The Feisty Feminism of 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun,' 30 Years Later

The track was originally a man's account of bedding women—until Cyndi Lauper transformed it into a rallying cry for sexual equality.
Courtesy of Cyndi Lauper

It was 1983, and women were starting to get loud. In the academy, writers and theorists were debating prostitution, pornography, and BDSM. The Equal Rights Amendment was making its last rounds through Congress, passing in the House but not getting enough votes to be added to the Constitution. Alice Walker had just published The Color Purple. Across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher was continuing her reign as the first female prime minister of Britain.

And in New York City, a Queens native named Cyndi Lauper was about to make a declaration: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

In the 30 years since Lauper released her career-defining hit, “Girls” has been described as a “rebellious sing-along,” a “feminist anthem,” even a symbol of the “pogo-punk unisex spirit of the irreverent and permissive early 1980s." Bloggers have written odes to it, dance-recital choreographers have it flocked to it, a movie has been made in its honor. The accompanying album, She’s So Unusual, is being re-released in April, and the liner notes remind listeners that “beneath [the] sparkly veneer was a strong feminist message.”

How has this song become so deeply embedded in American culture? It’s true that it’s pretty catchy, and bars always need fodder for ‘80s night. But it takes more than big hair and a good beat to become a cultural tagline. “Girls” was engineered to be an anthem of women’s sexual freedom at a time when feminism was becoming a big part of cultural consciousness—and it helped set a template for how future stars would sing about social issues.

When I spoke with Lauper about the story of her first big hit, she was definitive: “It was very blatantly feminist.” She described the early ‘80s as a difficult time for women to call themselves feminists, particularly in the press. Not for her, though: “I would say, yeah, I’m a feminist, I burnt my training bra at the first demonstration. You got a problem with that?”

The original version of the song, written by Robert Hazard, had a decidedly different point of view: It was sung from a man’s perspective, with “fun” standing for coerced bedroom shenanigans. Lauper reworked the track to fit her views on women and sexuality, including the lines that are often celebrated as a subtle feminist throw-down:

Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest of the world
I want to be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls, they want to have fun

“It doesn’t mean that girls just want to fuck,” Lauper explained. “It just means that girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have.”

Equality among women was just as important to Lauper as equality between men and women: The song’s music video was widely noted as one of the first to feature women of multiple races. “The one thing I really wanted was to have multi-racial girls so that every little girl could actually see herself in it, and it would be kind of contagious that everyone was entitled—no matter what race or color or anything—you were entitled to this joyful experience,” she said.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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