Released as the first single from Permanent Vaction (1987), “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” began Aerosmith‘s late-’80s comeback.
The song went on to find chart-topping success and generated a newfound love for the rock outfit. Across the nearly 40 years since its release, the song has become a staple in pop culture—finding success time and time again with placement across film and television.
But what is the meaning of the song? Let’s dive into the song lyrics below.
Vince Neil Looks Like a Lady?
The pervasive origin story of “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” stems from Aerosmith imbibing during a night out with Mötley Crüe, wherein the band left rolling their eyes at how every sentence the Crüe guys said started with the word “Dude.”
Desmond Child, who co-wrote the song alongside Stevie Tyler and Joe Perry, recalled the moment in an interview with the Huffington Post.
Though Aerosmith hadn’t previously worked with an outside songwriter before, Child was brought in to the fray following his work with Bon Jovi (“Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Bad Medicine”). Tyler showed Child some of the lyrics he had been working on for a song titled “Cruisin’ for the Ladies”—an idea Child immediately denounced as dull and already done.
Tyler reluctantly agreed and said that the proposed title was actually an alternate. He then revealed that the original version of the song was inspired by a night out at the bar not too long before, wherein – after a few drinks—Tyler spotted what he thought was an attractive girl with teased, bleach-blonde hair.
When the girl eventually turned around, they realized it wasn’t a girl at all—it was instead Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe—who did indeed have some pretty luscious hair. “That dude looks like a lady,” one of the Aerosmith members apparently said, and then continued to repeat the catchy little phrase all night.
Child said he later let Vince Neil in on the joke: “He had a good laugh.” The incident is also acknowledged in Neil’s autobiography, so he must not have any hard feelings.
Cruised into a bar on the shore
Her picture graced the grime on the door
She’s a long lost love at first bite
Baby, maybe you’re wrong
But you know it’s all right, that’s right
So never judge a book by its cover
Or who you gonna love by your lover
Love put me wise to her love in disguise
She had the body of a Venus
Lord, imagine my surprise
Child also took pride in how, with issues of gender identity in the headlines today, the song was way ahead of its time in its treatment of the subject.
He said, “The idea of a transgendered character in a hit song being shown in a positive light was completely fresh and revolutionary. It was so catchy that even without knowing what the song was about, people everywhere started spontaneously singing it at the top of their lungs.”
He continued, “Even Mrs. Doubtfire was doing the broom dance to it and every little kid in America could sing all the words by heart. I heard one drunk guy on the street yelling, ‘Do a naked lady’—I guess that’s what he probably wanted it to say. The other side of a song is the listener who always brings their own story to a song no matter what it’s saying.”
While Child may think the song cast transgender individuals in a positive light, many members of the LGBTQ+ community would strongly disagree.
Despite its mainstream success, “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” has often been accused of being transphobic with its lyrics. In a 2012 interview, Child revealed that Perry was concerned that the song would offend the gay community. To which Child replied “Okay, I’m gay, and I’m not insulted. Let’s write this song.”
Despite any well-meaning intentions for the track, it has been used many times as a dig at transgender individuals since its release.
In 2013, Fox News played the song while introducing activist and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, a trans woman. Throughout her interview with the outlet, the hosts continually used masculine pronouns alongside Manning’s original name.
Caitlyn Jenner also dubbed the track her “theme song” after transitioning in 2014. Backlash ensued from fans and LGBTQ+ activists.
Pop Culture Appearances
The song has been a staple in pop culture for many years, finding widespread placement in television and film.
Concurrent with its chart run, the song played in the 1987 comedy film Like Father Like Son, starring Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore.
In 1993, the song was prominently featured in the film Mrs. Doubtfire, during a montage of the main character bonding with his family in disguise as a woman. The song was also used in the film’s TV ads. The film’s writer, Randi Mayem Singer, credits the song as the “biggest influence” on the script. She was quoted as saying, ‘Without “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),’ there would be no Mrs. Doubtfire.”
The song was also featured in the movie It’s Pat, where the title character (played by Julia Sweeney) sings a karaoke version at their wedding reception. The song nods to the running joke throughout the film that references Pat’s gender ambiguity.
Aerosmith performed the song live in the movie, Wayne’s World 2 and is also featured on the accompanying soundtrack for the film.
Photo: Katarina Benzova / ID PR