To us, dancing in our pants was a pastime mainly enjoyed before the age of 7. Whether it involved a session of ‘music and movement’, or a few star jumps in the school gymnasium, a good vest and a pair of sturdy pants were all you needed. It’s just the way it was in school halls and primary schools across the country, and it was a great leveller because everyone was similarly attired, well except for Mrs Buck on the piano and Mrs Jefferies who was in charge…because that would have just been weird. It was a no nonsense practical solution for the needs of physical education for the under 7s.
By the mid 1970s, we were aware that grown ups Pan’s People flashing a glimpse of colour co-ordinated briefs on Top Of The Pops was seen as slightly saucy, low-grade titillation. 1970s television programmes were full of it. Benny Hill girls, Carry On girls and lots of other ‘old guard’ comedians would set up a passing ‘dolly bird’ or even stray items of female underwear to cause the men in the sketch to lose all sense of purpose, drop something , fall off something, crash into something or just plain pass out in the name of hilarity. It was how the world was. Some saw it a ‘harmless fun’, and some saw it as a pathetic excuse to portray women as unequal members of society, and it was exactly this kind of behaviour that prompted feminist action to campaign to overthrow this demeaning and outdated system. No-one was ever going to take a woman seriously…in her pants. End of.
1970s feminists campaigned against this tide of mainstream opinion. They not only wanted equal opportunities, equal pay for equal work but they also took a very dim view of women’s bodies being used to casually advertise commodities including either themselves or items such as cars. The constant stream of ‘dolly birds’ in revealing clothes was very much part of the problem, and was seen as degrading and submissive. Their fight was not against the women taking part but against the widespread objectification of women’s bodies.
After an especially heated demonstration at the 1970 Miss World contest – a contest that put the wearing of swim-suits (pants) above any intellectual prowess or ability at its heart – the contest-stopping feminists threw leaflets around the venue, the Royal Albert Hall in London, listing their objectives which included, “Fighting institutions, publications, programmes that maintain women’s oppression and promote the traditional submissive female“. Miss World, Page Three and dancing in your pants definitely came under “promoting the submissive female”. As feminist culture grew, and thanks to thinkers and writers like Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem the topic of female oppression became more widely discussed and these ideas were filtered into the mainstream. Students at Universities joined the debate and by the late 1970s many of these ‘feminist’ young women were influencing even younger minds as a new wave of teachers with feminist ideals and copies of the contemporary feminist publication ‘Spare Rib’ took jobs in the UKs secondary schools.
By the time punk exploded, no-one needed to be told what to do. Women’s equality was more front and centre than ever before, and no-one had to dance around in their pants for approval or judgement. Institutions like Miss World were sidelined to the fringes of ‘old school’ interest and were sneered at. There had been a massive cultural shift throughout the decade, and the only women we came across dancing in their pants were taking the piss, by wearing them on the outside of their clothes. Thanks Ari!
So, the 70s feminists did so much of the heavy lifting, and the teenage punks were among those who put these principles into action, but if we fast forward to the present day, something very curious seems to have happened…
A very significant sleight of hand seems to have been played where female ’empowerment’ is concerned, because it once again includes the very public wearing of pants. ‘Girl Power’ has now been back-tracked and expressed in lashings of exposed flesh and skimpy outfits. How on earth did we allow this to happen?
Today’s chart stars seem to have abandoned the feminist battles that previously raged before them, battles it would seem, that won them the opportunities that they now enjoy. Somewhere along the line, a mainstream sensibility borne out of the same mentality as Miss World and Benny Hill has performed the old switcheroo on the feminist manifesto. In fact the germ of this blog post came about after we sat open jawed at a recent television programme starring a contemporary girl band, which provided us with this very modern intellectual quandary …
We like Little Mix; they are clearly talented young women with a business sense who have worked hard to stay in their chartbusting position, but we are confused by how they choose to portray themselves. In one campaign they drew attention to the kind of words that have been used to insult, degrade and bully them – for which they earn massive feminist points – but then opted to have that particular campaign photo taken naked – it seems counter-intuitive somehow. One minute they seem to scream female empowerment, but then the next appear onstage in special dancing pants, as they grind through their sexually suggestive dance routines. This isn’t about being prudish, this is more about how their devoted younger fans might interpret and re-purpose that behaviour for themselves, and it also begs the question ‘Has the mainstream music industry REALLY moved on since Pan’s People?’ because in many ways we now seem back where we started.
We’ve tried to keep our examples as fittingly mainstream as possible here, and as we were influenced by Poly Styrene and Siouxsie, girls a few years younger followed the fortunes of Bananarama or Altered Images, and so it went on right up to the 1990s, where we’d argue that Shampoo and the Spice Girls were as much a part of Britpop as Blur were. The baton of ‘girl power’ is an important one, which should be bold, sprinkled with some humour, and come with a reminder to future generations that we don’t need to dance around in our pants to be badass or feel empowered.