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Madonna's Revenge

What Madonna has given to American culture, and culture throughout the world, is not a collection of songs; rather, it is a collection of images.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #9, November 1993

'Do we care what people think of us? No!'
— Madonna and her entourage address the camera in the film Truth or Dare (1991)

Madonna is not a musician. Certainly, she achieved fame within the music industry, but perhaps it might be more accurate to say that she began to be famous within the music industry. For what Madonna has given to American culture, and culture throughout the world, is not a collection of songs; rather, it is a collection of images. Madonna's images of herself, and increasingly of her own fans, have become popular shorthand for what gender and sexuality might look like for a whole generation coming of age in the 90s. Conservative public intellectual Camille Paglia has lauded Madonna's open flaunting of her 'whore's ancient rule over men' (Sex, Art, and American Culture, 1992), while academics in fields from theology to queer studies have written literally volumes on what Madonna's stardom means for gender relations, for American culture, and for the future.

But clearly, Madonna is history. Her rise to fame during the 1980s with smash hit songs such as 'Material Girl' and 'Like a Virgin' culminated in the early 90s with her transformation into a self-conscious icon of gender confusion. The avant-garde documentary Truth or Dare (1991), which chronicles her 'Blonde Ambition Tour,' and the book Sex, her self-proclaimed 'aesthetic' representation of sexual fantasy, mark the moment at which Madonna ceased to be a hot commodity and became instead a comment upon herself as a star. This, again, is part and parcel of the way her image has evolved over the past decade. And it would appear that Madonna's evolution as a star is in direct relationship with the way she has responded to the popular reception of her work.

This, one might say, seems rather obvious. If any individual or corporation desires to retain a power it has gained, it must answer to the desires of those who help to make it powerful in the first place. For Madonna, fans of her music and critics of her image are her most important consumers and promoters. In large part, her fans have been juveniles, mostly female; and her critics have been intellectuals, mostly involved in the study of gender, sexuality, and the mass media. Madonna has two — mostly divergent — target markets here. Her juvenile audience, called during the 80s 'Madonna-wannabes,' can be relied upon to purchase her CDs, fashion accessories, videos, and tickets to her latest feature film (although her films have, with the exception of Desperately Seeking Susan, largely gone unnoticed).

The market for Madonna among intellectual cultural critics is obviously smaller, but nevertheless important. Paglia's endorsement of Madonna in her bestselling works of non-fiction no doubt lend an aura of legitimacy to Madonna's work; and academics such as John Fiske and E. Ann Kaplan have represented Madonna to their academic audiences as a moment in which popular culture imitates critical theories of history, knowledge, and human identity. For university communities, academic endorsement of this kind has led to the inclusion of Madonna-as-text in the contemporary college classroom. Madonna occupies a definite place in the post-Western Cultures curriculum at universities everywhere — she might be taught alongside Spike Lee and Amy Tan as one 'identity' among many in a multicultural America.

Madonna is, in the early 90s, a cross-over act — those who legislate intellectual taste preferences have given her their stamp of approval, and furthermore, she has been lauded by one of the hippest (and most visible) 'alternative' communities around: the homosexual community. Like the juvenile and intellectual target markets Madonna has reached, the 'queer' markets have also avidly consumed Madonna's image and claimed a part of it as their own. This is perhaps most noticeable in male-to-female transvestite and lesbian communities, where Madonna 'dress up' is all the rage. But her popularity among homosexuals goes beyond their desire to imitate her style, for Madonna is one of the only powerful entertainment figures in America who celebrates and represents queer sexualities in her work. Truth or Dare features Madonna's entourage of homosexual male dancers, and her videos Justify My Love and Erotica contain explicit references to lesbian sexuality, as well as a few other kinds of minority sexualities like S/M. Madonna's act has truly crossed over, but she has crossed over from the mainstream to the margin.

This is not what we expect from a crossing-over in the entertainment industry. A 'cross-over' act, like Grunge band Nirvana, moves from an entertainment subculture toward mainstream popularity. When Vanity Fair (August 1993) promoted k.d. lang as a 'crossing over' act, the publication traced her career from sexual minority status (lesbian) and musical subculture (Country-Western) to sexy pinup gal — photographed with Cindy Crawford — and MTV sensation. The grief and heated debate sparked by k. d. lang and the new 'lesbian chic,' or Nirvana and the Grunge craze, is in most part due to the way minority cultures have felt abandoned by their own particular icons — who, now famous, are 'contaminated' by their answerability to an homogenizing mass market audience.

