Not Everything in the 1980s was Trash

It’s been a rough week for me. Revisiting some of the core tenets of the 1980s that were absolute trash and looking back at much of the art of the time showed how much things have progressed since then.

For example, this essay about how casually Sixteen Candles handled the concept of consent made the rounds. Although this wasn’t the first time it was pointed out that John Hughes’ teen movies are problematic, it made me examine some of the things I loved when I was a teenager. I found much of it wanting.

I also recently listened to this podcast with Mike Schurr (creator of The Good Place), and felt so vindicated when talked about how hard it is to watch Eddie Murphy’s comedy specials today. I tried watching Delirious, which I LOVED as a teen, and I had to turn it off because it just wasn’t funny to listen to him go on and on about how he didn’t mind f******, but he didn’t want them to look at his ass.

Then my husband and I went to a Def Leppard concert, and it made me look on the bright side. Although the songs are overtly sexual, they seem much more adult and consensual than say, Poison’s “I Want Action” with the line, “If I can’t have her, I’ll take her and make her” or Winger’s ode to digging underage girls “Seventeen.” (And yes, I was contrasting Def Leppard lyrics with Poison lyrics during the show. I’m weird like that.)

So I’ve decided to share some examples of sexy stuff from the 80s that was not rapey trash. Feel free to bookmark this and come back when you’ve been gaslighted into thinking there was no way to explore sexuality in the 80s without parroting the tropes that men want sex, women must tell them no, and only bad women say yes without fighting back first.

Real Genius

As this clip shows, Real Genius doesn’t shy away from the idea that college dudes want to get laid. But the sexual banter is equal and the movie doesn’t rely on the male gaze to view the women. I didn’t know at the time why it felt different than other similar movies, but I know now that it was likely the result of a woman director. If you look at the way the women’s bodies are filmed during the beach party scene, you can see the difference. The ladies are beautiful and wearing bikinis, but the camera looks at them as whole human beings — no close-up boob shots.

Just One of the Guys

This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, focusing on a young female journalist who feels she is shut out of an internship simply because she is a woman. She poses as a guy to see if her article would pass muster if it were written by a guy. This is another movie that I didn’t realize at the time had a female director, and I do think that’s what allows it to have nuance as it explores teenage sexuality and gender roles. Of interest is the way Terry’s new male friend reacts when he thinks Terry has a crush on him — he doesn’t act revolted and say anything along the lines of “no homo.” Instead, he reacts with care, hoping to show that he isn’t interested in guys without hurting his friend’s feelings or making him feel less than.

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing is a classic coming-of-age tale about first love, and I ate it up. Huge crush on Patrick Swayze, although he was definitely not an age-appropriate love interest for a teenage girl, I can suspend some disbelief and say that the character he was playing probably was. What I continue to like about it is that Baby didn’t shy away from her burgeoning sexuality and the characters who did act like she had been taken advantage of were soundly reprimanded. Plus it had Kelly Bishop and Jerry Orbach.

“Sex Action” by LA Guns

Sure, women’s bodies are objectified pretty heavily in the video, but everyone seems to be coming together as equals to get it on. Plus I think it shows a sense of humor about the ways people talk about sex and people who have a lot of it. A very fun and sex-positive romp.

“Physical” by Olivia Newton-John

This is one of the first records I bought. (I used to listen to it on my Disco Dance Machine record player, with a set of colored lights that came on with the bass.) And even at 9, I knew it wasn’t really about going to the gym. Olivia Newton-John was an incredibly positive role model for women’s sexuality.

“Sermonette” by Smashed Gladys

This song is a total raunchfest — and I think an honest portrayal of why many people join bands. I know there were many who thought Smashed Gladys was just some posers trying to ride on the coattails of the raunch rock movement, but I loved the lead singer’s voice and attitude. She owned her sexuality, and asked for what she wanted.

“Hysteria” by Def Leppard

You had to know I’d close out with a Def Leppard song. This song is overtly sexual, but no one is being taken and made to do anything. And it’s got a great groove.

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