There’s Something You Should Know: Seven Life Lessons Duran Duran Helped Me Learn

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After reading Jennifer Makowsky’s “Ten Life Lessons I Learned from Being a Die-Hard Duranie” on Ape Culture.com, I felt the need to respond as a fan from age 14, a feminist, and a communication professor who studies and teaches about gender and popular culture.

I’m always happy to see people taking pop culture seriously. Too often, pop culture (and especially pop culture popular targeted at young women) gets derided as “mindless” or “bubblegum” and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. Please don’t misunderstand me, sometimes those critics are absolutely right. There’s plenty in pop culture aimed at young women to complain about (I’m looking at you, Twilight.). But often I see the pop culture enjoyed by young women being derided simply because young women like it and that’s not cool.

Given my love for Duran Duran and for thinking about the impact of popular culture on the lives of females, I was excited when I saw Duran Duran post a link to Ms. Makowsky’s essay on their Facebook page and immediately clicked the link to take in the lessons she learned from her love of Duran Duran. I was disappointed with the negative focus. Please note that my response here is not a critique of Ms. Makowsky’s list because she has every right to discuss how the band impacted her life however she chooses to talk about it, even if it was a list written with tongue in cheek, as perhaps it was. My response is only about a different reading of the impact of Duran Duran on the life of a young woman and I’m grateful to Ms. Makowsky for giving me the incentive to write about something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. So, here are my seven lessons learned from 30 years of die-hard Duraniehood. There are undoubtedly many more ways that Duran Duran impacted my life, but these seven seem like a good start.

#1 Gender is socially constructed: Image

I was in college before I knew some of the concepts and theories around gender (the continuum of feminine to masculine that is often conflated with “sex” but is not the same thing), and therefore as a teen I didn’t have a language to talk about what I was learning. But I was learning it. For me, Duran Duran was the first time I can remember seeing a band of men in my universe that wasn’t the stereotypical hyper-masculine rocker or some version thereof. My parents introduced me to music at a very young age like some parents introduce their children to reading. I grew up with music always around me, dancing with my father to the rock of his youth like I was at a 50s sock hop, and appreciating various types of music from an early age. I attended my first concert at age 4 (Sonny & Cher—she was my idol), and largely defined myself and my life through music from a very young age, as I still do today. Even though I had a variety of music in my life, one thing was pretty constant regardless of the genre or sub-genre—lots and lots of representations of traditional masculinity. Living in a (then) small Texas town, I wasn’t introduced to gender-bending rockers from the 70s like Bowie until high school at about the same time I discovered Duran Duran and MTV finally came to my neighborhood (Oh, the countdown to that glorious day when cable finally made it  Knollridge Drive!). There was no Internet, kids, thus searching for bands before MTV was daunting and I had no one in my life listening to that music, so it didn’t exist in my world until MTV blasted off and made it a part of every waking hour my mother would allow me to watch.

Duran Duran (and MTV) showed up some time in my 14th or 15th year and new possibilities emerged. Men didn’t have to be hyper-masculine blowhards with blaring guitars and long, mangy hair. They could be attractive, but more feminine. They could wear make-up, dress well (even in ruffles), and still be attractive to females. Thus, I didn’t know it at the time, but Duran Duran and many other “new romantic” and/or “new wave” bands in the early and mid-80s taught me some very important things about gender. It’s not constant. Gender-role expectations are socially constructed so they are malleable and not “natural”. We don’t have to bow to “traditional” gender role identities as men or women, we can create new ones. Gender exists on a continuum and we can play with gender role expectations in fun ways. So while I didn’t have a language to talk about what I was learning about gender from Duran Duran, I was learning it.  And as a professor of communication that teaches courses in gender, communication, and pop culture, they probably had an impact on what eventually became my career.

 #2 We need to give girls spaces to grow that aren’t pink:

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I was never a girly-girl. In fact, until my wedding in 2004 my eighth grade graduation dance was the last time I’d worn a formal dress. My mom and I still joke about the long-term psychological damage done to her by my refusal to attend a prom. So, needless to say, all of the pink (literally and figuratively) places designed for girls to play weren’t exactly my scene.

Duran Duran opened up a space where I could discover myself, bond with other girls my age, and to scream as loud as I wanted about it all. The fashion, the hair, the dancing, the locations, their English roots—all of these elements (and probably others I can’t remember) of Duran Duran became building blocks for who I dreamt I’d one day become. I dreamed of being in England and enjoying the music scene that was raging there in the 80s, not marrying right after high school or college (not that I thought there anything wrong with that if that was someone else’s desire). I dreamed of faraway places like the locales of their videos and all the places I’d some day visit. Duran Duran made it possible to move in a new trajectory, to experiment with gendered expectations about dress and image, and to dream about an exciting life outside the borders of Denton County, Texas. And those new possibilities are a big deal in a teen girl’s world.

