Feminist History In Song: Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’

In this ongoing feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

Cyndi Lauper launched her music career like many wannabes don’t: singing in cover bands. She spent most of the seventies wailing renditions of Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Jefferson Airplane songs before she was discovered, signed and added to a pop group. Blue Angel had one album.

Lauper’s first solo album, “She’s So Unusual,” spawned five top-10 hits (a first for any female artist) and earned her the Best New Artist Grammy in 1985. The album is packed with empowerment hits such as the gay-rights petition “True Colors” and the masturbation confessional “She Bop.” But it was “Girls” that was released as the first single. It made her an instant superstar.

Lauper initially didn’t want to have anything to do with the song. It was written by the male rock artist, Robert Hazard, and she wasn’t sure a song written by a man would send the right message. She was also determined to write her own material, something the record labels were always pushing her away from. But then she got to thinking how she could make the message her own. She told Time, “When I was told ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ would be an anthem, I thought about how it really could be an anthem.”

The song became a rallying cry for women in the ’80s to express their independence and individuality—be that through fashion, sexual expression or rebellion. It also set the tone for a new breed of female pop star: the sexy rabble-rouser. Madonna owes her entire early career image to Lauper. In fact, it’s an influence she can’t seem to shake. Recently, music critics have mused on whether Madonna is just rewriting Lauper’s material.

There’s room enough in feminist song for both of these icons. Though Lauper definitely took a more deliberate stance on what her songs say about women. In the book, I Want My MTV, she explained: “I wanted ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ to be an anthem for women around the world—and I mean all women—and a sustaining message that we are powerful human beings. I made sure that when a woman saw the video, she would see herself represented, whether she was thin or heavy, glamorous or not, and whatever race she was.”

The video for “Girls”, which won the first-ever Best Female Video prize at the 1984 VMAs, featured a multicultural cast of Lauperized women—teased, sideways hair, neon eye shadow, et. al.—singing the hook alongside the star.

Since its release, the song has been used in countless movies and TV shows (Clueless, Boys on the Side) as an example of female empowerment. It even got its own eponymous movie in 1985 starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Shannen Doherty.

Part of the power of “Girls” lies in the fact that the rebellion it champions doesn’t include running off with a bad boy. Instead, these girls get their kicks on their own. It was a powerful statement at the time—still is: Some boys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun/Oh girls they want to have fun.

Feminist History in Song: Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’

In this ongoing feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

At just 17, Lesley Gore was a fairly typical girl singer for the ’60s, with coiffed hair and tasteful ’50s/early ’60s dresses and her sweet mega-hit “It’s My Party.” But her 1964 smash “You Don’t Own Me” was shockingly progressive for its time. Hell, its lyrics still sound relevant today. (Alas.)

So relevant, in fact, that just last year, it became the song of the war against the War on Women, with a fabulous video full of women-on-the-street and celebs lip-syncing its message to, ostensibly Mitt Romney and the Republican party — complete with intro from Ms. Gore herself (looking as hip as ever as she intoned, “I’m Lesley Gore, and I approved this message”). They held signs bearing such messages as, “My body is not a battleground,” and, “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.” Prominent feminists such as Lena Dunham, Carrie Brownstein, and Tavi Gevinson were among the participants. Gore, now 66, ended the video with her own message: “It’s hard for me to believe but we’re still fighting for the same things we were then. Yes, ladies, we’ve got to come together and get out there and vote and protect our bodies. They’re ours. Please vote.”

Because its message has held up so well over the years (again, alas), it’s been covered by a particularly wide variety of artists: Dusty Springfield, cello rock group Rasputina, Joan Jett, the Blow Monkeys, Jack Killed Jill, Filipino singer Jeanne Young, Swedish singer Marianne Kock, Japanese singer Mieko Hirota. Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn sung it in The First Wives Club. Nicole Scherzinger performed it on The Sing-Off. Eminem sampled it. NFL Women’s Wear used it in a commercial.

Why so popular? Perhaps its the simplicity of the lyrics, which make Gore’s feelings as clear as possible to her 1960s man: “You don’t own me/I’m not just one of your many toys … I’m young and I love to be young/I’m free and I love to be free/To live my life the way I want/to say and do whatever I please.”



Abortion Rights vs. Infertility: The New Mommy War?

So Christina Locke is finding it difficult to support her abortion-having friends because she wants another child, as she blogs for The New York Times:

My choice was either to be true to myself and my politics supporting women, or give in to my emotions as my friends described their choice. More than anything, I wanted another baby. I wanted what they had, and didn’t want.

The following month, I was pregnant.

Then I wasn’t. Just like that. Because that really is how it happens sometimes. Women can go from feeling exuberant and full to empty and exhausted in a matter of days. My doctor called it a “lost pregnancy” rather than miscarriage, and that helped. That felt less threatening.

