Sometimes the past provides us with a lens for better understanding the present.
In the spring of 2023, Anheuser Busch launched an online marketing campaign that featured Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender social media influencer, as a spokesperson for Bud Light.
This resulted in a backlash and a boycott, with real financial consequences for the company.
But the backlash was predictable. The Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney campaign did not take place in a vacuum, after all.
In recent years, many corporations have placed biological men in spaces allocated for women. Sports Illustrated has selected multiple transgender (biological male) models for its annual swimsuit issue.
Even Playboy has gotten into the act, thrusting female-presenting, biological male models before its heterosexual male readership.
The idea here seems to be that if you show heterosexual men enough transgender women, eventually they’ll start seeing them as indistinguishable from biological women.
This follows the twenty-first-century pattern of blunt-force culture warfare, something I’ll return to shortly.
But let’s get back to the Bud Light debacle.
It seemed to me that all sides were losers here. Anheuser-Busch was certainly a loser. Bud Light sales tanked, as Bud Light drinkers turned to other beers. The company’s stock value declined, too.
Alissa Heinerscheid, the Anheuser-Busch marketing vice president who had championed the Dylan Mulvaney campaign, was forced to take a “leave of absence”. That’s code in the corporate world for “fired”.
Did LGBTQ people benefit from this? Not really. Anheuser-Busch had just made them cannon fodder in its efforts to promote one of its products.
But our topic here is the 1980s, so I’m going to discuss some gender-bending controversies from the 1980s.
Or rather, gender-bending non-controversies. As it turns out, the 1980s were sometimes gay, and sometimes gender-fluid, too. But in ways that weren’t as deliberately confrontational as what you see in the present.
In 1982, I was 14 years old. My parents had just sprung for a basic cable television package, and it included MTV, then a brand new channel.
MTV played nonstop pop and rock videos. I was an immediate fan.
MTV introduced me to lots of new musical acts. I would subsequently buy the albums of some of them, which was exactly what the corporate minds behind MTV had intended.
On the American popular music scene, the early 1980s was the era of the Second British Invasion. Everyone who was big in youth music during that time seemed to speak with a British accent. MTV greatly facilitated this influx of British pop and rock acts.
One of these was a group called Culture Club. The lead singer of Culture Club, Boy George, appeared to be female. Boy George wore makeup and baggy feminine attire. He wore his hair long and in braids, in a distinctly feminine style.
Boy George’s mannerisms were feminine, too. He didn’t sing in a high-pitched falsetto; but his singing voice was high enough to pass for that of a woman.
Some time elapsed before I even realized that Boy George was not a woman. Sure, I sensed that there was something about the female-presenting singer that was atypical. But I was initially fooled.
Boy George is an extreme example, but he wasn’t the only popular musician in the 1980s to tinker with notions of gender norms. There was a whole subgenre of rock music called “glam rock”, in which male musicians took on deliberately androgynous appearances. This started with David Bowie in the 1970s. By the 1980s, groups like Motley Crue and Ratt were wearing makeup and quasi-feminine hairstyles. Women got into the act, too. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics wore short hair and masculine business suits.
Culture Club, featuring the gender-fluid Boy George, was enormously popular in the early 1980s. In the fall of 1982, the group’s breakout song, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” reached the number two position on the US charts.
The term “transgender” wasn’t common in the early 1980s, but that’s what Boy George was. He was a man who presented as a woman in public. At the very least, he was a drag queen.
Suddenly, the gender-fluid Boy George was in front of millions of impressionable young people, every time they turned on MTV. And practically all adolescents and teens watched MTV in the 1980s.
If we cast the 1980s in terms of the present, the next logical question might be: when did the backlash start? Where were the alarmed parents, taking to microphones in town hall meetings throughout the country? Where were the calls to boycott cable companies that included MTV in their basic packages?
We didn’t have the Internet in the 1980s, of course. But we did have CNN, network television, newspapers, and radio. There were certainly political and social movements that went “viral” during this period, like the Nuclear Freeze campaign, or the Save the Whales Movement.
