Why the 80’s were about Saturday morning cartoons, videogames and Sybil Danning.

The 80’s were a contentious time in America; Cold War looming, double-digit inflation and a frightening new disease. But if you were a typical western, suburban boy you were in a metauniverse, one founded in horror, science-fiction and sexploitation. The birth of many aspects of modern horror; the survival horror videogame genre, horror sexploitation, sexualized science-fiction and dirty slasher comedy were born or revived in the 80’s. Atari 2600’s Haunted House invented the videogame genre of horror survival in 1981. A year before Sybil Danning made the high talent Battle Beyond the Stars, playing the sexy, lascivious queen of an alien race. In 1983 Sega would turn footage of the film into part of a sci-fi shooter, laserdisc arcade game Astron Belt. Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street would define the slasher film cycle, as Sybil Danning starred in the similarly themed 1984 film They’re Playing with Fire. All the while you could always rely on Count Chocula cereal and a healthy diet of similarly themed Saturday morning cartoons…and I loved every moment of it!

But there is some heavier digestion than the Count, a critical yet anecdotal approach; which considers why the Smurfs, Nintendo and Sybil Danning defined a decade.

In 1991, Professor Eugene F. Provenzo said the Nintendo of the 1980’s was a monopoly that promoted “violence, destruction, xenophobia, racism, and sexism.” Professor Provenzo delivered the first book, decorated with extensive evidence, on videogame culture and possible effects on its young players. Appropriately titled, Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo, the book is both brilliant and bombastic. The book methodically laid out the most current science into the relationship between videogames of the era and aggression; mostly pronouncements of doom. It paints a picture of Nintendo as a corrupt monopoly trying to control the electronic home entertainment market – just as Microsoft would a decade later. The chapter on sexism in videogames reads like a proto-feminist term paper. And its parable of Orwellian escape into ‘mircoworlds’ is chilling in its precision. Overall, the book is less than measured and lets us see how 80’s culture was viewed by mainstream professionals.

Many of the same damnations could be said of cartoons, including comics and horror films of the era, more so perhaps in their realism and potent participatory nature, involving more obvious innuendo and explicitness. Similar claims throughout history, especially in the UK, are coloured by the debate over violent and sexual displays and such real-life behaviour, affecting control over the content of popular media even to this day.

But chauvinism in saving the videogame Princess, a sexy action actress or bawdy cartoon humour were not produced in a vacuum. The 80’s ‘generation of swine’ exposed by Hunter S. Thompson, the political and corporate corrupt, had their fingers in these endeavors for money and some of their prejudices seeped through. Gender plays a role in all three mediums, sometimes to the credit of women; often not. Feminist theorist Eve Sedgwick made an interesting point in her 1985 book Between Men. Strong women promoting women’s interests are infallible, crossing social boundaries with impunity and success. Why are men so different? As she proffered, “Is their bond [Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms] in any way congruent with the bond of a loving gay male couple?” Gender and its transformation in the 80’s calls us to look at what was fed to the young men of the burgeoning, bourgeois electronic age; and to what effect, if any. As Sybil Danning pronounced, in the interview that follows, “It was the ‘Star Wars’ Reagan era, where men go to war and women should be feminine and sexy.”

A target audience of 7 – 17 year old males was a Capitalist’s dream. Not to say that we of the time fell for anything, that we were part of a coup; at least I don’t think so. It is to say we enjoyed it; leaving media consumption to our own inner, sexual, modern desires. 80’s videogame depictions of horror, violence and sex are benign in their basic graphics but active in their participatory nature. This is the case with cartoons, whereas film merges the two violently; participation and realism. Science at the time was political and reactionary, obsessed with the idea of a negative link between exposure to this media and human nature. The most recent, reliable research finds these allegations utterly false, but finds only a pattern of personality traits in those most affected. It is the person, not the media, that affects one’s actions, and that is apparent, observable and the best science at the present time. Science assumes little link in the videogame violence connection; so say the most recent studies presented under meetings of the British Psychological Society, among others. This makes the legacy of politics regarding early videogame and media research all the more laughable.

Removing the ownness (and spectre of evil) of popular media of the time allows us to view it with open eyes. One isn’t lost in the debate over whether it created a negative effect. Instead, one must view it as what it was, and try to draw conclusions about singular events; sentiment only bogs down the discussion. It is perhaps more the political and gender assumptions of the 80’s exposed in these moments; while contrasting the success of womanhood over the overly-potent male elite of the time, which draws our eye the most.