Duran Duran also offered me the opportunity to bond with other girls my age instead of focusing on/being susceptible to what we now call “mean girl” behavior (though it was much less intense in those days) or competing for the attention of some dumb boy. Maybe we competed over who loved John Taylor more, but it was a fun competition, not one that set out to hurt another person or their self-esteem in order to bolster our own or our social status. We talked and shared pictures, watched the videos and squealed with delight, clipped pictures from teen magazine, and just had fun. We were Duranies together and there was nothing but love for the time we all spent comparing notes, pictures, and dreams.

In addition, Duran Duran offered me a space to be loud and unladylike. Whether it was screaming my lungs out at the “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” tour that my parents lovingly dragged me and several friends to (In hindsight, I guess we actually dragged them.) or the living room where the glow of the TV screen was only outdone by the high-pitched screams and commentary of teen girls, Duran Duran made it possible for me to be strident. In a world where little girls are often coddled, talked down to, encouraged to be quiet and ladylike, and offered up ridiculous double standards regarding their budding sexuality, Duran Duran was space where I could be unruly, uninhibited, and unfettered. There weren’t many of those spaces available for girls when I was growing up (I’m not sure that’s changed much in all these years, either.) and so I’m grateful to Duran Duran for giving me a space that wasn’t colored pink to develop me.

 #3 Females who buck gender traditions will face lots of males strongly encouraging you to get back in “your place”, but you don’t have to:

My love for Duran Duran and my unwillingness to keep quiet about it in front of the boys taught me a lot. I was in the drum corp in high school and while I counted myself among a number of different social groups during that time, by necessity a lot of my time was spent with boys in the high school band and in the band hall, specifically. From day one, I have to say that a lot of those guys were great. I still smile from ear to ear when I think about Brian leaving school on one of his senior half-days to get tickets for my first Duran Duran show for me and my friends. The vast majority of “band guys”, however, were into power trios like Rush or other bands they considered “high brow” (I have to laugh writing that.) like Triumph because “they sang about important stuff like cancer”. Many others listened to what most of the other boys were listening to—Van Halen, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, and the like. And if they liked Duran Duran at all, they certainly didn’t say it in public. So what did this epic clash of pop culture teach me? A lot.

It taught me that males are trained to castigate girl culture and move toward male pop culture that encourages girls to serve them and reprimands them when they don’t. Whether it was Duran Duran, Madonna, or Prince, pop culture that girls liked wasn’t worth much in the eyes of most boys and they let us know it. Of course, I can’t let Duran Duran completely off the hook here in terms of feminism and pop culture. The very narrow representations of “attractive” prominent in Duran Duran videos was problematic, but it still wasn’t Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” that taught young boys that not only were there very narrow standards of “attractiveness” to which they should hold girls, but also that females were so destined to serve the whims of men that even grown teachers felt compelled to strip for the entertainment of elementary school-aged boys! Thus, boys weren’t (aren’t) just taught to have disdain for pop culture enjoyed by girls, they’re also taught that what should replace our focus on our own independence, decisions about style, and imaginings of our burgeoning sexuality is a focus on pleasing and serving them.

The recognition about what pop culture was teaching boys regarding what was “acceptable” (either in terms of musical interest or appearance) also meant that boys would try and use these very narrow representations of womanhood to try and make us feel bad about ourselves in order to keep us in line for fear of being “un-dateable”. What worse punishment could there be to a teen girl than to be labeled so far out of the “norm”? All of the things I’ve mentioned to this point, and especially the stuff about using my own voice (literally and figuratively via style choices), was anathema to these young men. The poor guys simply didn’t know what to do with it because nothing in their pop culture (or even their culture at large) taught them about the possibility of other options. So, of course, they tried to rein us in. They used any semblance of difference (dress, hair, loudness) to try and whip us girls that just wanted to have fun on our own terms into shape.

Of course, looking back it’s easy to see how this was all instigated by their own lack of self-esteem with regard to the difficult standards of “real masculinity” that most of them couldn’t meet any more than we girls could meet MTV’s standards of femininity, but back then it was just punishment for not “fitting in” or playing the role of “girl”. Loving Duran Duran and being vocal about it forced me to make a decision. I could give up focusing on something I loved and defer to the boys and their musical preferences or I could be made fun of and picked on by some boys for anything that scared them and refuse to change. I’m happy that most of the time I chose the latter road and the lesson of not letting males try to rein me in because of their own insecurity is one I’ve carried with me all of my life.

 #4 Some times there aren’t easy answers, especially for girls:

When I first started thinking about all of this stuff from way back when my mind immediately went to many of the girls I was friends with in high school. Some were willing to be a little “out there” but weren’t willing to cross the lines of “acceptable girlhood” in order to challenge the young patriarchs of the band hall. Girls that I’d squealed with in glee years earlier had chosen a side in my eyes.