But here’s the thing: there was no backlash against all of this gender fluidity on MTV and thoughout popular music. Many adults were aware of Boy George. He was too large of a cultural phenomenon to escape their notice.
In 1984, People magazine ran a cover article about Boy George, with the words, “kids are getting his message”. Yet the adult authority figures of 1984 were notably unconcerned. Boy George did not become a flashpoint in a 1980s version of the culture war.
Was this because the 1980s were more liberal? Hardly. Keep in mind that the 1980s are remembered for their conservatism, and not without reason. Politically, this was an era that belonged to Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. In many of our institutions, members of the World War II generation still occupied positions of leadership.
A group that called itself the Moral Majority was very active, too. This organization, led by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, took very public positions on matters of sex and propriety. For example, the Moral Majority constantly campaigned against convenience stores that sold magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Hotel chains that offered pay-per-view pornographic movies in guest rooms were put on boycott lists.
And yet, the Moral Majority and its various imitators didn’t care about Boy George, the gender-fluid, female-presenting lead singer of Culture Club.
I don’t ever recall hearing an adult fulminate against this man who dressed up in female attire to sing for young people. Not even once.
But the tolerance of Boy George’s gender fluidity went beyond the adults. What about that most maligned of demographics: young, heterosexual males? You may have been told that the 1980s was an era of “toxic masculinity”. Not in regard to Culture Club, at least, it wasn’t. As a teenage boy in 1982 or 1983, your decision to listen to Culture Club—or to ignore them—wasn’t seen as a statement on your masculinity.
Boy George held back nothing, and still, no one on the right cared. In 1983, he was asked in a television interview whether he preferred men or women. He replied, “Oh, both.” In a 1985 interview with Barbara Walters, Boy George elaborated further, stating that he had had both male and female lovers.
And still, there was no call to shield American children from this bisexual, gender-bending singer who made absolutely no bones about who he was and what he was about.
But why were conservatives so blithely tolerant of Boy George and all this public gender fluidity, in the most conservative era in recent history?
Because other things were different in the 1980s, too. Tolerance went both ways. No one on the right insisted on making Boy George and gender fluidity points of confrontation, because no one on the left did, either. Nor did the people who ran our schools, media outlets, and Fortune 500 companies.
I was in high school during the first half of the 1980s. My teachers were certainly aware of Boy George. Yet none of them suggested in class that maybe some of us should change our gender identification because this famous singer appeared to be doing so. Teachers in American grade schools weren’t making such arguments, either.
Nor would a marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch in 1983 have been foolish enough to troll the company’s core demographic by making Boy George a spokesperson for Bud Light. Bud Light commercials of the 1980s were designed to appeal to the beer’s mostly male, mostly blue-collar customer base. Bud Light ads of that era featured the humorous canine character Spuds MacKenzie, and real women in swimsuits. Some Bud Light marketing campaigns even made use of both in the same ads.
Nor did Boy George—or any of his fans—demand that we pretend Boy George was an actual woman, just because he presented as female in public. In fact, Boy George—who is still around—has publicly taken issue with the contemporary pronoun police.
Back in the 1980s, Boy George wanted to do his thing; and his thing was flamboyant, gender-bending, and bisexual. He didn’t demand that you change your ideas of gender and sexuality in order to accommodate his ideas or his choices.
The main strategy in the culture wars of the twenty-first century seems to be not persuasion, but staking out positions that are practically guaranteed to be inflammatory, then daring the other side to knock a chip off one’s shoulder.
As someone old enough to remember the 1980s, I can report that in regard to most matters, people were a lot more laid back and tolerant then. There was an acceptance of diversity, but it was also understood that diversity went both ways. Boy George represented one kind of diversity. As did the predominantly heterosexual, rough-edged culture of the typical Bud Light drinker. What Alissa Heinerscheid, the now fired marketing VP at Anheuser Busch, dismissively called “fratty” culture.
This sense of moderation on all sides was why Boy George never appeared in a Bud Light ad in the 1980s, and he never incurred the public disdain of Bud Light drinkers. Even as many Bud Light drinkers happily sang along with Karma Chameleon when that song came on the radio, as it so often did.