Madonna As a Feminist
- Pages: 32
- Word count: 7911
- Category: Feminism
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The name “Madonna” will always elicit recognition and recall from virtually any person in any part of the world. As a performer, Madonna has gained that world-wide recognition that only artists such as the Beatles have accomplished. Her iconic status has transcended the US and makes her one of the most widely recognized faces across the globe.
It is this immense fame that has also kept the world constantly in tune with Madonna’s every move, opinion, and decision. Her fame and iconic status has also made Madonna one of the most influential performers in the industry.
In the US, the entertainment industry has always been a powerful tool in influencing popular culture by way of the various number of images shown in movies, television, and music (Masuda, 2005). Symbolic subversive politics has been said to be closely connected to political practice through the role of the mass media (Osborne and Segal, 1994). This is why celebrities have become almost an obsession in American society, with ordinary people following their every move, and tuning in on how these celebrities think, feel, vote, dress, and even the kind of linen they use at home.
High-profile entertainers such as Madonna have been acknowledged by sociologists and cultural analysts for having the power to form and set the different trends of mainstream American culture (Masuda, 2005). The fact that celebrities are idolized means they play a pivotal role in helping to define or assert certain causes and issues, such as feminism. Feminism has been defined as “belief in social, political and economic equality of the sexes, and the movement organized around the belief that gender should not be the pre-determinant factor shaping a person’s social identity, or socio-political or economic rights” (Wikipedia, 2006).
Madonna’s name has been much aligned with this belief for equality between men and women – sometimes in a negative way, but oftentimes in a positive way. A viewer simply tuning in to one of her music videos, particularly her 1980s and 1990s videos, may not always be conscious of how feminism plays a role in Madonna’s work. It is easy to only see and focus on the performer gyrating in sexy outfits or indulging in outrageous behavior both in her professional and private life.
But a closer analysis will show that Madonna’s work imparts very powerful, if subliminal, messages regarding women empowerment. And that the way she lives her life is already a testament on what women can achieve if they refuse to be constricted by the boundaries that society traditionally sets.
Madonna during the early years
Madonna debuted into the music business in 1982. Initially, Madonna was more popular for her fashion sense, which was constantly evolving, and her sexually suggestive music videos and performances, rather than her musical ability. As one of the fashion icons of the 1980s, who can forget Madonna’s lacy fingerless gloves, polka-dot dresses, leggings, and teased hair? Then there was her much-talked about “cone” bra-corset number. Even though her voice was often likened to that of Minnie Mouse, it cannot be denied that Madonna was and still is an amazing performer.
Madonna’s career as an entertainer has spanned over two decades, and to this day she continues to have a huge impact on American popular culture (Masuda, 2005).
The performer has always treated her body as her vehicle to success, and it is this vehicle which she has used, consciously or unconsciously, to influence and reflect American popular culture, mainly through her songs, music videos, shows, and public appearances. Her influence as a celebrity has contributed greatly in building presence and visibility for the various causes that Madonna has vocally supported throughout her career (Masuda, 2005).
Her influence has been so far-reaching that Madonna has been attributed for either leading the pack or at least contributing to the growing popularity of various fashion, cultural or social trends in the US (Masuda, 2005).
The performer’s attitude, especially during her younger years, was that women can be as powerful and domineering as men. Madonna emphasized that women should be free to express their opinions, and should be allowed to be as open and as comfortable about their sexual desires as men have always been (Masuda, 2005).
Although Madonna has been widely criticized for using her body to promote blatant, almost vulgar sexuality, as the performer matured, Madonna advocates have pointed out that she used her body not merely to seduce the opposite sex, but to exert power and control over men (Masuda, 2005).
Criticisms against Madonna
Early on in her career, Madonna proudly pledged to front the “future of feminism.” Being the original strong, independent female role model that many younger performers have tried to emulate, Madonna was considered a trailblazer as she brazenly and fearlessly asserted herself in the music business.
Madonna as a cultural product has always used her body to reflect and interpret societal beliefs and ideology. She has also used her body to mold these beliefs into judgments and standards which have helped to define standards of beauty and sexuality for women. For instance, with the music video for “Material Girl”, Madonna emulated Marilyn Monroe, and thereby emphasized that a curvy, voluptuous body was what was considered beautiful and sexy at that time (Masuda, 2005). With that song, Madonna also pointed out the obsession of women at that period — around early 1980s — with materialism – of going for men with money and power. This sends out the message to women that to attract a rich man, she needed to be a bombshell like Marilyn Monroe, and that to land a guy with money, women would necessarily have to use their bodies and sexuality.