Madonna, by contrast, has become in recent years the idiosyncratic female icon of a 'post-gender' queer community and academic theory communities. The work she has done since the 1980s is not intended to be entirely comprehensible for a wide audience — juveniles, not yet educated in film or art history, will not likely understand 'subversive' references to Marlene Dietrich or lesbian photography of fin-de-siecle France contained in Madonna's recent work, nor are they likely to care either. It is also important to recall that Madonna has not been reabsorbed into some subculture she occupied before her fame. She became famous as a pop icon, not as a marginal figure who 'sold out' or accidentally hit the big time. Madonna made herself over into a symbol for, and promoter of, minority sexual and intellectual cultures as a result of those cultures having already responded to her as such. Is this, then, some Utopian account of the give-and-take involved in stardom, where Madonna sacrifices her mainstream popularity for the good of university curricula and queer people everywhere? Not hardly, as one of Madonna's former juvenile fans might say.

It is indeed Madonna's attention to her minority reception which has undone her mass appeal. The salient question to ask here, then, would be: so what's in it for Madonna? Why did she cross over into the margins of culture; and why did she see to it that her work became too sophisticated and avant-garde for mass distribution? To answer, we will take a detour through Madonna's images of herself during the course of her career. Precisely to the extent that Madonna's career has become intertwined with the history of the 1980s, and particularly the kinds of gendered and sexual representations popular during that era, we must also take into account what was going on outside, as well as inside, Madonna's work.

Ultimately, what I'll offer here is a way of understanding Madonna as an exemplary case study of gender and sexuality understood in multiculturalist terms. Insofar as she is an example of what minority cultures inside academia and out have endorsed as 'one of their own,' Madonna offers a case history relevant to identity politics — she represents to her fans and critics a fantasy of what their own gendered or sexual identities might mean. To the extent that her minority audiences have responded to Madonna by actively imitating her identity (or its image), understanding the meaning of Madonna's identity is also to understand what it is that people are trying to become when they act and look like Madonna does.

Madonna's rise to fame began in the 1980s, often remembered as The Reagan Era. The 80s were dominated by the image and leadership of conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan, another cross-over phenomenon who went from a mediocre career in the entertainment industry to a prosperous career in the political industry. It was, in fact, during the 1980s that it became commonplace for media commentators to remark upon the disturbing continuity of the two industries' power over American and global citizens.

Moreover, during the 1980s, the AIDS crisis galvanized the homosexual community, and inaugurated a new kind of sexual coming-to-consciousness quite unlike the so-called 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s. While the 80s were a time when American political leadership advocated a return to 'traditional family values' and neo-conservatism, it was also a time when 'non-traditional' sexual communities were discovering new opportunities for organization and public outreach. The safer sex/AIDS awareness movement, and the threat of anti-abortion legislation, became public issues which allowed for renewed, if sometimes covert, debate over homosexuality and women's rights. And finally, it was during the 1980s that the theoretical term 'postmodernism' came into vogue years after it had been first invented by academics and 'pop artists' — much, I would say, like the term 'Freudian analysis' finally hit the big time in American culture of the 1950s long after it had been 'discovered' by intellectuals and the avant-garde.

Madonna, you might say, was born on MTV in 1984 with the release of her video 'Lucky Star,' which featured a her as a young 'post-punk' woman dressed in several rosaries, bangles, black mesh, a wrap-around mini skirt, and, most memorably, a bare belly. Her music was originally identified as part of the 80s 'Dance Music' craze, and she followed up her 'Lucky Star' success with another hit dance single 'Into the Groove' (1985). 'Into the Groove' is a song associated with the height of her 'boy toy' phase, coming as it did soon after her first Number One single 'Like a Virgin,' (a song, incidentally, originally written for a man). The 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan included Madonna as a character who resembled Madonna in nearly every way, and the soundtrack featured 'Into the Groove.' It is one of the only critically-acclaimed films Madonna has ever done (with A League of Their Own being another), and interestingly, she appears only as a supporting character who fuels the romantic fantasies of Roberta, a middle-class suburban housewife looking for adventure. Madonna, in this film, in this 'boy toy' phase, functions as an image of the repressed other half of the neo-traditional 1980s woman.

