Duran Duran's debut album cover

Duran Duran and the ‘gender bender’ pop revolution

Duran Duran’s debut self-titled album dripped glamour and escapism when released in 1981. Simon le Bon became an immediate role model for a lot of young men in terms of the looks he adopted, carrying through to the late 80s. It was only at this stage of Duran Duran’s evolution, though, that le Bon could be said to have been a ‘gender bender’ – a term coined by the tabloids to describe the new wave of pop stars that emerged from 1980 through to late 1983 (the exact time period is debated but those years work for me).

Ostensibly this article is about Duran Duran’s debut album but this was important history going on at the time it was released, so I’m going into some detail. Pop stars given the gender bender label were, to varying degrees, associated with the New Romantic sound and its attendant avant-garde, rules-transgressing fashion style. It was largely the fashion choices of this youth movement that led to the gender bender label being applied to many of its representative bands, singers and followers, with newspaper columnists wailing to their readers about how they struggled to tell boys from girls any more. 

Masculine is this, feminine is that, except it wasn’t anymore

The so-called gender benders, as implied by the descriptive, decided to break the then-prevalent rules over how people chose to present themselves to the world, with the men wearing make-up and what was seen as ‘feminine’ clothing. The only female public figure designated a gender bender to my remembrance was Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics. She chose to wear sharp, black suits seen as ‘masculine’ and had bright orange, cropped hair considered to be ‘unfeminine’. I thought she was absolutely the coolest woman I had ever seen when I first saw her on TV singing Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

Today, the mainstream ideas prevalent at the time in society appear overly simplistic, horribly polarised between male and female. They were. There was no acknowledgement of gender fluidity in those days. Nobody mentioned asexual or trans people, though occasionally sensationalist articles would appear in the press about men who had undergone ‘sex changes’ and were called ‘transsexuals’.

Meanwhile, bisexuality was something a few rock and pop stars ‘indulged’ in, such as Bowie. As with homosexuality, bisexuality was seen as a wilful choice by most, not innate. So-called sexual deviancy was something to be marginalised and persecuted unless you were rich and famous. Even if you were rich and famous, you rarely came out as it could ruin careers. People still routinely referred to a child born out of ‘wedlock’ – marriage – as a bastard, unless those kids were born to the rich and famous, in which case the descriptive was ‘love child’. 

It is important to recognise, though, looking back, that change can be seismic but is more often an evolutionary process that takes time. The 1980s gender benders – including Boy George of Culture Club, the aforementioned Annie Lennox, the out-gay Marc Almond of Soft Cell, bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, and many others – provoked conversations and arguments across the country. Those arguments and conversations never really stopped through to today, motivating cultural and political change in society, as well as driving those in opposition to such changes to kick back and kick off.

The impact on society, culture and politics of some of the musical movements from rock and roll of the 1950s onwards was, and remains, significant. When a pop singer with a huge fanbase in 2021 vocally announces or tweets their opposition to anti-LGBTQ legislation anywhere in the world, they make headlines just like Boy George’s first appearance on Top of the Pops did. 

They’re different, I’m different too

Of course, at the time all these men were parading in public wearing bright lipstick and eyeshadow and Annie was single-handedly redefining how a woman could choose to look, there were countless kids reaching puberty and getting into music, knowing already they were different and seeing something aspirational and hopeful, defiant and revolutionary in their chosen pop heroes.

I can tell you, the effect on me of seeing Simon le Bon in soft focus, wearing a white blouse and makeup in the Planet Earth video cannot be understated. By today’s standards, it’s not a great video but where he appeared topless in it, rolling around, was of particular interest to me at the time. He was heterosexual but that didn’t matter – he was bold, transgressing all the rules of how a man should look. It was years before the label genderqueer came into use but I know now I always was genderqueer as well as gay. I didn’t want rules governing what I wore, what I did to my own face and hair – and here was a man, living the life I wanted to live. If I had been born 10 years earlier than I was, I’ve no doubt I would have hooked onto Bowie for the same reason. As it was, Bowie became something of a figurehead to the New Romantic movement and played into it with his Scary Monsters Super Creeps album, the one that got me into him.

My love of Simon le Bon, my absolute teenage adoration, meant I turned up to the school disco in full makeup, Tukka boots and cavalry shirt, with a long fringe obstructing my vision. I was one of a handful in my Lancashire town brave enough to live the dream at 14. I was channeling le Bon and Phil Oakey of The Human League, with a splash of Toyah’s attitude (she was a kind of fusion of punk sound and aesthetics with the emergent New Romantic look). I danced to ABBA and didn’t care that I was sneered at by most of the other boys. Anyway, I got to dance with way more girls than they did. I took a strange kind of pride in that. It was like I scored a hit against the straight boys who bullied me.

Simon le Bon moved away from the gender bender look after Duran Duran’s debut album, in the same way Spandau Ballet eschewed New Romanticism after their second album. Spandau chose the smart-suit soul boy look, while Duran Duran went for brightly coloured suits and tans before le Bon went through the long-haired Wild Boys era and then cut it all off for A View to a Kill. I copied him each time. 

Duran Duran’s first album still feels more honest than their sophomore, commercially driven Rio. I have the same feelings about Spandau Ballet’s first two albums compared to their blockbuster True. As with True, there was nothing wrong with Rio, I liked it but it didn’t blow my mind like Duran’s debut had. In terms of single releases, Duran’s first album had, in addition to Planet Earth, the huge hit Girls on Film with accompanying video that was deemed pornographic at the time (it really wasn’t), and the energetically assertive Careless Memories. Besides those, Anyone Out There is a standout track that really should have been a single. 

Okay to be an outsider

As with most of the albums I grew up with, Duran Duran was a huge influence on my thinking as much as what I wore. It was an album that told me it was okay to be an outsider, looking to see if there was anyone on planet Earth who was like me. Of course there was. It’s an album that was a big stepping stone on my path to adulthood. I’m still a New Romantic, I think. I don’t think I ever stopped.


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andrew hinkinson
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