Madonna’s work has been criticized for being full of contradiction. Feminism has traditionally involved demanding that women should not be treated as a collection of body parts, and that they should be given the same “dignity of an equally intelligent and capable member of society” (Boteach, 2004). But Madonna is teaching women, and worse young girls, that in order to get ahead in this world, one must get naked and use their bodies.
Even as she attempts to mock or paradox patriarchal societal forms, at the same time it can be said that Madonna herself submits and conforms to these very norms. The performer is undeniably attractive, and always stylishly and expensively dressed, and this overall packaging contributes much to her success as a performer and popular culture icon. If Madonna were a plain-looking, overweight woman, she would hardly be in a position to demand such attention or need for power and control. This has been widely regarded as in total contrast for everything which feminism traditionally stood for. In supposedly submitting that women should be themselves and should assert themselves, Madonna nevertheless indicates that to do this, one needs to be an attractive and sexy woman in the first place. In this aspect, Madonna has been said to conform to male standards that women need to be beautiful and sexy in order to get noticed (Boteach, 2004; Pham, 2006).
From a feminist perspective, this has been widely criticized since Madonna sends the message that a woman has to use her body to be successful. “[F]eminists mistakenly believe that a woman’s right to simulate masturbation at a concert is empowering. It’s all part of the women’s rights movement, translated as a woman’s right to do whatever she damned well pleases. But since when is behaving like a man’s sex slave a form of empowerment?” (Boteach, 2004).
Although Madonna says that a woman should stand on equal footing with a man in terms of power and dominance, in her early videos Madonna sends out this message, ironically, while dressed in skimpy outfits such as garter belts, vampy high heels, and bustiers. Critics point out how these contradicting images make it difficult for a woman to convey or demand respect, since they must necessarily use their bodies and be sexy in order to dominate or control (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003).
And although her music videos such as “Express Yourself” tells women that they should learn to respect themselves, Madonna nevertheless dances around in a sexy outfit, and is even showed chained to a bed in the same video. Madonna has defended this act by stating that this was merely an expression of her own sexuality – it was about a woman being comfortable with her own sexual needs and fantasies, that no man subjected her to that state, and that there was no masculine command compelling her to crawl on the floor or chain herself to a bed. Her critics point out that a woman who claims to stand for female empowerment should not prance around in her underwear because this inevitably sends a conflicting message to women, whether consciously or unconsciously by the performer (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003).
In dancing around in her underwear and other skimpy outfits, the tendency then is for the viewers to focus on Madonna’s body, rather than on the message she is allegedly sending about empowering women.
Anti-Madonna advocates question how wearing her cone-shaped bras, appearing in pornographic movies and videos, and simulating oral sex and masturbation, could possibly be symbols of feminism (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003). In fact even Madonna herself has admitted that her early 1980s overtly sexual behavior was a “mistake” (Lycos News, 2003). In the more than two decades of her career, Madonna has been much criticized for destroying the female recording industry by eliminating the line that separates music from pornography (Boteach, 2004).
Prior to Madonna, it has been pointed out by Madonna antagonist that many other female singers became well-known for their singing voice, not their cleavages or blatant sexuality, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand. Madonna set the trend of exposing one’s body in order to sell albums, and thus influenced younger singers today such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (Boteach, 2004).
Regardless of Madonna making amends for her x-rated behavior or not, the point remains that she does send out conflicting and contradictory messages to society. On the one hand she tells us that women should be allowed the same amount of power and dominance that men enjoy in a traditional society. But on the other hand, her early videos tell us at the same time that to achieve this power and dominance, women have to subject themselves to looking like prostitutes and using their bodies to be successful.
It has further been argued that Madonna is the ultimate PR dream – the greatest marketing campaign in the history of advertising (Sexton, 2006). It has been widely admitted that Madonna is not much of a singer. If she were, why then would she constantly need to reinvent herself instead of just allowing her music to speak for itself? Her critics claim the answer is due to the way feminists buy into the false and imagery image that Madonna created as advocating her role as a feminist advocate. Madonna is mistakenly taken as “a rebellious agent of subversive thought compared with the truth of Madonna as one of the foremost practitioners of capitalism the world has ever produced” (Sexton, 2006).