Saturday morning cartoons of the 80’s were perhaps the least sexy, but most sexist and chauvinistic of this motley crew of 80’s culture. Most presented strong male characters with sidelined females, personified damsels in distress. Many cartoons, especially Captain Nintendo, were videogame spin-offs that competed with each other for the most sexist, and in this case homosexual rendering. In cartoons that featured a female cast, they were strong and sexualized and ostensibly powerful; Jem and ThunderCats for example. Even the seemingly innocuous Smurfs was a prime example, at least in deconstruction; of a patriarchal, homosocial and sexist group of blue men in a thriving village that only one female lived in. A young girl Smurf joined the show later on; equality or paedophilia? They too are often portrayed as the damsel in distress, often at the hands of the only female human, Hagatha; ugly, warted, fat, bosomed villainess convinced in her own vanity. Damsels, even blue, are sexy; powerful women are not.

Violence in videogames is understood, but the longstanding history of overtly sexual and sexist ways is not. The first overtly sexual game in the United States was the 1982 Custer’s Revenge, and featured the well-endowed rape of a Native American woman; appearing on the Atari 2600. The game would provoke great feminist controversies and court cases. ‘Women against Pornography’ boycotted the game, making it imminently more successful than if had they kept their mouths shut. Atari played martyr and unsuccessfully sued the Wild West videogame porno’s creators. Nintendo was naturally sexual, in an ethnocentric way. The peak 80’s videogame market in Japan was controlled by a majority of adult-oriented sophisticates. The NES had everything from a creepy tarot card reader Taboo, to unlicensed sex party games. Again, these endeavours wetted the appetite of Cold War stiffies, but with no effect on women but to deride them.  Never fear, Sybil was about to rescue Smurfette and Princess Peach from cyber-distress.

80’s horror, sci-fi, sexploitation films were defined by a single actress, Sybil Danning. Her acting so embodied the totality of this 80’s genre of film especially for women. She accentuated a culture that would have otherwise been lost to the mainstream public; powerful women whose sexuality was natural and their power very much the same. In doing so, the genre would help define a generation of young men and women. The coincidence of the three main topics here; clashing, interacting was made ready for the appetite of sex hungry males. But in many ways, sexploitation was a success for women, a reaffirmation of power over sexuality. Sybil could be seen as a child of feminism; a liberated, strong woman that could be sexual and powerful without remorse.

And while keeping gender symmetrical; in more ways than one, Sybil would clash with a genre fans often associated her with. Sybil Danning refused traditional roles of damsels in distress, because as she asserted “…mainly women are the victims in horror movies and for that reason, I turned them down.” She would go against the grain in other ways, especially as the alpha-female that countered a typically masculine market of action/sci-fi. Sybil was the female Rambo of the 80’s, ready to rack up nuclear arms like a red-meat eating good ol’ boy. While only a slight exaggeration, the bulk of Sybil Danning’s roles in the 80’s would play to two very different, uneasy in-house audiences. The fantasizing amongst both sexes; one for reason of titillation, the other for empowerment, made Sybil the heir apparent to the 80’s sexploitation market that lacked a legit, viable symbol.

Whether it was early morning cartoons, afternoon videogames or late night viewings of Sybil Danning movies, the teenage boy of the 80’s had it all in his exploitive escapism; so too did women grow under heterocentric times. Sybil Danning made gender matter less by making it matter more. She was strong and sexual, without remorse in the bulk of her 80’s film work, and this appealed to men and women alike.

To perhaps best understand the time period, its implications, is to speak with the saviour of 80’s womankind herself; screen-siren and icon Sybil Danning. Sybil was kind enough to spend some time to answer a few questions and mull over the totality of the 80’s, from culture to career. Three things were certain after the interview was complete; sex and violence are timeless, as were the 80’s; but so is Sybil Danning.

Les: In half of your horror/sci-fi films in the 1980’s, you played the Queen of different warrior sects. Your characters were strong; and sexualized. In retrospect, do you find this simple sexploitation cinema, chauvinistic; or a product of 70’s feminism; or all of the above?

Sybil: I was not in the US/Hollywood in the 70’s until I immigrated from Austria/Germany in 1978. In Europe I played an array of different characters in International movies such as “Lady in Waiting to the Queen” in Three 7 Four Musketeers, (Geraldine Chaplin, Charlton Heston) “Mother of the Pauper” in Alexander Dumas’ Crossed Swords (Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed) to “prostitute” in Blue Beard (Richard Burton, Joey Heatherton) “Terrorist” in Mivtsa Yonatan (nominated Oscar,“Best Foreign Film”) I believe the 70’s was a sort of follow-up of the 60’s hippie era of love and let love. In Germany, where I lived at the time, there was a definite revolution of sexy movies being freely produced for main stream movies. The first TV role I did at that time, the most famous Detective, TV series called Derrick, I played a stripper and wife of the club owner. I ended topless on stage, on an 8PM show. That was normal and still is to date. You can sit at the breakfast table today anywhere in Europe and on the cover will be a topless female, either selling a vacation spot or just a model. Nudity in film was normal and I never had a problem with it. I do feel this was a combination, sexploitation cinema, chauvinism and feminism.

