The taming of MTV: Is this the swan song for the sexist video?


It started out as a typical dinner party conversation, full of chatter about kids, current movies and local politics. But when the subject switched to music, one yupster couple felt they simply had to speak up.

"We're thinking of canceling our cable service, or at least blocking out MTV," said he. Asked why, his wife answered, "Because we really don't want our son exposed to that kind of sexism. I don't want him to grow up with that kind of image of women."

No one had to ask what she meant by "that kind of image," either. As everybody knows, rock videos are full of gratuitous babeage, packed with buxom, mini-skirted models whose sole function is to underscore the desirability of long-haired guitar gods.

These aren't rock and roll women in the active sense of the term -- they're props. Ornaments. Sex objects. In fact, the concept of rock video vixens has become so deeply ingrained in the public imagination that one enterprising production company has actually begun to market a series of soft-core porn tapes entitled "Rock Video Girls," in which models who have actually appeared in rock videos take showers and dance topless to a rock soundtrack.

All of which seems to recall the scene in the comedy "This Is Spinal Tap," where Nigel Tufnel has a hard time grasping the difference between "sexy" and "sexist." Except that this is real life, and nobody's laughing.

But is MTV really the villain concerned parents and angry feminists make it out to be?

Surprisingly, the answer is "no." Despite MTV's reputation for sexual objectification, few of the clips being currently broadcast by the cable channel live up to the preconceptions most critics have of rock video. In fact, in most cases, the videos themselves are far tamer than the advertising that surrounds them.

Believe me, I know. As an experiment, I recently taped a six-hour daytime stretch of MTV, played it back, and took notes on what I saw. And it turned out to be not terribly racy at all.

Take, for instance, the Guns N' Roses video that aired almost immediately after I began recording. GNR is not exactly a favorite among modern feminists, thanks to such seemingly sexist song titles as "Back Off Bitch" and "Pretty Tied Up." Sensitive guys they ain't.

But anyone hoping for some on-camera hanky-panky was sure to be disappointed by the group's video version of "Knocking on Heaven's Door." Shot live in concert, it focuses mainly on singer Axl Rose (shown wearing See MTV, 0X, Col. 0MTV, from 1spandex shorts and a T-shirt showing a thorn-crowned Jesus and bearing the legend "KILL YOUR IDOLS") and guitarist Slash; the only women in evidence anywhere are the band's backup singers, whose appearances are so brief that you might miss them without a pause control. Sex isn't even a suggestion here.

Another GNR clip cropped up a few hours later, but this, too, seemed largely sexless. The song was "You Could Be Mine," but the images had more to do with "Terminator 2" (it was part of the soundtrack) than with the band. Indeed, Arnold Schwarzenegger earns more screen time than Axl or his bandmates.

Nor were the other videos much different. Def Leppard's "Make Love Like a Man" may promise a lot with its title, but what it ## vTC showed was mainly the band miming the song as movie scenes from the '20s and '30s flickered behind them. As such, the most suggestive image in the entire video was of collapsing smokestacks, which was run backwards to show them springing to attention (you can almost hear the director chortling, "Get it? Get it?").

Even Z. Z. Top, once famous for its three hip-shaking, chest-thrusting "Eliminator Girls," has mellowed considerably over the years. Apart from some shots of Vegas showgirls strutting like sequined peacocks in a production number, its video for "Viva Las Vegas" downplays sex in favor of scenes heavy on local color and casino ambience.

Contrast that to the beer ads shown on "Saturday Night Live," "Arsenio" or "Late Night with David Letterman," and rock video seems almost prudish. These commercials for Coors, Miller and Budweiser are practically swarming with beautiful, big-breasted women, many of whom are wearing swimsuits or less.

Likewise, a lot of jeans ads seem less concerned with getting buyers into these pants than with getting the models out of theirs. Chic jeans, for example, runs one music video-like spot in which a woman strips on the beach to frolic naked in the surf, all to the strains of Aretha Franklin "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Another ad, this for Jordache, consists almost entirely of a shirtless man and semi-clad woman groping one another as jangly, percussive music plays in the background. If sex sells, ads like this must do wonders for the clothing business.

That's not to say MTV has entirely rid itself of scantily clad young nubiles. One video airing frequently looks almost like a Victoria's Secret ad, it's so full of diaphanous silks and elaborate underwear. But it's kind of hard to complain of sexual exploitation in this instance, because the women shown wearing these revealing outfits are the members of Wilson Phillips, whose video this happens to be.

What happened to the image of the rock video vixen?

"I think it just wore itself out over time," says John Cannelli, vice president for music and talent relations at MTV. "It's not that it's completely disappeared, but if you look at some of the real rock stuff, like the Metallicas and Guns N' Roses and Def Leppards of the world, you don't see that anymore. And we're really pleased about that."

Why? In part because nobody, not even MTV, wants to be perceived as fostering institutionalized sexism. But on a more practical level, video babeage had become a cliche, and nothing makes television seem stale faster than cliches.

"Tom Freston, who's the chairman of MTV Networks Inc., gave a speech at a Billboard video music convention a couple years ago," recalls Cannelli. "And what the speech generally said was to be creative in the presentation of music on the channel, and to kill the cliches." And apparently, sex objects were among the first to go.

So why does the perception of MTV sexism persist? Cannelli suggests that those who complain about sex on MTV probably haven't watched in a while. "I mean, if you watch regular cable, they have pay-per-views on 'Rock Video Girls,' that some other company did, with the illusion that these are the girls who are on the MTV videos," he says. "And that contributes to the perceptions.

"But if you've watched, I think that you can see that the level of that stuff has declined dramatically."

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