Germaine Greer, a leading feminist authors in Australia, has criticized Madonna for abandoning her prior self-declared commitment to front the “future of feminism.” Madonna has been criticized for focusing more on religion, marriage, and motherhood instead of focusing on her role as a strong feminist role model for women everywhere. According to Greer, “She used to call herself the ‘future of feminism.’ Then she got DIY religion, married an Englishman and crumbled before our eyes. She started telling us that all she wanted to be was a good wife and mother, even though she worked out strenuously every day that she was hone to breaking point” (Star Pulse, 2006, quoting Germaine Greer).
The fact that Madonna also stages extravagant and lavish stage shows has also been much criticized by feminists around the world. Her Confessions tour in particular was much lambasted since Madonna was lowered onto the stage standing on a cross made out of disco-mirror. According to Greer, “Madonna’s massive cross was supposed to be covered with diamonds and Swarovski crystals, which seems a bit excessive, especially as behind were projected images of African Aids orphans” (Star Pulse, 2006, quoting Germaine Greer).
Madonna antagonists worry as well about the message that the performer sends out to young girls who may get the idea that the only way to get ahead in this world is to use their bodies and to take advantage of people. According to an anti-Madonna website, “Madonna does not give one whit or one iota about female rights or making the world a better place for women. Madonna cares only about selling albums, making a buck, and holding on to her fame: she is a slut, not a champion for women” (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003).
Feminism is “largely motivated by or concerned with the liberation of women” (Wikipedia, 2006). Traditional gender identities between men and women are socially constructed and have often placed women at a disadvantaged position. Feminism advocates themselves have differing views on the sources of inequality, how to attain equality, and to what extent gender identities should be questions or criticized (Wikipedia, 2006). As such, Madonna’s influence on feminism has often been praised from various angles and perspectives, yet there is one common and undeniable fact: Madonna has been influential in the feminist movement, whether she intended to or not during her career.
One of Madonna’s major impacts on feminism is how she has influenced the way women perceived their bodies and sexuality. According to Masuda, in discussing the theories of Michel Foucault, “bodies have the potential for exerting power and can be propelled to demonstrate this power through the institutions that are perceived by the public to be knowledgeable” (Masuda, 2005).
In other words, society, subconsciously and maybe even consciously, attaches certain power and knowledge on institutions such as the entertainment industry, thereby placing it in a position where it can inform the public of its own judgments and standards of beauty. The entertainment industry, and the performers moving within that industry, sends out images to women on what is deemed beautiful or fashionable or attractive. In short, media has helped to define the standards of beauty in American popular culture.
According to Judith Butler (1999), author of the book Gender Trouble – Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, identity-based politics has always been a method for female emancipation. Social power systems and institutions such as the entertainment industry have constructed norms regarding the ”natural” gender identities attached to men and women. These “natural” gender identities have traditionally relegated women to a subordinate role and are marginalized compared to men (Butler, 1999, p. 190). Madonna can be credited for breaking down and contradicting these traditional female stereotypes.
In refusing to be restricted to traditional gender identities, Madonna has succeeded in portraying the empowered female as someone who can participate “in a range of identities – such as the lesbian heterosexual, a heterosexual lesbian, a male lesbian, a female gay man, or even a feminist sex-radical” (Schwichtenberg, 1993, p. 141). It is her role as a feminist sex-radical which Madonna can be credited for contributing to the feminist cause.
According to Foucault, “individuals inscribe power on their bodies, in effect preserving hegemonic models of the human subject” (Masuda, 2005, quoting Michel Foucault). Furthermore, “the body [is] a site of political, cultural, and geographical inscriptions, production, or constitution” (Masuda, 2005, quoting Elizabeth Grosz). Thus, Madonna has been responsible for a hegemonic culture since she uses her body to persuade society in believing that she has the authoritative knowledge on what and how women should behave, feel, and dress.
It can be argued also that Madonna’s body is a cultural product which not only interprets and reflects culture; she also produces and projects these various interpretations into images that in turn influences popular culture (Masuda, 2005). It is a cycle that leaves Madonna in a very strong position to influence society by reflecting the various and ever-changing definitions and standards of beauty and women’s role by the way she always reinvents her image. More significantly, Madonna’s example has been followed and simulated by women across America.