I was sad and disappointed; both of those friends comforted and reassured me, as women always do.

We tacitly ignored any irony.

Part of me still wants to avoid the truth that my friends are mothers who sometimes have abortions. Do I support them or not? Can I live with myself if I don’t?

As with so many aspects of parenting, we make decisions now and are haunted by them for the rest of our lives. I am a woman who supports abortion rights. Before having children, I would have said that reflexively. As a mother, I no longer can.

It’s a topic I’ve addressed before, on my own trip through infertility hell, and on that score I have mentioned that my wanting of a child (and deeper understanding of all the complications involved therein) has made me a stronger supporter of abortion rights, especially in the currently insane political climate that says an embryo is a person, and makes fully terminating even a “lost pregnancy” an ordeal through needless bureaucracy. But as I move into the adoption world, having failed spectacularly at pregnancy, I find the judgment surrounding abortion even more difficult to take, and the piece above is a perfect example.

Here’s another: My husband and I met with an agency last summer. We were sitting in a small office where the well-meaning woman talked about how lots of chicks my age (I hadn’t told her how old I was) had “put off having children” while they “worked on their careers” and were now coming forward looking for babies to adopt. So already I was some selfish bitch too focused on work to breed, and not someone with lifelong reproductive issues who’d been trying to have children since age 27.

Then I asked about the average time on their waiting list (we knew it could be years) and she mentioned how it had changed over the years since she started her agency. “Abortion now exists,” she said. “There are a lot more support systems for women who get pregnant. Families are more supportive now.”

I think I was supposed to feel sad about that, and think about how much better life would be for me and everyone else seeking to adopt if abortion hadn’t existed and families weren’t more supportive. Would there be more adoptable babies for me out there if desperate, poor, frustrated and scared women were forced to bear children against their will and then give them up? Maybe. Sure. Let’s grant that the pool of available kids would be bigger if every woman who didn’t want a baby had to give birth when she got knocked up, as was the case once upon a time.

Let’s grant I might have a shorter wait for a child if women were coerced to surrender babies for adoption if those women were young or unmarried or their families disapproved, as was the case once upon a time.

Let’s grant that if Roe v. Wade had gone the other way, things might be easier for me.

And then let’s wrap our heads around this, which Christina Locke seems unable to do: Sometimes it’s not all about me.

My desire for a child isn’t about those other women. My desire for a child does not convey upon them any obligation whatsoever. And their desire not to have a child isn’t about me. How dare I ask them to endure misery so that I can have happiness? How dare I take advantage of their poverty, desperation, frustration, fear? Am I inherently better than them? Do I have any right to expect anyone else’s downfall, just so I can benefit?

No. I don’t. I don’t have any right to ask anything of anyone. Their lives are theirs.

If a child comes to me, it will be because that child needs a home. Not because some other woman was obligated to give that child to me. Abortion rights should make no difference in that calculation whatsoever.

Feminist History in Song: Beyonce’s ‘If I Were a Boy’

In this new feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

from BeyonceOnline.com

Beyonce has famously talked about how she has a stage persona she evokes to become the monster-diva she needs to be for concerts — Sasha Fierce. For most of us, Beyonce herself is our Sasha Fierce. A few years ago, my sister and I resolved at New Year’s time to always think, “What would Beyonce do?” Since then we’ve both found relationships with fantastic men; she started her own boudoir photography business, and I have two passion-project books coming out this year. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’ve been watching Bey’s “I Am …” concert tour video on demand lately just to up my inspiration factor, and it never lets me down.

Beyonce is a great songwriter, seemingly able to spin out a girl-power anthem on demand: “Single Ladies,” “Survivor,” “Independent Women,” “Run the World (Girls),” “Bootylicious.” She has appeared to struggle more with her sensitive side in songwriting, despite her protestations that she’s not Sasha Fierce in her everyday life. “Irreplaceable” slows things down and tells you she’s a little hurt by love gone wrong, but she can’t help doing a great, empowered woman scorned and giving us a kiss-off for the ages: “To the left, to the left.”

That all changed with “If I Were a Boy.” This 2008 ballad softened her vocal delivery and showed a new vulnerability even as it still catalogued double-standards still present in our everyday lives: “If I were a boy … I’d put myself first/And make the rules as I go/’Cause I’d know that she’d be faithful/Waiting for me to come home.”

Of course, what may have gotten lost in fans’ swooning over this new kind of song for Bey — and the undeniably satisfying video in which she and a guy switch roles for a day, she playing a cheating cop and he mooning for her back home — is that Beyonce did not write this song. Which is standard practice in the music business, but an interesting departure for the singer. And, as it turns out, it also included some intrigue and rivalry.