Madonna's next major image overhaul came when she completely resculpted her body through aerobics and weight training, dyed her hair Marilyn Monroe blonde, and began to wear self-designed lingerie that resembled body armor. Two music videos epitomize this phase: 'Open Your Heart' (1986), in which Madonna portrays herself as a stripper in a peep show gallery, and 'Express Yourself'(1989), in which Madonna dresses up in masculine 'fascist drag,' wears chains, and sings to very wet, well-muscled men who appear to be slaves. 'Express Yourself' has been one of her most talked-about videos, particularly because of the many versions of her image she includes in it. In one scene, there are two Madonnas in the frame, one crawling across the floor like an animal and lapping up milk from a saucer, the other wearing a severe dark suit and watching from a black leather couch. This shot, in particular, serves to illustrate the mutation Madonna's image was undergoing: she's acting out self-consciousness by 'watching herself.' While she had certainly been interested in self-consciously making herself a reference to American female retro-icons in her 1984 'Material Girl' video (where she dresses up like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), 'Express Yourself' gives its viewers a whole new series of image references to traditional American gendered and sexual icons — male and female — and a whole new level of irony.

In a 1991 interview with Us magazine (June 13, 1991), Madonna says, 'You only have to have half a brain in your head to see that I'm quite often making fun of myself. I mean, how obvious can I be?' What is important to think about here is Madonna's relationship to the maintenance of her famous identity. When a product is profitable, it is most often the case that those who sell the product are interested in repeating the formula that fostered success in the first place — this, at any rate, is the safest route to go if you're in the business of marketing. Madonna is quite aware that she is in this business. But instead of simply repeating the product/image formula that gave her success, Madonna chose to repeat it ironically, 'making fun' of her 'boy toy' self, which so many juvenile women had come to emulate in their own style of dress. That is, she was offering her audience a slightly differentiated Madonna image to keep them coming back for more product. This, as anyone knows, is good business sense.

You and I are probably both tired of hearing that the problem with Madonna is that she gets rich off her image while the rest of us pay to imitate or enjoy that image. Rock critic Andrew Goodwin has made this argument succinctly in his recent book on MTV culture, Dancing in the Distraction Factory (1992). At this point, it is patently obvious to nearly any fan or critic of Madonna that they can't be Madonna herself unless they become multi-millionaires. Nevertheless, there is a way that they can imagine themselves as versions of Madonna in their daily lives, and this certainly will affect the way they perceive their own identities and the social world.

Therefore, let me continue for a moment discussing Madonna's relationship to her own identity. During the early 90s, Madonna altered her image and identity once more. With the release of Truth or Dare, the book Sex, and the videos 'Erotica,' 'Vogue,' and even the recent 'Deeper and Deeper,' Madonna finally answered directly to her minority fans and critics in the homosexual and academic communities. She became, as it were, a self-conscious postmodern icon of gender and sexuality. While I realize postmodernism is a contested term and elicits sometimes incomprehensible debates when it gets used, here I intend it to be understood to designate a particular form of representation during a specific historical period. Postmodern representation, as art critic Hal Foster (The Anti-Aesthetic, 1983) and theorist Fredric Jameson (Postmodernism, 1991) have noted, is characterized by ironic self-consciousness and references to other kinds of representations in culture or history. Furthermore, postmodernism occurs in contemporary art and popular culture starting around the 1960s and continuing into the present. Madonna's relationship with her own image exhibits many of the most popular elements of postmodern representation: she comments ironically upon herself as an image and a product (she 'makes fun' of herself), and her image refers to famous gender icons of the past and present, such as Marilyn Monroe, 'military men,' or 'S/M lesbians.'