Madonna antagonists insist that the performer’s work has actually set back the feminist movement by further subjecting women as sex symbols who need to use their bodies to get ahead in a world dominated by men. These critics however seem to be too caught up precisely in submitting to the norms and traditional gender identities in a male-dominated society. They fail to see that Madonna mocks these norms rather than simply reflecting them (Pham, 2006) in the messages that can be gleaned from her songs, videos, and even in the way she lives her personal life.
In Madonna’s case, the message she sends out to women, and society as a whole, on beauty, is mainly through the way Madonna uses her body. From the clothes she wears, the songs she sings, her sexual acts, and the way she dances, Madonna is constantly sending out a message to women that it is all right to be sexual and to be as powerful and domineering as men. More than anything perhaps, Madonna has informed women that it is all right to constantly reinvent one’s self. The performer’s staying power in the industry has been attributed to the fact that Madonna constantly changes her image to keep up with the changing times. She changes her hairstyle, her fashion, and even the quality of her songs and videos, just to stay on top of the game. In this whirl of reinvention, Madonna’s body has always been her vehicle for success.
Critics have lambasted Madonna for using her body and her sexuality to become successful. Her overt sexuality and desire for control has often been labeled as “slutty,” “manipulative” and “whorish” (Mistry, 2000). But argument against this criticism is that Madonna, rather than submitting to feminist traits attributed to being a women by conventional society, uses her femininity – and this necessarily includes one’s body – to get what she wants.
A woman after all cannot be expected to battle it out in exactly the same way that men do precisely because women are not men. Women must then use whatever ammunition they have at their disposal – ammunition being translated into female traits, attributes, and physical characteristics that men do not possess.
This argument is aligned with that proposed by Karen Offen (1988), who recognizes “the validity of women’s own interpretation of their lived experiences and needs” (p. 152). There is said to be an “institutionalized injustice perpetrated by men as a group against women as a group” (Offen, 1988, p. 152). Women like Madonna, through her work, advocates for the elimination of this injustice by challenging societal structures on authority and power that have traditionally only been attributed to male members of our society (Wikipedia, 2006). In her music videos, Madonna asserts this concept by shifting authority and power from the male to the female, and thereby encourages women to not only interpret their own experiences and needs, but to actually aggressively pursue them.
In the music video “Express Yourself”, for instance, Madonna shed the prior curvy, voluptuous persona she embodied in her early 1980s music video for “Material Girl.” In “Express Yourself,” Madonna emerged with a more muscular and toned physique, sending out the new image of a strong, powerful, and dominant woman. The video has been credited for capturing “the shift in portrayals of women to a more dominant position” (Masuda, 2005).
In the music video, this shift of power was shown in the way Madonna was in charge of a factory composed of muscular male workers (all shirtless). The video showed how Madonna made these male workers perform different acts upon her command, like crawling and begging on their knees. Madonna sings, “You’ve got to make him express himself/ to lift you to your higher ground, make you feel like the queen on a throne.”
With this song and this music video, Madonna tells us that women should not be afraid to express what they need from men, and to demand what they want. It tells us that women should take the role of the aggressor or the boss who should expect men to give them what is their due, and that such control or domination is not only within a man’s power but within a woman’s as well. Madonna sends out the message that women should never settle for less and should demand the best from men, even when it comes to subjects which are generally regarded as taboo by a conventional society – such as sex.
This message of control and domination by women is more explicitly shown in Madonna’s music video “Vogue” where the performer appears wearing a masculine suit. Similar to “Express Yourself,” Madonna is shown here in the position of power – a boss – supervising male “employees” who dance and stop dancing at Madonna’s command (Masuda, 2005). This sends the message that women can be in control, and can pull the strings to tell men exactly what they want or don’t want from them.
In the same song, Madonna also says “beauty’s where you find it” and this tells women that they should not feel confined to adhering to standards or definitions of beauty, and that beauty is subjective – it depends on the individual’s own concept of what is beautiful or what makes her feel beautiful.
Ironically, even though Madonna herself has been credited for helping to shape standards on what is considered beautiful for women, she also tells us that women should judge themselves according to what they personally feel makes them beautiful. Women should not measure their own beauty and self-worth based on what men, and society as a whole, dictate. There is an implied encouragement that women should just be themselves, and should not feel pressured to conform to conventional standards of beauty.
