I am a proud child of the '80s. I relished the leg warmers and big hair, the days spent slack-jawed in front of the Atari, the nights we raced home before the street lights flickered on to watch "Knight Rider" and "Dukes of Hazzard" and the afternoons spent lying on the pilled, mustard-colored carpet in my parents' dining room with one ear pressed against the radio, listening to "Dick Clark's Top 40 countdown." Hair bands were the rage, with funky British groups vying for airtime on a channel that billed itself as "music television." On the pop scene, Madonna was already establishing herself as an incendiary "IT" girl who winked and purred sensuality. I wanted to "get" Madonna. I took note of the lithe dancer's body, the cool hair and the unmistakable message that distilled life down to the fine point of chasing boys or getting boys to chase you. I was 8 years old in 1983. I had two thoughts: 1. This was what it meant to be a real woman. 2. I am screwed. Then a new performer came along, a funky, spunky girl named Cyndi Lauper with Technicolor hair and Boho-chic fashion (before Boho was chic). Cyndi danced, whirled and crooned a song that was not about boys at all (not primarily at least), but about a girl's right to celebrate her Self. Suddenly, I didn't feel like such a disaster.
Cyndi Lauper, the young girl from Queens, embodied a different kind of feminine aesthetic that ran counter to the raw sensuality and edginess of her contemporaries like Madonna or veteran rockers Joan Jett and Pat Benatar. Her breakout album, "She's So Unusual" (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), introduced a nation of women to a new kind of female role model, one that celebrated difference and encouraged playfulness in self-expression. Though my hair would remain a boring coffee brown compared to Cyndi's shocking scarlet and tangerine locks and I would never dare to wear a newspaper skirt out in public, I still saw myself in Cyndi. I saw that there was more than one way to be beautiful and, more importantly, girls were entitled to their own power.
"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" looped endlessly on the radio and ran continuously on MTV. To me, what might seem like a perky precursor to the kind of cotton-candy pop of Katy Perry is actually a cry for feminist action. Women, the song conveys, want the freedom to make choices about their lives unrestricted from patriarchal systems designed to control and diminish women's agency. Women warrant mutual respect; they are in control of their bodies and themselves, and that is something that the larger, male-dominated culture should acknowledge and abide by. In the climax of the song, Cyndi keens the lyric: "I want to be the one to walk in the sun," which is a declaration of the opportunities -- social, economic, professional, legal -- that all women, regardless of class, race, or sexual identity, rightly and richly deserve. As if to underscore her point, Cyndi deliberately showcased a multi-racial cast (women and men) of friends, family and collaborators to appear in the video.
"I specifically spoke up for women's rights," Cyndi writes in her memoir, "In the beginning no one really came out and said they were a feminist. I did." "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" was perhaps one of the more critical and galvanizing feminist statements to come out of the early years of the 1980s when perceptions of angry, militant women associated with the radical feminism of the 1970s lingered. It is a reminder that art is transformative and politics can take hold in many settings, through the efforts of many, disparate energies. Moreover, "Girls" is an enduring feminist anthem that resonates deeply today when young women are searching for ways to assert their feminine identities, becoming more involved in the fight for women's rights, and embracing the power that comes when women "walk in the sun" together.