Les – Why do you think the science-fiction genre was so sexualized in the 80’s?

Sybil – In some aspects, the 80’s were an almost mirror image of the 60’s. Barbarella was made in the 60’s, my Battle Beyond The Stars, in 1980. The John Cassavetes movie Gloria, also in 1980, with its strong, action female lead character, was the first and last of its sort. It was the “Star Wars” Reagan era, where men go to war and women should be feminine and sexy. The studios were not making movies with strong female leads or co-leads. Macho movies like Rambo, Commando, Predator were being made. The 80’s were the Arnold Schwarzenegger era for the studio movies but I must say it was also the Sybil Danning era, for the independent movies and TV. The 60’s were mirrored because there is always a market and audience in the independent world for fantasy female warriors and because the studios were not providing such, the independents were. For me it started with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars in 1980 and ended in 1989 with L.A.Bounty, as LAPD officer turned Bounty Hunter. In-between came Hercules, Seven Magnificent Gladiators, Jungle Warriors, Warrior Queen, Chained Heat, The Tomb, Reform School Girls, The Phantom Empire, Amazon Women On The Moon, Howling II and others. I was never accused of looking like a man, playing a man’s role; so the strong characters I played were sexy fantasy characters and that is why the strong female roles were sexualized, because they stay exactly that – a fantasy and that is not threatening.

Les: How would you compare the violence and sadism of 80’s horror compared to today’s rather graphic displays in films?

Sybil – It depends on which movies in particular you talk about but in general, the 80’s horror was pretty horrific for that time in their own style. My own Howling II included. Some were pretty graphic and some just had bad effects because they could not afford better. Then there are those that were so bad, they were good and became cult classics. I really love the Hitchcock style. I like suspense. Today’s horror movies are more horrific, due to new technology and the fact the audience expects more and new thrills to outdo the last 5 movies in any given franchise. I was in Rob Zombie’s remake of Carpenter’s Halloween and I’ve heard the next Halloween is probably going to be in 3D! I heard The Howling – Reborn with Joe Nimziki directing and Etchie Stroh producing is going to shoot in February 2010. I’m sure they will come up with some incredible ideas after all the Howling movies shot to date, Joe Dante’s Howling and my Howling II directed by Philippe Mora, being most successful of all. I let Etchie Stroh know, I would love to be “reborn” in Howling – Reborn. He passed it on to Joe and I am waiting to hear back. I know my fans would love that!

Les: How do you feel about the idea that contends violent/sexual media has an effect on human behaviour, usually argued corrupt?

Sybil: I truly believe, human beings need and should have “outlets” for their needs, expression, emotions, and interests being in sports, art, comedy, business, or sex! Whether you go to a sports arena to watch sports, a museum to observe art, or to a movie theatre to watch a movie, play a videogame, or watch a sexy DVD at home in the privacy of your life, these are “outlets.” People need these outlets to delve into, enhance their knowledge, understanding, interests, passion, and senses. Most importantly, they serve to relieve a person from their own restrictions, inhibitions – hence escapism. In countries where prostitution is allowed, there are very few, if any rapes or sexual abuse cases. Prostitutes are the outlet. Whatever violent sport, wrestling, boxing, etc. in an arena, or shooting, swordsmanship, etc. – all in an arena, shooting range or movies/DVDs/videogames/TV – are all positive outlets. The Japanese see blood in movies as part of the art and not the violence. Sex and violence has been around for a long time. I do not believe the media furthers violence.

Les: What one word describes the 80’s? Or series of words?

Sybil: Big, Bold Brass.

Les: Do you have a favorite role from the 80’s, horror or otherwise?

Sybil: My role as “Stirba” Queen of the Werewolves in Howling II.

Les : How was working with Christopher Lee?