According to Masuda (2005), “[t]his new image of a dominant woman in control, as performed by Madonna, corresponded with the trend of an increase of women in power in America.”
Thus, through the ever changing images of her body, as she constantly reinvents herself, Madonna has been influential in empowering women by showing that traits such as power, control and dominance can be attributed to women, and not just men. Her emphasis on a masculine body, in contrast to traditional preferences of curvy, voluptuous women forms, also empowered women in that it tells society that it is all right for women to have strong, masculine bodies. “With these images, she promoted equality between men and women and reinforced the idea that women can perform the same roles as men with equal effectiveness” (Masuda, 2005).
In her song “Human Nature,” Madonna tries to rationalize for her Sex book which caused a lot of controversy. Madonna explains that sex is part of human nature and that women, like men, should be allowed to freely express their sexuality, and should be allowed to demand satisfaction of their sexual needs and fantasies.
In saying that women should be able to express their sexual desires like men, Madonna also justifies that pornography for women should be just as acceptable as pornography for men – something which for the latter has been more wildly acceptable, as can be evidenced in popular culture symbols such as Playboy. However, her critics say that pornography degrades any human being, whether you happen to be a man or a woman, and that it does not become morally acceptable simply because the gender of its creator happens to be a woman (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003).
As to Madonna’s attitude towards pornography, “she uses the currency of pornography to challenge the idea of women as passive sex objects” (Mistry, 2000). Her music video, “Open Your Heart” has been criticized for hints of pedophilia, true, but other studies point out that there is a larger, more important message present in the video. The video shows Madonna performing pornographic acts, and charging men money for peeping and watching through a small screen. Skeggs (1993) points out that “as their money runs out and the screen slowly closes they are shown, contorting to try and see through the last minute slit. They look pathetic, silly and desperate” (p. 68). In “The Blonde Ambition Tour,” Madonna is seen performing sexual acts on male dancers where she is in the “top” position – a position which has traditionally been reserved for men (Skeggs, 1993, p. 68).
Although Madonna’s unashamed use of pornography, as the ultimate example of equality between men and women as it allows for women to express their sexual needs as openly as men, has been much criticized for the mere fact that pornography is degrading to any person, whether they happen to be a man or woman, it cannot be denied that exerting a woman’s right to pornography was a bold and unprecedented move. Men do access and enjoy pornography, and even though this has never quite been openly acknowledged as acceptable, there are still many mediums and avenues for men to enjoy pornography.
In other words, it is something that society has quietly, if grudgingly for some circles, accepted. But for women, there are hardly any opportunities or avenues at all, and even less acceptance. A woman who enjoys pornography would even be regarded as shocking, perverted or vulgar. By pointing out the woman’s right to not be defined by different moral standards as men with respect to pornography, Madonna’s demonstrations on female controlled pornography have been cited as an indication of female power (Flea Dip The Anti-Madonna Site, 2003).
This message of Madonna’s wherein she asserts that women should have equal rights with men to express their need for pleasure and sexual needs is supported by the works of another ardent feminist, Marilyn French. French has criticized society for placing too much value on power, control, and dominance, and forgetting life, pleasure, and happiness as key components for human survival (Wikipedia, 2006).
According to French:
“[I]t is not enough either to devise a morality that will allow the human race simply to survive. Survival is an evil when it entails existing in a state of wretchedness. Intrinsic to survival and continuation is felicity/pleasure. Pleasure has been much maligned, diminished by philosophers and conquerors as a value for the timid, the small-minded and the self-indulgent. ‘Virtue’ too often involves the renunciation of pleasure in the name of some higher purpose, a purpose that involves power (for men) or sacrifice (for women). Pleasure is described as shallow and frivolous in a world of high-minded, serious purpose. But pleasure does not exclude serious pursuits or intentions, indeed, it is found in them, and it is the only real reason for staying alive” (Wikipedia, 2006, quoting Marilyn French, 1985, from Beyond Power).
Pleasure then is a necessary tool for survival, but the problem with our patriarchal, macho-dominated society is that it is generally the male who can openly pursue such pleasure and express the need thereof. Women have traditionally expected to be “virtuous” and to abstain from pursuit of such pleasure, sexual or otherwise.
