Dressing the Part: MTV and the Disruption of Gender

Essential Question

How did MTV help create a visual space in which artists could, inadvertently or not, challenge established ideas about gender?


In the mid-1950s, when Rock and Roll was first emerging as a genre, the United States was in what many consider a conservative period. In those post-war years, with Cold War anxieties coloring everyday life, mainstream America seemed to be content celebrating the home, the traditional family unit, and the quiet predictability both could provide. Mid-century advertising marketed emerging domestic technologies designed to fill those new homes with the latest labor-saving devices: kitchen appliances for a happy, homemaking wife-–in a dress, of course–and power tools or a grill for the male provider. Though the early stars of Rock and Roll were groundbreaking in many ways, generally boys were boys and girls were girls, as they say. The males wore suits, the females dresses.

In the 1960s, Rock and Roll, like American life as a whole, underwent a metamorphosis. In 1964, The Beatles kicked off the British Invasion in matching suits. By 1968, however, their outfits were radically different. Uniformity had given way to individually chosen bell bottoms, patterned shirts and a new explosion of color. At Woodstock in 1969, The Jimi Hendrix experience wore blouses, while in the coming decade many male rockers, such as Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, embraced elements of fashion styles previously considered feminine. Artists such as Brian Eno, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, all seen in Soundbreaking Episode Seven, went a step further, crafting personas that combined the visual symbols of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Through clothing, hair style and body language these artist presented an almost genderless kind of “androgyny.” However, throughout that era, the act of “gender play” was a game mostly for the boys. Female performers rarely reversed the equation and took on aspects of masculinity, which suggested that gender play was merely an extension of male privilege.

All of the above was before the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981.

Music had been on television via variety and dance shows, and on special segments in other types of programming, but MTV was the first television channel dedicated entirely to music videos. As such, it was a bit of a “Wild West,” the rules were few. MTV had no established models for success to follow, no executives with previous experience and no significant back catalog of music videos to fill its 24-hour-a-day programming. For the music industry, it was a fertile site for experimentation, and, due to the way it merged sound and image, video created a space in which interested artists could further manipulate the visual symbols of gender while supporting their latest releases.

This lesson explores ways in which certain videos of the early MTV era involve a manipulation of gender norms. First, students study slides of advertising in order to detect the things–clothes, haircuts, postures, body types–that we perceive as “masculine” and “feminine.” Students then view slides of Rock artists from the 1970s and attempt to identify the ways in which they do or do not mix gender symbols. By viewing and discussing clips from Soundbreaking Episode Seven, as well an archival excerpt from Rolling Stone magazine, students then learn about the launch of MTV and the ways in which bands from divergent genres, such as Mötley Crüe and The Eurythmics, used the visual nature of the channel to present unexpected takes on masculinity and femininity. Finally, students consider the power of the music video in current culture by discussing the portrayals of femininity in a clip of Beyoncé Knowle’s visual album of 2013, Beyoncé.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” are constructed through visual symbols
    • What many of the symbols that construct ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” are
    • How advertising uses symbols of “masculinity” and “femininity”
    • How male Rock artists embraced symbols of “femininity” in their performances
    • How the rise of MTV created a visual space in which both male and female musicians challenged established notions of “masculinity” and “femininity”
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Assess visual images and analyze their cultural power
    • Evaluate the effects of visual technology on history and culture
    • Evaluate how television shows reflect and influence the values and norms of the society in which they are shown
    • Draw connections among and between various print, audio and visual texts
    • Relate changes in fashion and appearance to changes in world events and popular culture
    • Integrate and evaluate information presented in visual, oral and audio formats