The song was actually written by a singer-songwriter named BC Jean. You can imagine her singing “If I Were a Boy,” with her soft-guitar-rock vibe. In addition to the song going into the big murky pot of song choices that many artists pluck from for recordings, Jean also recorded her own version. Beyonce, however, fell in love with it, recorded it, and decided to release it as a single. That’s when Jean first heard about Bey’s version, and she was not pleased. Bey’s version, of course, went platinum, and even inspired Reba McEntire to do her own cover.

Beyonce told MTV News she chose the song as a deliberate departure: “I had to try it, because I remember Aretha Franklin said a great singer can sing anything and make it her own.” But Jean vented to fans on her MySpace page: ”I have been reading some of these comments and to set the record straight from the horse’s mouth – IF I WERE A BOY is my song; YES, I wrote this song; It is my story; a painful one, and the song is very dear to me.” Eventually, however, she struck a deal with Beyonce’s manager/father, Matthew Knowles, that seemed to make everyone happy. She now proudly claims the writing credit for the hit on her website.

Beyonce, meanwhile, garnered particular acclaim for her version. Billboard said her vocals were “breathtaking, exquisitely emotive, mournful, and mature.” The LA Times raved,  ”This isn’t just another breakup song; it’s an elegy for female empowerment, Beyoncé’s admission that no amount of money, fame or skill can solve the basic inequity between her man’s heart and her own.”

Links for Sexy Feminists: Roe v. Wade at 40, Clothes Make the Woman, Fetishes, and more

My Body My Choice: Roe v. Wade turns forty this week, and co-creator of The Daily Show Lizz Winstead teams up with Ultraviolet in a catchy video about the creeping erosion of our right to safe, legal abortion. Guttmacher Institute offers five detailed, elegant infographics about the decision’s continued importance, while This Is Personal offers a visual Q&A about what its erosion means to you.

Reacting to Roe: The Washington Post covers a new study which says most Americans support Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Supreme Court journalist Jeffrey Toobin offers a favorable polemic as the leadoff Comment in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town.

I Can’t Even… : Cutting up your vagina to look like Barbie.

Clothes Make the Woman: A sociology professor tells us what’s so awesome about this viral image.

Feminist Fetish: Our friend in feminism, Jessica Wakeman, wrote a great exploration of what “kinks” and “fetishes” are, and why they’re too often used incorrectly.

Win a Free Sexy Feminist T-shirt!

It’s time to tell the world about SEXY FEMINISM … We’re gearing up for the release of our book, due out March 12, with everything you love about SexyFeminist.com and more: Geek out with us over the feminism of Liz Lemon, debate the feminism of the bikini wax, ponder ways to make your relationships both sexier and feminist-ier. (Hint: We think they go hand-in-hand.) Pre-order yourself a copy if you haven’t already, and enter to win one of our super-cute Sexy Feminist T-shirts by simply telling the world about it: The first 50 people to Tweet about our book, tagging us @TheSexyFeminist and/or using the hashtag #SEXYFEMINISM, will be entered into a drawing next week to win a custom T-shirt. You can even pick the color (pink or white) and size. Four people will win. (And if, God forbid, you don’t, you can always buy one for yourself here.)

To get you even more inspired, here’s what some people are saying about SEXY FEMINISM:

“We live in a society where sex is used against women as much as it’s used by women. Sexy Feminism calls foul on that (and other) double standards—and makes manifest my frequent observation that feminists are almost always the sexiest people in the room.” —Jennifer Baumgardner, author of F’em!: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls


“Genius! Sexy Feminism is a delicious primer for budding feminists (and the feminist-curious), as well as a sigh of relief for long-term third-wave feminists who long to be understood and are tired of explaining our beliefs. Finally a book that explains us to ourselves and to others in a funny, sexy, smart way.

Really, people, this is intellectual porn at its best: wise, insightful, complex and thoughtful about complicated issues that are constantly being forced into over-simplified stereotypes and boxes. Sexy Feminism helps us break out of our confines and allows us to choose (yes choose! That’s the POINT of feminism, right?!) who we want to be and how we want to express ourselves.

In a world where real shit is going down every day – domestic abuse, rape, sexual slavery, war – sexiness might seem unimportant and yet, as Jennifer and Heather show us, it is at the fundamental root of feminism. Smart, funny, powerful confidence is attractive and sexy. This is what makes women strong and what makes others sit up and listen. Jennifer and Heather do an outrageously good service to us all by bringing feminism into it’s sexy, confident maturity.”