Madonna, it might be said, understands her identity as a series of images which can be distinguished from each other mainly by understanding what they 'refer' to. We can look at her (or she can look at herself) and say, 'She's doing Marilyn,' or 'She's doing her 'fascist dictator lesbian' persona.' But underneath our recognition of what Madonna is 'doing' is our recognition that she's still Madonna, that is, she's still one person who happens to be female and rather famously heterosexual. So although her act and image involve referring to other genders, other people, and homosexuality, it just as importantly involves prior knowledge of her 'actual' identity. If we did not know her 'real' identity, then I think her personas might seem a little less like entertainment and a little more like schizophrenia.

Let's backtrack for a moment and look at Madonna's image-identities in relationship to history. First of all, she learns to don her 'boy toy' persona — and make ironic reference to the 'virtuous virgin' she clearly isn't — during Reagan's second term in office. By this time, the idea that Reagan himself is little more than an image, an affable figurehead who 'reassures' us, is a somewhat tolerated point of view in the mainstream press. This is largely because Reagan himself is ironic, and offers us jokes about his status as a former Hollywood actor even as he is describing a political event. Therefore, to a certain extent, Madonna learns image-production from a powerful political figure, who himself learned about image-production from the entertainment industry. But, you say, Madonna's 'boy toy' image is in many ways the precise inversion of Reagan's image: where he is 'wholesome,' conservative, and promotes 'traditional values,' Madonna openly flaunts her sexuality and unconventionality. I would argue her image is especially designed to elicit this response.

To the extent that Madonna deliberately sets out to oppose neo-conservative images of gender and sexuality from the 1980s, she shares something in common with the people participating in the homosexual and women's rights movements of that time. Because she is self-consciously opposing these images by 'referring' to them, her oppositional identity can also be understood in theoretical terms by academics who study postmodernism. This is where the adoration of two of her minority audiences comes from — they identify with her effort to oppose Reagan's conservative images of 'morning in America.' Although Madonna's 'boy toy' image and her subsequent 'dominatrix' image are references to some of the more hateful stereotypes of women and their sexualities perpetrated by neo-conservatives of the 80s, her minority audiences 'understand' in one way or another that Madonna is just 'making fun' of the images rather than 'meaning it.' The powerful seductiveness of Madonna's multiple identity-image, then, is precisely her ability to put identity-images on but remain uncontaminated by them. No one has so far mistaken Madonna for a man's plaything, or a lesbian, although she has teased us with the possibility that she might somehow be both.

I think therefore it is right to assume that identifying with Madonna, or teaching her as an exemplary female identity in the multicultural classroom, must always involve understanding her image(s) as a kind of revenge upon traditional representations of what is 'feminine' or what 'feminine sexuality' might look like. A homosexual man or woman, having been told all his or her life that homosexuality is wrong or disgusting from a traditional perspective, certainly might have good reason to wish for revenge upon such a tradition. And academics, forced to learn and teach the sometimes irrelevant Western 'tradition' at universities, might also want to get revenge upon it. Indeed, I am no stranger to a strong desire to wreak violent revenge upon a tradition that tells me to be a submissive, heterosexual girl who studies Shakespeare and Plato.

But let's think carefully about what Madonna's revenge does for us. Or rather, let's look at her identity as a fantasy of revenge upon tradition, and see what that means for those of us who imagine 'Madonna' as a possible way to convey our postmodern 'female sexuality.' First of all, Madonna sexualizes (quite effectively, I'd say) all her identity-images. Since one generally associates the sexual with the pleasurable, we get a shot at pleasurable revenge when we do 'Madonna.' Of course, we also think of our identity as an image, that is, something we can change around without being essentially effected by it.

Who do we think will be effected by these images of identities? Not us, but everyone else, and especially the 'traditional' people who deserve to be shocked and frightened by us anyway. But where do we get our identity-images from, besides Madonna herself? From 'tradition,' or history, which has left to us a number of images of minorities, most of them condescending, cruel, and even genuinely terrifying. However, our revenge comes when we dress up like Madonna's lesbian dominatrix — a staple of sexist stag films — and laugh at the terrified or hostile responses we get from a couple of businessmen strolling down the street. Our revenge is our irony, our laughter in the face of people who respond to us as stereotypes, as the terrifying 'women with whips' we are only pretending to be. While tradition may think we are scary and terrible, deep inside we know we are just regular people putting on a show.

