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Beavis and Butt-head: An explication

A complex set of signifiers.



To Hitsville's mind, no one has yet adequately explained the phenomenon of Beavis and Butt-head. The MTV show featuring a pair of cartoon teenagers who watch videos seems to engender only extreme reactions--either utter devotion or outrage. The appeal for a certain group is obvious: some people will always love a fart joke. But there seems to be something else at work. For explication, Hitsville turns to Dr. Elmer Schadenfreude, noted commentator on popular culture and the author most recently of the paper "Ren, Stimpy, and the Hegemony of the Pathetic Fallacy, Animationwise." We submitted to him a battery of queries about the show.

Aren't Beavis and Butt-head just warmed-over Waynes and Garths?

Heavens, no [replied Dr. Schadenfreude]. In fact the horror with which Beavis and Butt-head has been greeted in some quarters can be traced to those lovable teens. Wayne's World's heavily romanticized and comforting depiction of two metalheads--played, incidentally, by a couple of thirtysomething comedy lifers--prematurely eased the fears of baby-boomers wary of the rise of the allegedly angry Generation X. Wayne and Garth's audience feels betrayed by the sociopathic Beavis and Butt-head. America likes its troubles sweetened, not confrontational.

Why would anyone want to watch a show that consists of nothing but two animated characters staring at videos and muttering, "Huh-huh, huh-huh"?

First of all, Beavis and Butt-head do more than just watch TV: in between sets of videos they wander across an unremarkable suburban landscape, inevitably injecting innocuous situations with terror and disaster. Between home and school and jobs they torture animals, blow up houses, hurt other people and each other, and steal. But the cartoony adventures mask a subtle commentary on adolescence in general, and the boys' responses to the music videos are particularly telling--those inane snickers contain a complex set of signifiers about the way people consume popular culture. At the first chord of a heavy-metal video, the response is an immediate "Yes!"--nicely conveying the mysterious but instantaneous connection certain teens make to such music. Songs that utilize metal sounds but are somewhat more challenging--"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a good example--the response is positive ("Navarna is cool") but less visceral. Self-consciously arty or collegiate videos produce long puzzled silences and ultimately dismissal ("If I wanted to read I'd go to school"). And failed new-wave or old-school hard-rock bands, from Wang Chung and Loverboy to the Scorpions, are greeted with derision. ("I'm not just a hair club member, I'm the president!")

Aren't Beavis and Butt-head sexist?

The pair's relationship to women is actually as complex as their sexual relationship to each other. Certainly it's backward: they're confused by real live women (as opposed to the ones they taunt on TV) and when they do manage to make contact in real life--with a sideshow contortionist, for example--they display a formidable sexual naivete. The show's most poignant moment came after the two participated in a school experiment with a classmate named Daria (renamed "Diarrhea," of course). After class, Daria joins the pair on their couch. With typical insolence, Butt-head asks, "So, like, do you have periods and stuff?" and Daria gives the slicing reply: "Butt-head, why don't you examine the friction caused by digital manipulation of your wiener?" Beavis and Butt-head explode into endless uncontrolled snickering. When he recovers, Butt-head can only say, "That was cool." In one sentence is captured not only the awe and ambivalence of boy-girl relationships (and how underequipped adolescent boys are to deal with the mental advancement of their female peers) but also the dawning of respect.

Excuse us. Did you say "their sexual relationship to each other"?

The pair are of course obsessed with sodomy; one suspects that TV codes are the only thing that keeps actual homosexual experimentation out of the show, in the same way marijuana was kept out of the story of the congenitally stoned Wayne and Garth. In one show, the two are made "male-female" partners for a school assignment; in another, as the two debate the gender of the foppish boys in Enuff Z'nuff, Butt-head says, "They'd better be [chicks]; they're giving me a Woodrow." The always dominant Butt-head monopolizes the video commentary, orders Beavis around, and takes it upon himself to adjudge the quality of the conversation ("Shut up, Beavis!"), though Beavis does have his moments.

Like at the drive-in?

You're referring to Beavis's moment of triumph, when the pair are pantsed and left hanging upside down on a drive-in movie-theater marquee after spying on a couple making out in the back of a van. (Significantly, it's the woman who catches them and administers the punishment.) Butt-head's ridicule of Beavis's pimply derriere is finally met with a devilish "Hey Butt-head, why are you so interested in my butt?" (Only Beavis could ask that question of someone so named.) After an interminable silence, Butt-head finally manages to say without much aplomb, "Uh, have you heard that new Gwar album?"

But aren't Beavis and Butt-head, well, stupid?

Actually, no. They mangle language deliberately ("Navarna" for "Nirvana" or "virginia" for "vagina") and fully appreciate the unattractiveness of their behavior. After being called a moron at his job at Burger World, Butt-head says, "Let's go break something," an elegant one-sentence satire on teen psychoanalysis. They're also great rock critics. Think of Butt-head's comment on Enuff Z'nuff.

Which was...

"Glam rock just isn't what it used to be, Beavis."

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