Sybil: I was with Christopher in five movies, Three & Four Musketeers, Albino, The Salamander, and The Howling II. He is one of the most interesting men I’ve worked with. He is always ultimately professional and a challenge to work with. His trained English technique and experience is of a most delightful pleasure to be associated with, in any film. As is for me too, for Christopher, every role he accepts in a movie is more important than the last and fully dedicated to the craft at hand. He succumbs totally to his character, honestly giving it his all. As sister and brother, Werewolf Queen and Werewolf Hunter in The Howling II, we both took out roles very serious, hence giving our characters and the story a believability which I think in the end, carried over to our fans, the fans of Werewolf movies, and helping its success. During the many years we’ve known each other, Christopher told me incredible stories of his movies and travels around the world. He can go on for hours and never tells the same story twice. He is a wonderful story teller, incredible actor and a wonderful human being.

Les: Do you think, even by today’s standards, that many aspects of the Howling II are, let’s say, ahead of their times?

Sybil: Yes, I do. Even though there were movies such as American werewolf In London, which I heard they are doing again now, The Howling II was ahead of its time in story, sexuality and content. There had never been a blonde Werewolf Queen before and that is what drew my attention first and foremost. I’ve played many queens, but this was most interesting. As my fans know, I have not done many horror movies, because mainly women are the victims in horror movies and for that reason, I turned them down. I was portraying strong women and in “Stirba” I could stay true to another strong, sexy, fantastic female role my fans, about 50/50 male/female, have come to love seeing me in. I just saw New Moon and loved it even more than Twilight, due to the beautiful Werewolves. Howling II, was just a sexier, darker version and ahead of its time…

Les: Speaking risqué, how was working on ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ ?

Sybil: That was a most wonderful and fun experience. Growing up as a tomboy, being able to fly my own spaceship (created by James Cameron) and go along as the only women with the guys to save the good planet from the big bad guys, was right up my alley. I had seen and loved Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, loved the Magnificent Seven and here I was in the Sci-fi version. I was just mentioned in the all time 50 best sci-fi costume list with the “Indian Mirror Today,” for my Wagnerian, Valkyrie costume. The breast finger plates on that costume kept sliding, exposing my nipples until we decided to glue the fingers to my breast! That worked, but ouch in taking it off! Then I had the “dart” costume named after my spaceship which after 10 fittings, the dart holes were strategically sewn all over my body. My entire breast was rotoscoped when airing on NBC, after all, this was a family movie. Working with Jimmy Murakami was great and I loved Roger Corman. He was serious, hard working but much fun. I just came from Europe where sometimes we had to do our make-up with a mirror tied to a tree, so having my own dressing and make-up room at Rogers Film Studio in Venice, CA, was a great thing, even though mushrooms were growing on the walls. I recently met Roger at a Memorabilia Show and he looks as handsome as ever.

Les: Do you have a favorite videogame or cartoon from the 80’s?

Sybil: I love Superman and Spiderman movies, but not really followed the comic book series. I was just aware of them once I came to the US in 1978. Growing up in Austria, I was not introduced to comics or cartoons. My childhood was very serious. I love Witchblade which came much later and I understand is going to be filmed soon. I remember buying, playing and then really enjoying the action adventure Dungeons & Dragons Game, with my nephews. In the 80’s, I had my own comic book titled Sybil Danning Is, Black Diamond, a female James Bond character. I was ahead of my time, as not many actors had their own comic book at that time. I currently have an artist creating a Sci-fi comic book, based on a character I own. We are in the beginning stages of my image and will keep you posted. I look forward to having my own comic book again and videogame this time, to go with it. I’ve also been asked to co-star in a comic book with a male lead. I like the synops

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Written by Les T

7 comments

  1. megulito /

    amazxin article! one the best ive ever read, really legitimises video game journalism. keep up the good work

  2. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Good work for the journalist! This site should have more articles like this! Now that’s interesting!

  3. Anastasia /

    Well said! And I love her! This journalist could make ANYthing sexy! Very intrigued with this article.

  4. WOW, very well written article on the greatest female action hero of all time! Looking forward to being once again mesmerized by her screen presence in those upcoming movies.

    I agree that there is no reason to believe that video games promote violent behavior and so do the courts. One such landmark case is Entertainment Software Association vs. Blagojevich et al where the State of Illinois failed to prove such in defending their Violent Video Games Act in federal courts. Article here for anyone interested:

    http://www.gamecensorship.com/Illinois.htm

    I also have copies of the district and appeals courts rulings, so if interested, ask and I’ll send.

  5. ArcLight /

    Sybil Danning….sigh…

    If anyone deserves to have a video game based on them it’s her.

  6. Very wonderful and indepth interview with Sybil Danning,for it’s interesting to know that she’s a fan of the SPIDERMAN and TWILIGHT movies and it’s good to see that she’s got two new movies(with one currently in pre-production) heading along the way.

  7. I don’t care what anyone says, Antonio is still one good looking an talented actor in my book!!! 🙂