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February 13, 1991 - Image 8

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1991-02-13

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Page 8-The Michigan Daily-Wednesday, February 13,1991

Madonna's royal box:

the immaculate concept

by Peter Shapiro
M adonna's rise to mega-super-
stardom is due almost entirely to
her videos, every one of which
(except for the obscure "Burning
Up" and "True Blue" and those
from movie soundtracks) is on the
essential Immaculate Collection
video package. From the soft-porn
song and dance routine of "Lucky
Star" to the pure camp mockery of
sexual mores during the MTV
Award performance of "Vogue,"
the Immaculate Collection chroni-
cles the ascendancy of music's
most self-conscious image manipu-
Video's most important moment
since VHS gained hegemony over
Beta concerns itself with the cru-
cial question, "Which came first,
the biggest pop icon since The
King himself, or the pseudo-revolu-
tionary statements of quasi-femi-
nist bricolage?" In other words,
did the empowerment hype that
surrounds Madonna develop be-
cause she is a slyly subversive per-
former with an ear for Germaine
Greer and an eye for Mae West, or
just because she is the biggest fe-
male pop star in the history of
recorded music?
The knee-jerk, politically-cor-
rect, white liberal in me would
like to believe that she is con-
cerned with issues of women nego-
tiating more powerful space for
themselves in millenia-old sexual
politics contests. But the cynical,
doubting-Thomas conspiracy theo-
rist in me believes that she is a
sex kitten in pop star's clothing
and that Joni Mitchell, Suzanne
Vega, or Tracy Chapman (please
refer to Black Box or Tech-
notronic, or even Milli Vanilli)

could never get away with the
pornography that Madonna does,
as well as believing Pat Benatar's
"Stop Using Sex as a Weapon"
maxim that the reduction of
women's roles to libidinal light
switches is not the best terrain for
contesting patriarchy and is as po-
tentially dangerous as centuries of
Madonna's image manipulation
centers around the creation of two
Madonnas in almost every one of
her videos, the exceptions being
"Lucky Star," "Like a Prayer,"
and "Cherish." The juxtaposition
of two Madonnas involves either
the classic male categorization of
women as sluts or virgins, the ten-
sion between the secular and the
sacred, or male/female gender-
Beginning with "Borderline,"
where Madonna is both white, cor-
porate boy toy (notice her first
overtly-feminist moment, though
the big red "x" over the statue's
penis in the spray-painting se-
quence) and Hispanic girlfriend,
Madonna has continually carved
up the monolithic block of patri-
archy to gain territory for herself
by playing two contradictory roles.
The most obvious dichotomy that
she creates occurs in "Like a Vir-
gin," in which she is both a gyrat-
ing slut scantily clad in black and
an untouched, pure-white innocent.
Of course, this is where the
problem arises. The apparent con-
tradictions in her image turn her
into a tease in the male gaze. Her
duality cannot be confined by typ-
ically male categorizations. As a
result, she is an uncontrollable
bitch and all the more desirable to
men who want to hear the orgas-
mic squeal from both "Like a Vir-
gin" and "Material Girl" as the
climax to their masterful sexploits.
Doubtless, the most celebrated
pair of American breasts this side
of Dolly Parton don't hurt either,
Which is why no member of the

Roches will ever attain Madonna-
esque status.
From "Material Girl" on, how-
ever, Madonna has confronted this
attitude (Medussa-)head on. Al-
though "Material Girl" was the
predecessor of N.W.A.'s "I Ain't
tha One" and "If they don't give

inspired the video has less to do
with the male gaze than with the-
"why doesn't he/she notice that
I'm alive" attitude of desperately
confused teen-agers everywhere,
every frame of the video serves to
undercut the force and power of
definition that the male gaze has
had since Adam named the ani-
Starting with the chorus ("I
hold the lock/ You hold the key"),
whose double entendre resonates
with painful chastity belt imagery,
Madonna begs the object of her af-
fection to be more generous and
more loving. The men in the back-
ground of the strip joint are the ob-
jects, while the strip-teasing
Madonna is never completely the
object of the stares of the other
peep-show patrons because the
blinds keep coming down on them,
preventing them from completely
objectifying her and, in effect,
rendering their gazes powerless.
This pattern of turning the gaze
back on men intensifies in her
other two landmark videos-
"Express Yourself" and "Vogue."
In both videos, the male body, not
just an abstract masculine
archetype, is the subject of the
viewer's desire. In "Express Your-
self," the bodies of the oppressed
industrial workers are placed on a
pedestal that exceeds the bound-
aries of neo-classical celebration
of male beauty by making their
forms flesh, gleefully wallowing in
the pornographic thrills that make
the grease from Madonna's stud
tainting her white satin sheets an
act of pure sex. By tempting this
proletarian Adonis to quit his en-
slavement to the machine and
make her body his new master, she
has single-handedly subverted the"
white-patriarchal-capitalist struc-
ture whose tyranny extends over
African-American and Hispanic
cultures (the musicians in the
glass case) as well as super-mas-
culine menials, and suggests that

