual strategies. The fans' intense displays of identification with the women musicians' texts has created structures for expressing "popularity," which has extended the usual measure of women musicians' textual success, ratings, and ultimately product sales. Through their fan practices, girl fans have produced a surplus of popularity, a kind of popularity excess, which functions to win consent for female musician authorship and the alternative system of meaning represented in female address videos.

Girl audience's participation, then, involved more than their interpreting new meanings against a preferred address. Such are the terms in which much cultural theory locates resistive textual practice. Rather, this resistive activity has
been the result of a complex and dynamic interaction of decoding and encoding practices. Authors and audiences aligned at the site of the text and cooperated to make changes that were in their own respective social interests. The struggle over meaning took a material form as women musicians created new texts with a revised form of address. Female address has satisfied female musicians who are searching for a more complex and subjective mode of self-representation. It appeals to female audiences who want a system of textual discourse comparable to the prominent male adolescent address. And it even serves MTV, whose primary interest is to deliver a youth audience to advertisers.

As a result, the preferred encoding of male address in music video has been unable to sustain fully its ideological dominance. The creation of an alternative address has strained the hegemony of male adolescent discourse inscribed in rock music and music video. The hegemonically controlled entry of women into modes of cultural production, both as authors and as audiences, has been undermined by their engagement in the struggle over authorship and meaning on MTV.

One of the driving forces behind this essay has been my desire to examine and refute the charge that MTV'S visual discourse constitutes an overwhelmingly and uniformly sexist address. I wish to suggest how such claims risk reducing complex textual and social processes to simplistic and one-dimensional characterizations of how meaning is generated and exchanged. When critics look only at textual examples of social reproduction, they fail to consider the conditional and historical character of textual meaning and the role of human agency in signification practices. In the case of MTV, they overlook how issues of sexism and gender inequality are contested within individual videos, across the channel's schedule of videos, and at the points where the videos converge with the social practices of producers and audiences.

To Notes on page 2