—Katie Goodman, feminist comedian and actress (and author of IMPROVISATION FOR THE SPIRIT)

Feminist History in Song: Tori Amos’ ‘Silent All These Years’

In this new feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

from ToriAmos.com

Tori Amos’ song “Silent All These Years” made our Ultimate Sexy Feminist Playlist for two major reasons: 1. It’s Tori Fucking Amos. 2. It’s a gorgeous, catchy-but-haunting song about finding your own voice. It’s one of her clearest lyrical statements, probably to do with an abusive relationship, possibly to do with sexual assault, possibly to do with an unwanted pregnancy, but certainly to do with speaking up for yourself. If you get past the more open-to-interpretation parts — where she’s wearing “jeans of his with her name still on it” and somebody’s “mother shows up in a nasty dress” — it’s pretty straightforward. “I got something to say, you know, but nothing comes. Yes, I know what you think of me, you never shut up” … etc.

But there’s more to the story. The master of the inscrutable metaphor originally wrote the song, released on her debut studio album (and ’90s dorm room staple) Little Earthquakes, for British folk-rocker Al Stewart. Her producer, Eric Rosse, wisely told her she was nuts to let anyone sing the confessional tune except herself. Amos has said that reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (not the Disney version!) inspired her to write the song. Hence the mermaid business. We suppose it’s just Amos’ general awesomeness that inspired that beautiful piano riff, as well as our favorite line: “So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts. What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts?”

The song solidified its feminist legacy when it was used in a 1997 fund-raising promotion for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. And she re-recorded it as part of her recent Gold Dust album, which includes new orchestra-backed versions of some of her past gems — or, as she calls them, “song-girls.” When that came out, she told Rolling Stone about the unexpected power of “Silent All These Years”:

Years later, when I played Israel, I was in an airport bathroom when a Middle Eastern woman came up to me. She said, “Don’t think we’re not listening. We pass your music behind closed doors to each other and it’s something secret that we know, so don’t stop.” “Silent All These Years” was one of the songs that she mentioned. In those moments, it puts in perspective the twentysomething in me, who was more focused on the charts than the power of music. I just didn’t comprehend the value in my mind of a Middle Eastern woman stopping me and saying that to me: “Don’t stop.”

Links for Sexy Feminists: Women In the Military, All-Girl X-Men, More

Should we really be blaming feminism for fewer women volunteering to work the front lines of combat in our military? This Boston Globe article suggests as much. An editorial in the same paper debunks the finger-pointing.

This is about the best smack-down of the “end of men” debate (you know, the one that says we essentially don’t need feminism anymore) we’ve read. And it’s written by a man. Boston Review‘s Philip N. Cohen, you’re our new favorite male feminist.

Lots of good stuff over at Everyday Feminism but this piece about how male sexual entitlement hurts both men and women is a good read—and a good reminder that feminism is for men too.

Marvel is re-launching the X-Men with an all-woman superhero team, a very-psyched Feministing reports. Yes, they all have heaving bosoms and totally identical bone structure despite the varying skin tones (an attempt at diversity), but it’s still pretty kick-ass that young girls and boys can see more female heroes.

Great Feminist Novels

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We've looked at classic feminist books and the best feminist books of the last year on this site, but there's nothing like a great feminist novel to lose yourself in -- but still leave you feeling empowered. The Hunger Games is definitely both gripping and girl-powered; click through for some of our other favorites.

Having It All Means Asking for It

jobinterviewThe media is obsessed with examining the pursuit of women trying to “have it all,” almost always blaming feminism. But I just experienced what that ideal really means, at least to me.

I had a phone interview with a prospective employer. She was impressed by my credentials, I was attracted to the job. We discussed pay, logistics, etc. and then I didn’t hesitate to mention my son, who is now two. “Finding a job that values its employees’ commitment to their own lives, particularly their children, is paramount in my decision,” I told her. “I don’t want to apologize for sick days, or pretend that I’m not a mother.”

I waited.

Her response: “I feel you. When I first started working I was one of the first faculty hired and no one was having babies, certainly not talking about wanting them. Things have changed so much, at least around here, that I now stock kids’ toys in my desk’s bottom drawer in case someone needs to bring her child to work.”

I got the job. I was hired because I am qualified and enthusiastic. I took the job because I will be valued for those skills and not devalued for being a mother. I feel so much better knowing this going in rather than wading in the waters to figure out the climate of my new workplace.

My scenario exists in the slightly more flexible world of academia. I am taking a part-time teaching job at a local college while I continue to work on books and articles at home, while raising—and prioritizing—my child. But my experience is something all working mothers (and that’s each and every one of us) should think about. We need to put our wants and desires above those prescribed for us by everyone else.

The only reason we have the FMLA, flex-time, job sharing, or any semblance of prioritizing women and mothers in the workplace is because some of those very mothers demanded it. Women like my new boss benefitted from it and now she’s in a position to make sure others can as well. We still have a long way to go before women are forced to feel torn between career and motherhood, but we’re not going to get there unless we keep talking. Feminism has given us this opportunity; the lesson is that having it all is possible if you speak up for what you want to have.

For more on motherhood and feminism, visit Sexy Feminist’s sister site, feministmommy.com

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