Thus despite criticisms on Madonna’s use of her body to express a woman’s sexual desires and fantasies, or even her views on women’s right to pornography, it cannot be denied that Madonna has broken down traditional gender identities which have long differentiated between men’s and women’s desires. Society has drawn a distinction between the sexes, creating a “duality of sex,” wherein anything that falls outside these distinctions as to what should be masculine or feminine traits is regarded as “pathological, hence the marginalization of the ‘assertive female,’ the ‘effeminate man,’ the ‘lipstick lesbian,’ and the ‘macho gay’” (Sawicki, 1994, p. 301). Assertiveness is thus a trait which, since it is not traditionally associated with women, is usually frowned upon by conventional society – whether it be assertiveness at home, at work, or in bed, as Madonna points out in her songs and music videos.
The freedom to express female sexuality has always been one of the main characteristics of what has been described as Madonna’s sexual politics. “She communicates this by taking on a ‘butch’ role in the sense that she reappropriates the mechanisms used to control women” (Skeggs, 1993, p. 67). Madonna then reappropriates these mechanisms by using them to control men instead, as seen in subliminal messages in her videos “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”, and this sends a powerful message on women empowerment.
The performer has also been shown to reject this traditional notion of men being subjected to male scrutiny, particularly when performing sexual acts or in how they should regard their sexuality. Media, in particular, has often subjected women’s bodies into various forms of entertainment, such as shows like Baywatch wherein men ogle women prancing around in skimpy bathing suits in the beach. Women themselves have unconsciously or subconsciously consented to this as they condone shows, videos, and other media images that emphasize a woman’s body. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Mulvey, 1975; Berger 1972, p. 47). In the way her music videos are structured, Madonna tells us that it is all right for women to scrutinize men and their bodies as well, that it is all right for women to treat men’s bodies as objects they can bend to their will.
More importantly, by the images and shots in her music videos, Madonna tells women that it is all right to view men and their bodies that way; “’looking at men is treated as something to be blatant and positive about,’ instead of the usual case where ‘women often avert their eyes in modesty and submission to the gaze of the male audience’” (Mistry, 2000, quoting Skeggs, 1993, p. 69 and van Zoonen, 1994, p. 101).
It is all right for women to self-indulge in enjoying men’s bodies, whether by simply watching or by overt sexual acts, in the same way that men have traditionally been condoned by societal systems to enjoy women’s bodies. As a feminist sex-radical, Madonna claims “I can be a sex symbol, but I don’t have to be a victim” (Robertson, 1996, p. 127).
Even in her private life, Madonna has been an example of appropriating “masculine” power. Unlike many other female artists, Madonna has always been completely in control of her own career and image (Skeggs, 1993, p. 64; Robertson, 1996, p. 127). Her financial power has also been estimated at approximately $200 million (Williams, 1999, p. 127) – wealth which traditionally has been attributed to shrewd, powerful businessmen, not women.
That Madonna has such wealth and control over her career and finances shows that female domination is indeed possible. Even though she receives input from songwriters, producers, and record company executives, all the decisions about her career ultimately boil down to only Madonna herself. She has no financial stake in any of her movies, and is considered “a paid employee and whether the film is a hit or miss, it won’t really affect her career, which is based on singing, videos, and, well, just being Madonna. Her ability to create an ever-changing persona for herself is based not just upon boredom but necessity” (Sexton, 2006). In this way, Madonna exhibits complete control over her professional career.
And though Madonna has been criticized for her musical ability – or more precisely, the lack of it – it cannot be denied that Madonna has had immense staying power and longevity. While it is true that sexuality plays an prime role in her albums, Madonna never really pushes it to the limit. For instance, in her book Sex, although containing suggestive pictures of a naked Madonna, never really reaches the point wherein Madonna is said or pictured to have taken part in actual sexual intercourse. The truth is, much of the pictures in her book have been described as “barely distinguishable from advertisements in many high fashion magazines today” (Sexton, 2006). In other words, not one picture in her book can be characterized as hard-core pornography. “Like so much of Madonna’s career, Sex is a simulation. It is simulate sex, it is watered down porn, it is acceptable – for the majority – erotica” (Sexton, 2006).
After all, sex has been a major tool in business success, despite conservatism in the US. And Madonna’s career is the best example of the power of sex to sell (Sexton, 2006). Yet it cannot be said that sex is everything and the only thing that Madonna has to offer. For if it was, why else would the performer still be enjoying such success today? Why else would she have been able to outlive her contemporaries in the music industry?