Now here's an interesting question: why should we care what tradition thinks of us? Why this need for vengeful laughter in its face? Why bother borrowing images from it at all, if what we hate most are the very images and identities it has tried to impose upon us as homosexuals, as women, as the intellectual minority? Answering these questions honestly involves admitting that Madonna's revenge gives tradition the last laugh. For to the extent that we need tradition there to wring its hands at us, we are still under its spell, looking for a reaction from it to get our pleasure and identity all at once. Imitating Madonna's revenge or legislating Madonna's identity in the multicultural classroom gives tradition the advantage. As long as we continue to care what tradition thinks of us — even if we want it to reject us so we may reject it — we are making our rebellion against tradition wholly dependent upon the way tradition recognizes, and to a large degree tolerates, our vengeance. What kind of a rebellion is it that gets tolerated by tradition? Only a rebellion that is no rebellion against tradition at all, but simply a little congenial wink and snicker among cohorts.

Madonna's revenge finally is a revenge upon ourselves, and an embarrassed laugh at our own inability to imagine a way out of the tradition we despise. But who am I to say our imaginations have failed? I have loved Madonna myself, and I play lesbian dress-up as much as my ironic sisters do. Speaking from my position here 'at the margins,' as a lesbian-identified bisexual, and an academic, I say we who do 'Madonna' have failed to come up with anything more than a strategy for coping with everyday life — we laugh as a way of covering up our pain, and nothing more than that. So once in a while we feel better at our own expense, because we've made a joke out of our identities and gotten away with it. However, if traditional identity is what we wish to break away from, to force to its knees, we need more than a coping strategy.

As I remarked at the beginning of this article, Madonna is now a part of history — she is virtually guaranteed a place in future college curricula at universities where 'multiculturalism' or 'gender studies' will have become traditional. Furthermore, to the extent that she becomes a spokesperson for sexual minorities, her image remains an integral part of any recent history of sexual minority traditions. I think it is important to bear this in mind when we do 'Madonna.' Madonna has not aligned herself with marginal identities because sexual minorities and intellectuals deserve it, or because we are somehow better qualified to appreciate culture generally. She's done it because she has a good sense of who she needs to please if she wants to become part of tradition. For what exactly is it that academics have been known to do with history and tradition? Keep it alive, or at least keep it, by studying it, teaching it, and making it widely available to a captive audience of students and academics-in-training. The queer community, likewise, is in the process of consolidating itself as an historical tradition in order to earn a sense of (well-deserved) legitimacy.

Ultimately, Madonna's identity-image has allowed her to strategically position herself as a famous marginalized person, in a time and place when certain marginalized identities have become powerful and recognizable enough to be famous in and of themselves. She has used images of sexual minorities and echoed academic theories of postmodernism in her work as a way of coping with her inevitable disappearance from the mass media limelight. By transforming her identity into the image of two famous subcultures bent on making history, Madonna borrows power from traditions not her own. Her revenge has gotten her right back to where she started from — tradition. Perhaps she takes her place in 'new' traditions, but these new traditions rely upon the 'old' traditions for recognition too (as, for example, when homosexuals 'reclaim' their history by 'outing' famous dead people).

You might well ask me, 'But how can I opt out of this gender game?' The problem is the question itself — it's a 'Madonna' question. Asking it assumes our identities are merely games, or images, which don't have the power to hurt and even sometimes destroy us. Finally, you need to stop thinking of your identities — and especially your marginalized identities — as something you can toy with. Your identity is not just an image, it's a reality you'll have to live with until you die; every time someone looks at you and says 'ballbusting dyke,' or threatens you with physical violence, you'll be reminded of how tradition gets its revenge. Better to admit this, to come out of the closet as trapped in tradition, than to pretend it's all fun and fakery. I suppose I'm saying you ought to be a bit more honestly mournful once in a while; but I'm also suggesting you might try having hope for the future of gendered and sexual identities. Play the game if you will, but play to win. Just because we'll die before sexism and homophobia are killed off doesn't mean we ought to give up trying seriously to imagine a better kind of life. If not us now, who and when?

Annalee Newitz is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley currently writing her dissertation on monsters and psychopaths in contemporary American mass culture. She is Senior Editor of Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.