We girls were all subjected to attempts to restrain our sexuality and our spirit. It’s no accident that in middle school girls stopped answering questions in math and science, even if they knew the answer. Terrified of being labeled “not girl enough”, girls played dumb so as to not intimidate the boys, who were often also not answering because “being a boy” meant being “too cool” to answer. This pattern continued in high school and all of us girls were subject to worry about not being accepted by boys and I suspect none of us had a perfect record in ignoring attempts to rein us in. But being a Duranie taught me that some times there aren’t easy answers, especially for girls who are in a constant struggle against all that patriarchy throws at them (a struggle that now begins at an even younger age than when I was a kid). The pressure to be “girl enough” was intense and we often weren’t mature enough to know what to do about those pressures. We all muddled through the best that we could.

 #5 Sometimes simple decisions can make a big difference:

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When you don’t back down to pressure coming from social norms and gender expectations, especially about femininity, people will probably remember you. I graduated from high school with somewhere between about 800-900 people and even though I went to school with many of from elementary school on, it simply wasn’t possible to know everyone. Yet, with the advent of Facebook I started getting friend requests from people I went to high school with who remembered me even though I didn’t remember them. I was nothing special. I think I was generally liked, but I wasn’t super popular or super good at much of anything. In fact, I was probably utterly average. But my hair wasn’t. To my knowledge, I was the first person in high school to have two different colors of hair and, of course, it all started with dying my dark brown bangs blond just like John Taylor’s. Many people have told me in later years that the hair color was how they knew me among our hundreds of classmates all those years ago. I didn’t change the world, but maybe for a few people I changed what was possible. For example, in only a matter of weeks I was no longer the only one with two different colors of hair.

A very good friend just recently said to me that I “knew who I was” in high school and I was really touched by that comment (She had just as much strength, though she was more silent in hers.). I certainly didn’t always feel like I knew who I was in high school, but I do think I had a decent amount of confidence (and probably in some cases, way too much of it). That confidence, of course, is something that I should track back to my parents, especially my mom (Thanks, Mom!), but Duran Duran encouraged me to test that confidence by doing something a little different with my hair and my clothes and by standing up for myself and my choices when boys attacked Duran Duran as “gay” or “fluff” or whatever other stupid term their wee brains could come up with.

#6  I can win an argument, damn it!:

All of the trials and tribulations of being a Duranie have served me well in life. Though I didn’t have a language for the gender and feminist lessons I was learning, I was learning them. I knew something wasn’t right and most of the time I didn’t back down when I was attacked or being talked down to for being different and for refusing to muzzle myself at the request of so many of the boys in the band hall. I’m happy that those habits were started so young. And while I certainly (well, hopefully) handle similar attacks thrown at me as an adult who doesn’t typically cower to power much better than I did back then, I began developing those skills a long time ago. With as many arguments as I had about Duran Duran growing up, is it any wonder that I grew up to be a communication professor focusing on rhetoric and public/mediated argumentation? Probably not.

 #7 No one gets to tell me what to do with my life:

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Finally, whether we’re talking about the gender roles passed down to us for generations, the sexism and patriarchy that still prevails in our society today, or the drummer that made fun of me as I walked proudly into the band hall the morning after my first Duran Duran concert wearing my baseball-sleeved concert t-shirt, no one gets to tell me what to do with my life. And the first lesson I can remember in a long series of lessons on this topic was most definitely my love for Duran Duran and all the rancor it encouraged in those boys. I wore what I wanted to wear, did my hair how I wanted to do it, and listened to what I wanted to listen to and no gender roles, patriarchy, or band dude was going to tell me I couldn’t.

Many thanks to the Fab Five:

This blog entry is already a lot longer than I suspect it should be. In trying to talk about the positive things I learned from loving Duran Duran as a teenager, I most definitely glossed over a good deal of those years, primarily focusing on the most pertinent of details. In doing so, I don’t mean to imply that I was perfect, a feminist the majority of the time, or even very bright more often than not in those years. But I did do some things that I’m pretty proud of: I stood up for myself and for what I loved and I found my voice and for the most part kept it, though it certainly faded from time to time, as did my confidence. So, I offer a hearty “thank you” to John, Simon, Nick, Roger, and Andy. I learned a number of very important life lessons from my years as a die-hard Duranie. And I’m still a die-hard Duranie and proud of it.

Pop culture matters. Pop culture that’s important to the development of girls often matters even more given our patriarchal society and the damage it still does to girls and women.  I’m sure we can all admit without hesitation that Duran Duran isn’t ever going to be heralded for its die-hard feminism. But we shouldn’t discount the power of Duran Duran to change a girl’s world and to teach her some very important lessons about how to stand up for herself, take some chances, and give the finger to some of the louder boys in the band hall.

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