other women can do the same. In-
deed, when Madonna grabs her
crotch, "the social order is effec-
tively transgressed."
The iconography of Madonna as
liberator is cemented in "Vogue."
For those who didn't know that
voguing started years ago in Black
gay clubs in New York City, the
video makes it perfectly obvious.
The almost genderless bodies of
the overtly gay dancers are the ob-
jects of the camera's lascivious
groping, as is her '40s glamour
posing that is meant to free women
from the doldrums of new age do-
mesticity, not to reinforce age-old
sexual roles. Not only does the,
video celebrate the homosexual
lifestyle with more panache than
any Robert Mapplethorpe photo,
but, by making voguing the vehi-
cle for the two purest pop senti-
ments ("you're a superstar/ yes,
that's what you are" and "beauty's
where you find it/ not just where
you bump and grind it"), Madonna
implies that the gay sub-culture
can transcend the banalities of the
bourgeois patriarchy that cause
"heartache" to be "all around."
This creation of a sexual ambi-
guity is another of Madonna's di-
chotomous tensions. Beginning
with the last sequence in the
"Open Your Heart" video,
Madonna has frequently portrayed
one of her two selves as straddling
the fence of gender. When she
flees the strip joint dressed in the
same mid-'80s, suburban-high-
school-hipster hat and pre-faded
jean jacket outfit that the young
boy is, the seeming suggestion is
that the confines of domestic ex-
ploitation can only be transcended
by sprightly flight into gender
limbo. She embodies a more play-
ful androgynous genderfuck than
the tomboy poses of Chryssie
Hynde or Joan Jett in order to max-
imize the breadth of her audience
(the audiences of the other two are
predominantly men).
In "Express Yourself," the en-
tire infra-structure of patriarchal
capitalism is destroyed by her
(gender)fucking. During her cele-
brated dance solo, in which she is
dressed as a stereo-typical male
CEO in a double-breasted pin-
stripe suit, she both flashes her
breasts and grabs her crotch in mu-

sic video's transcendent reversal of,
narrative closure. From that poiht"
on, the subordinated servant of
monolithic bourgeois capitalismis
liberated from his monotonons
droning by searching for the owner
of the black pussy(cat).
Madonna's gender-unspecific
haircut in "La Isla Bonita," on the
other hand, is meant to signify re-p
ligious asceticism, not herm-*:
aphroditism. The Great Schism
between the sacred and the
profane in Madonna's image max
be vacant rebellion for (marketed)
rebellion's sake, but it probably-,
has more to do with a comment onĀ§'
the Roman Catholic Church's
infringement on the private realnpi
of bodily politics. All of her,-,
heretical imagery has to do withKI
rosary beads, shrines to sundryp
saints, and, of course, stigmatas. h
"La Isla Bonita," the short-haired, 0
cosmetic-less religious ascetic
becomes the lustful senorita of hor,
"island paradise," masturbatingy;
next to the same shrine to which.,,
she just paid homage.
For some reason the authorities",
didn't object vociferously to this;
bit of blasphemy, but when
Madonna had the gall to portray
herself with stigmatas, everyone.;
got the message. The play between
the sacred and the secular in "Like,
a Prayer," though, concerns itself,
with making obvious the enormous
influence of African-American re=
ligious culture. The Black choirw
that uplifts Madonna's protagonist
into another sphere is meant to,
leave no doubt that the American
pop music's greatest voices (Otis
Redding, Jackie Wilson and9
Aretha Franklin) are gospel'
singing, only in a non-religious,,
The charge that Madonna?s
ambiguities reek with immature.
adolescent rebellion are not un-'
founded until one peers below the.:
surface of what seems to be even
the. most blatant insert-dick-here-
video. In "Cherish," for exampIa,
Madonna parades around a beach,*
cleavage exposed, with seduce
tively wet hair and breathless~
pouts of sexual readiness. While"
Madonna parades her bod around"
the seemingly pointless maw
mermaids serve as burlesques of-a4
classic female mythology.


me proper credit/ I just walk
away" is not proto-feminism as
some have argued, it does serve as
the acknowledgement that the way
she strokes the white fur boa in the
video can be a tool in power
games and not just a pose for
ogling adolescent boys addicted to
testosterone rushes.
In her first effort to bite the
hand that feeds, or better yet to
blind the leer that pays, Madonna
and Jean-Baptiste Mondino pro-
duced the most overtly feminist
video ever made- "Open Your
Heart." It is also the video that
best expresses the tensions that
Madonna embodies- she is both
the strip-tease object and castrater.
Despite the fact that the verse that


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