The answer is perhaps because Madonna is not merely peddling her body or her sexuality. Madonna conveys something to her audience, no matter what generation, that actually inspires women to come to terms with their own bodies and sexuality. According to Camille Paglia, “Madonna is the true feminist…Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their live” (1990, p. 39). In stressing female empowerment, Madonna has nevertheless placed great value on other feminine traits aside from power and dominance – that of motherhood and being a wife. Being a feminist should not be about being butch or aping men. Feminism embraces all attributes of femininity – being strong, being nurturing, being independent, being loving.
It is precisely this insistence on not being reduced to restrictions and limitations that makes Madonna such a strong role model for feminism. A woman can be sexual and powerful but can be a good wife and mother at the same time. When Madonna was asked in an interview what she found to be the most surprising thing about motherhood, she replied “How much I could love something” (Hirschberg, 1991, p. 196-8; William, 1999, p. 46). Madonna’s evident love for her husband and children was never treated by the performer as undermining her capability for control (Mistry, 2000).
In “Express Yourself” Madonna is shown wearing a suit which she teasingly opens to show a black lace bra underneath her jacket. This suggests that gender identity is merely something “put-on” or constructed by external image or expectations (Schwichtenberg, 1993, p. 135). Gender identity, or masculinity in this case, is merely something external, and created by the way we are taught to act, but it need not be all-encompassing. In other words, power and control should not be attributed to a person merely because of his or her gender. Also, “Madonna can be seen to mock male power and identity by reducing gender and sex to the level of fashion and style” (Schwichtenberg, 1993, p. 134).
Her “Material Girl” music video has been much criticized for Madonna’s imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and in seemingly placing much value on blondness, sexuality, gold-digging, and materialism as elements of the 1980s crass materialism (Robertson, 1996, p. 126). However, feminist studies argue that Madonna is actually portraying a more worldly and astute Marilyn Monroe in this video, as opposed to the traditional treatment of Marilyn Monroe as a “witless sex object” (Robertson, 1996, p. 126). Instead of playing up the femme fatale image, as criticized by others, Madonna is actually manipulating the femme fatale role created by society and attached to beautiful women. “[B]y imitating Monroe as one of a succession of images in her career, Madonna mocks femininity as a ‘meta-masquerade’” (Mistry, 2000).
Madonna has also been credited for successful blurring the boundaries between sex, gender, and desire in videos such as “Justify My Love” (Mistry, 2000). In that video, Madonna is seen engaging in various types of sexual acts with a former gay porn model, and different androgynous figures. What she seems to be telling us is that the labels society attaches as to sex, gender, and desire, are not always causal or constant, and may change even within individuals themselves (Henderson, 1993, p. 111; Mistry, 2000).
It should also be pointed out that Madonna is not the only performer who has attempted to push the boundaries of sexuality, gender and desire through her music. Michael Jackson, RuPaul and Prince have used similar techniques, but what makes Madonna so unique is that the is the first woman who attempted this (Pham, 2006). According to Robertson (1996), “Madonna has sometimes been compared to performance rock stars, especially David Bowie, because of her shifting images and play with gender roles. Gender bending in performance rock, was, however, primarily a masculine privilege” (p. 124). Historically, thus, men in the performance industry were given more leeway than women to push the envelope, and to explore such issues relating to sexuality and gender. One typical example: male rock stars using eyeliners and nail polish, such as Boy George. This is why women strongly identify to the sense of individualism and autonomy that Madonna conveys not only through her career but in the way she lives her life (Pham, 2006).
The way Madonna resorts, consciously or unconsciously, to gender bending is through her use of parody and “feminist camp” in her songs and especially in her music videos. Feminist camp is defined as “image and culture making processes through which women have traditionally been given access” (Robertson, 1996, p. 9). This involves women accepting roles, attached to her gender by a conventional, macho society, wherein she is weak, submissive, and dependent on men (Pham, 2006). Madonna symbolically contradicts all these conventional, patriarchal notions of what a woman should be and how she should act. Through her work, Madonna presents an alternative to women – that they can express their sexuality comfortable, even use it to get ahead, and that they deserve the same amount of respect and options that men have.
Madonna’s work is said to mirror Butler’s concept of gender trouble, and presents Madonna as a “true feminist.” However, a more critical analysis of Madonna’s work shows that a lot of factors actually undermine its subversive potential, and that Madonna actually “appropriates from sexual subcultures for her own ends rather than for the ends of those from which she borrows. Moreover, there is reason to believe much of her work is not subversive at all” (Mistry, 2000).
