There it was, right in the lobby of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Sweetwater Sound. (Non-affiliate, non-compensated commercial message: for the absolute best deal on a GOOD example of a musical instrument, as opposed to a Guitar Denter special, call Matt Emick at (800) 222-4700 x1249, tell him I sent you.) ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” coupe. (Strictly speaking, I believe it’s a Tudor, and some of you will know better than I do.) Hard to believe it was just forty-two years old when Billy Gibbons bought it as an unmodified ex-daily driver, and hard to believe it’s been driven across the country without incident.
Three of the video singles from ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” album featured the car as a central character; I vaguely remembered them from my youth, with the one that stuck out being “Legs”. On a whim, I decided to watch it again. Having done so, I asked my Instagram followers if there was any way that the “Legs” video would be considered acceptable for release were ZZ Top to make it again today. The answer is obviously “Hell no,” but it’s not for the reasons you might think. Turns out that “Legs”, for all its flash and sex appeal, is primarily objectionable in the modern context because it is, at its heart, a story of Christian morality.
Alright, here’s the video. Give it a view, if you have a moment. Or don’t, because I’ll discuss the key points below.
The action starts with a classically beautiful set of female legs walking across the street. The woman to whom they belong is revealed to be the traditional trope of Pretty Girl In Glasses. She absent-mindedly steps in front of some rough-looking, but friendly, bikers. No harm done, but as the wind blows at her skirt we see that she is, as they say, “stacked”.
She goes into the local restaurant, where she is taunted by some local scumbags both female and male. The same general group is harassing the short-order cook, who is a handsome young man. There’s a brief “meet cute” where the cook tries to take the girl’s order but he is shoved aside by the older, balding boss. The three members of ZZ Top appear out of nowhere and begin watching the proceedings. The girl orders food, takes it out, and drops part of it in front of the bikers without noticing. Then she returns to the shoe store at which she works.
Nothing too surprising so far, even to a modern audience. We can tell that the girl and the cook will eventually become a couple, because they are the two naturally sympathetic characters we’ve seen up to this point. Where things take an unusual turn is when she returns to her job at the shoe store. There, she is tormented by a fat woman and a gay man, both of whom are portrayed in stereotypical and negative fashion. Meanwhile, the young man is running after her with the rest of her order. He meets her in the stockroom, and we can see the beginning of a romance, but he is thrown into the alley by the gay dude and the fat woman, at which point he is almost run over by the Eliminator.
Three beautiful women, all white, all physically similar, get out of the Eliminator. We recognize them — or at least we would back in 1983, because this is the third video in which they’ve appeared with the car. They stand the young cook up and then they walk into the shoe store. The fat woman is eating a cake: one of the Eliminator girls takes it from her. Another one stands on the gay dude’s hand. Together, the girls shove our heroine’s tormentors into a few chairs. The ZZ Top fellows appear with a key to the Eliminator. We’re not sure why, because obviously the Eliminator girls already have a key. The four women — the heroine and the Eliminator girls — then go to a hair salon, where they kick the ugly old customers out so the salon can focus on our girl.
With the hair sorted, they try a few clothing stores, kicking the same old woman out of the fitting room so our heroine can demurely attire herself in lingerie and the latest 1983 fashion. Back at the shoe store, the employees who tormented her before literally kiss her feet as they fit her with new kicks. They get in the Eliminator (how four women fit in this thing is never explained) and head back to the restaurant. The eyes of the unpleasant customers are all on the Eliminator girls until our heroine gets out — and she is the finest of them all. She whispers in the ear of the same biker who nearly ran her down before. He lifts her onto the counter, and she briefly flashes her panties (which mortified the actress when she saw the video afterwards) before turning towards the cook. The boss attempts to get in their way, but she helps the cook over the counter.
A Meyers Manx appears and our couple boards it the same way Cinderella and her prince boarded their carriage. The Eliminator girls leave, possibly with one of the bikers, and the Eliminator itself disappears. The End.
We can all see why, in the phrasing of Buzzfeed, The ZZ Top Video Is Sexist, Racist, Sizeist, Homophobic, And Bigoted, And Here’s Why That’s A Problem. The “bad guys” are all ugly, fat, or gay. The “good guy” is tall, blonde, and handsome. The heroine is a stunner. The Muses, so to speak, are each at least a Los Angeles 9. It’s a racist, sexist, fatphobic message. You could never make it today, unless you made the heroine a fatkini model, changed the hero a neckbeard soyboy, turned the shoe store employees into straight white old men, and revised the Muses to be Serena Williams, a hijab wearer, and a man in a dress. Which would more or less guarantee that the video would have the viewing interest of the new Ghostbusters film — another way of saying that nobody would bother to watch it.
The real problem with “Legs” from a Current Year perspective, however, isn’t the window dressing of stereotype and trope that decorates the video. Rather, it’s the fundamentally moral, even Christian, message behind the thing. To wit:
For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh.
Take a second look at the video. We have two attractive young people who are rescued from their “families” so they can run off together and start a new life together. It’s a hugely conventional message. The people who stand in their way personify the various deadly sins: anger, gluttony, lust, pride. They, on the other hand, turn the other cheek to their tormentors and are rewarded for having done so. Another conventional message: the girl has to be “fixed up” so she can appeal to the man. He, on the other hand, merely has to be hardworking and earnest — which he displays by suffering in the hot restaurant with the fussy customers.
But wait, there’s more. The “Gimme All Your Lovin'” video, which predates this, shows a young man who is “rescued” by the Muses — but his reward to is to sleep with all three of them and then return to his job. So there’s another message in there: for a man, it’s fulfilling to make out with random hotties, but the most fulfilling thing a woman can have is a monogamous relationship with an appropriate partner. That message doesn’t fly in the Tinderella Age, where all women are expected to participate in as much transitory, meaningless sex as a young man would. We no longer have “bad girls” and “good girls”, each deriving some satisfaction from their place in the world. Everyone has to drag themselves through the mud now.
Am I overthinking what is obviously a frivolous and ephemeral piece of media? Maybe so — but it’s interesting to see the stories of our American culture change over time. Remember that much of the knowledge we have about our ancestors comes from their plays and poems. What messages will our distant successors take from “Legs”? From “Sex And The City”? From “The Sopranos”? Will they see it as interchangeable junk? Or will an Edward Gibbon of the future carefully chronicle each bit of it to show how the American Empire crumbled into nothingness, into a future where Spanish-speaking people refuse to serve blacks and half of the population in America’s five largest cities does not speak English at home? These changes in our culture are not without consequences, both short and long term. Much of it hasn’t reached rural Ohio yet, and we still have a few empty spots left, so… if you have legs, you should know how to use them.