Girls On Film: social commentary or sexual fantasy?

One of the most chauvinistic videos ever made: Girls on Film by Duran Duran. An essay.

For this Friday’s post we’ll be taking a look at a video which marks the start of two separate strands we’ll be developing over the coming months. Firstly, we’re going to be taking a serialistic look at Duran Duran, one of the great videos bands of the 80’s. And secondly, it marks the first of a series of posts looking at some of the more controversial videos ever made, videos that sparked debate, ruffled feathers and achieved a high level of notoriety.

Taken from Duran Duran’s eponymous debut LP, ‘Girls On Film’ was the band’s third single and their breakthrough hit in the UK, reaching number 5 in July of 1981. Largely written by original lead-singer Andy Wickett and bought from him by the band for £600 (a deal Wickett must surely have regretted later on) the track is a perfect example of the blue-eyed funk-pop sound that was the band’s trademark (not to mention the staple of the New Romantic movement with which they were often associated). Driven by John Taylor’s fluid, popping bassline and Andy Taylor’s sharp, angular guitar this is a dance-floor classic, and one that I’ve happily got my groove on to many times over the years! However, as Simon Le Bon would later note, the song itself and it’s message, which purports to be a comment on fashion model exploitation, was somewhat overshadowed by the controversy surrounding its 6 minute promo.

Directed by Godley and Creme, the former members of 10CC who went on to become highly successful directors working with the likes of Ultravox, The Police and Frankie Goes To Hollywood to name but a few, the video contains a mess of imagery which we need to unscramble in order to make sense of it. Is it an intelligent commentary on the exploitation of the female form by both the fashion and pornography industries? Or is it simply a slightly ludicrous piece of soft-porn, made by and for men, that indulges in the very exploitation the song seeks to decry? Is it neither and simply a slightly risqué, entertaining pop video designed to attract attention? Is it social commentary, sexual fantasy, or a harmless bit of fun? Let’s take a look…

The main set for the video sees the band themselves performing on a stage in front of a catwalk-cum-boxing ring, something that could be taken as a damning indictment of both boxing and fashion: framing the exploitative spectacle of the former and drawing a metaphor for controlled violence from the latter. The parallels are maybe a little clumsy, too vague to make a valid point but there’s clearly an attempt at some kind of message.

Girls on Film - Duran Duran

Throughout the video the marrying of soft-porn and mild violence is repeated. There’s the pillow fight atop a clearly phallic pole (see the suggestive way the girls ‘mount’ the pole at 1.55), which then leads to the two models involved pouring champagne over each other’s bodies backstage. Then there’s the sumo match which follows between a male wrestler and his female opponent who struts to the stage in a see-through top and triumphs, strutting off stage to be replaced by a ‘sexy nurse’ type who then proceeds to oil and massage the defeated sumo-wrestler whilst straddling him. It’s mildly pornographic in tone and yet it might also be trying to convey a message of female empowerment, of (quite literally) women on top.

However, if you thought the message was already a bit fuzzy the next scene (beginning at 3.45) ramps the confusion up a notch. A male model dressed in some kind of kinky equine fetish costume is ridden across the catwalk to the ring by a ‘cowgirl’ who having presumably tamed her stud proceeds to wash him down with a wet sponge. Cameras flash as she then leads him from the ring by a leash. What the hell is this trying to convey? Once again, you could (but don’t have to) find some kind of message of male submission in all of this, an attempt at a feminist ideological agenda, and a comment on the voyeuristic gaze of the photographer, or you could simply look at it and think what the fuck is all that about??? You might even feel a little aroused, although if you do then you should probably have a serious word with yourself…

gof 3

The most blatantly pornographic scene in the video occurs at 5.09 (a naked model and a hairdryer gives way to a nipple/ice cube thing) before a gratuitous mud-wrestling scene which leads to the victor being hosed down before the video ends with more camera flashes and lots of writhing and gesticulatory dancing. At this stage an attempt at a deeper allegorical message has almost certainly gone out of the window and we are in the realm of the ridiculous. The girls look fantastic but are clearly now the object of a male wet-dream, unless I’m missing some subtle layer of meaning here.

Intended for night-club screens and a new wave of pay-per-view cable channels run by the likes of Playboy magazine, the video caused no small amount of uproar at the time and was subsequently banned by the BBC and led to a heavily edited version being created for MTV following the single’s later success in the USA. It was the first of a string of sexually controversial videos that have appeared over the years and yet looking at it now it actually seems quite tame.

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We live in a post-Madonna age, where Miley Cyrus and many others routinely make semi-pornographic videos and no-one seems to be able to agree whether this is empowerment or exploitation. Should we see this video as some kind of feminist message, albeit a rather ridiculous one? Or does such a message get lost under the weight of patriarchal leering? There was clearly an attempt in both the video and the song at some sort of commentary on the fashion industry but whether it succeeded or not is a very moot point and we would love to know your thoughts on any of this. Does the video still seem a little shocking, or is it simply laughable? Is there a deeper message in there or is that reading too much in to it? What the fuck was that rodeo scene all about and where do you get a horse costume like that from anyway (I’m asking for a friend)? Please let us know….

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