The subversive potential of Madonna’s work, with regard to breaking down traditional gender identities and female stereotypes, is that audiences may not necessarily get these messages as they focus too much on the overt sexuality and nakedness in her music videos. Despite the praise attached to Madonna’s work for its influence on women empowerment, interpretations of her videos usually lead to one common opinion of Madonna as “a classic object of male desire” (Brown and Schulze, 1990, p. 100) rather than “an escape from a patriarchal construction of woman as ‘something to be looked at’” (Mistry, 2000, quoting from Brown and Schulze, 1990, p. 97).
The common interpretation of viewing Madonna as merely a sex symbol, rather than as a vehicle for women empowerment, has been said to signal “either an unwillingness or inability of society to embrace the idea of female sexuality; this is not restricted to men either – even Madonna’s young female fans describe her as ‘tarty’” (Bradby, 1994, p. 79). Traditional gender identities and female stereotypes have thus reduced Madonna’s sexual expression to vulgarism or prostitution. Even her “parodic presentations of femme fatales are not read ironically; if this is the case, all that is left is the makeup, high-heels and long hair, reinforcing the idea that women’s only purpose in life is to serve men” (Mistry, 2000). Kaplan (1993) provides that there is a need to thus determine “if Madonna subverts the patriarchal feminine by unmasking it or whether she ultimately reinscribes [it] by allowing her body to be recuperated for voyeurism’ (p. 156).
Madonna’s revolving image has also been criticized not for empowering women, but as merely driven by the performer’s own consumer-interest and thirst for the financial bottom line. “Like Barbie, Madonna sells because, like Mattel, she constantly updates the model – Boy Toy Madonna, Material Girl Madonna, Thin Madonna, Madonna in Drag, S&M Madonna, and so on” (Robertson, 1996, p. 123).
However, there have been strong arguments against Madonna critics. With regard to her constant need to reinvent her image as merely a marketing ploy, it has been argued that Madonna in doing so actually helps to redefine traditional standards of beauty – that women can be strong and muscular but still be considered sexy at the same time. By paradoxing bombshells such as Marilyn Monroe, Madonna tells us that a curvy, voluptuous woman need not be the victim under the “sex object” label but should use it to her advantage. Even though this has been likewise criticized for using the body as a tool for manipulation, it should be pointed out that many men use the mere fact that they are men to manipulate women as well. Some men attribute power, control and success from the mere fact of their malehood. This in not any different from Madonna’s use of her body as a vehicle to success, because gender identities are precisely that: attributing certain qualities as masculine and feminine based on one’s physical being. Rather than submitting thus to such female stereotypes, Madonna encourages women to use these female attributes to get ahead.
Her role in gender bending through her work has no doubt brought much fame and money to Madonna, but it cannot be said that all her controversial work was done for profit alone. Madonna continues to relay a strong message to women: that they can be in control of their own destiny instead of merely submitting to male standards of propriety (Pham, 2006) or simply accepting the conventional roles that traditional gender identities have attached to women as submissive to men.
By using feminist camp in her music videos and performances, Madonna breaks down societal stereotypes of women, and pushes the limits of femininity as defined by a patriarchal society but then at the same time turns it around and defies such restrictions. Pornography was and always remains a moral issue, but what Madonna tells us is as long as it remains a moral issue, why then should there be different moral standards for men and women with regard to such a taboo subject? If men can freely express their sexual needs and desires through pornography, why then should women be denied the same option? Furthermore, Madonna stresses that by using one’s body, a woman actually has a chance to reinvent societal expectations. Men regard beautiful, sexy women as sex objects alone. Rather than simply submitting to this stereotype, women should use it to their advantage. Instead of being a victim, Madonna tells women that feminine qualities – whether emotional or physical – can be used as a tool to gain control, and yes even to manipulate, in a very male-dominated society. This right to demand for power and control also need not sacrifice other ideals of womanhood – such as being a wife and a mother. And in juggling both roles – both as a woman in control and a nurturing woman – Madonna has proven to be extremely successful in her professional and private life.
Thus, by serving as an inspiration to women everywhere to take control of their careers and ultimately their lives, Madonna has been very successful at gender bending and in advancing the cause of feminism.
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