by bell hooks
Just as it was once fashionable among “cool” feminists to love Madonna, it is now permissible to acknowledge that she is tres passe. Or as someone exclaimed the other day when I was talking about Madonna: “I mean, who cares?” The truth is a lot of us still care about Madonna. Too few contemporary female cultural icons have dared to support the feminist movement or feminist thinking. Yet from the start of her career, Madonna claimed to be into “women’s lib.” Charting her journey to fame and fortune we learn much about the nature of being female in the age of the feminist movement and the organized backlash which seeks to crush it by inventing terms like “post feminist.” Looking at where Madonna came from and where she is now, we face the harsh reality that feminism, though nowhere near “post,” is definitely in danger of being usurped by false representations of women’s liberation that suggest we’re so free we can now have it all, be victims, oppressors, whatever we choose. After all, free will and the zeal to work hard is all it takes to make it big time in the free enterprise system. And Madonna, the great high priestess of making it big time, seems to be losing her will to subvert and transform the system and the culture as she revels in the power of having made it.
Fiercely critical of Madonna when I see her work projecting the worst aspects of white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal culture, I am also fiercely affirming of her successful attempts to challenge sexist notions of womanhood, female sexuality, and the like. Those progressive dimensions of Madonna’s work are evoked when she explains her reasons for doing the Sex book (celebrating sexuality, challenging corrupt patriarchal constructions of family values); when she champions gay rights; when she opposes censorship; when she contributes to AIDS activism. Yet these days, Madonna’s progressive political agendas are being undermined, threatened by her seemingly desperate longing to be “one of the boys” – to be inducted into the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal hall of fame. At this stage of her career she reminds all of us that even the most progressive and radical among us on the culture scene can undermine positive political actions if we become so enamored of our power that we think it’s fine if we project progressive politics when it’s in our own interests to do so, while simultaneously reinforcing oppressive norms because we feel like it and/or because it’s good for business.
This damaging undermining position is exposed in the October issue of Vanity Fair which highlights Madonna. A frightening gap separates the radical vision of the sexuality Madonna projects in the interview with Maureen Orth (evocatively titled “The Material Girl’s Sexual (R)Evolution”) and the boringly conventional “kiddie pom” photographs accompanying the text. Seeing the over30 Madonna, re-inventing herself as little girl sex kitten for the thrill of holding onto the sustained patriarchal pornographic gaze of anyone looking, exposes the ways aging in a sexist society can disrupt any woman’s allegiances to radical politics. What is the “material girl” to do when she has fast become a woman in an economy of cultural images where her power is so deeply rooted in the romance of youth? Madonna’s re-invention of herself in the little girl “porn” image comes across primarily as a ritualistic, opportunistic attempt to keep alive the image of herself as forever young. Casting herself as the little girl on the playground sex symbol, Madonna betrays her earlier radical questioning of sexist objectification of women and announces via these photos that she is willing to play with the boys on their own terms.
Gone is the “hot” Madonna fiercely challenging the status quo. There is nothing “fierce” or interesting about these photographs.
And they do not evoke in me a fierce response. Looking at them I just simply felt sad: That after all her daring, her courageous challenging of sexist constructions of female sexuality, Madonna, at the peak of her power, has stopped pushing against the system. Her new work has no radical edge. It reveals only that she has fully succumbed to the seduction of that white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal insistence that no woman dare escape sexist objectification – the misogynist pornographic gaze that assaults, rapes and violates.
No, the Madonna of today would have women believe that we gain our freedom by embracing the phallocentric perspective, taking over and occupying patriarchal territory so that we do the “dick thing” better than any man ever could.
And is it supposed to make us feminists feel proud, like we won the revolution, when Madonna asserts: “I wouldn’t want a penis.It would be lifesaving. It would seem like a contraption that would get in the way. I think I have a dick in my brain. I don’t need to have one between my legs.”? No doubt that “dick” in her brain accounts for Madonna’s that matter, women’s liberation, was never about trying to gain the right to be dicks in drag. But I seem to recall that the men I knew back then, you know, when the contemporary feminist movement was “hot,” all believed that us little women didn’t really want our freedom, we just wanted to be one of the boys. And, in fact, those same men, no doubt thinking through the dicks in their brains, told us that if we “women libbers” just had a good fuck, we would all come to our senses and forget all about liberation. We would, in fact, lean to find pleasure in being dominated. And when feminists did not fall for this dick-thing rap, they tried to seduce us into believing with our brains and our bodies that the ultimate power was to be found in being able to choose to be dominated or dominating. Well, many of us said “thank you but no thanks.” And, well, some of us were tempted and began to think that if we could not really have our freedom then the next best thing would be to have the right to be dicks in drag, phallocentric girls doing everything the boys do – only better.
It is this “gaslighting” seductive rap that seduced Madonna so that she, with much grace, “cool,” and downright boldness of spirit, shares that same rap with her feminist sisters and all her other fans. Speaking from the perspective of the “dick” in her brain, most of the recent images she projects in videos, films, photographs, etc. tell women and everyone that the thrill, the big orgasm, the real freedom is in experiencing being both dominated and dominating.
Madonna’s feminist fans, once so adoring, are on the positive tip when we insist that we want an end to domination, when we resist her allure by saying no – no more seduction and betrayal. We long for the return of the feminist Madonna, the kind of cultural icon Susan Griffin celebrates in Woman and Nature when she writes: “We heard of this woman who was out of control. We heard that she was led by her feelings. That her emotions were violent. That she was impetuous. That she violated and overrode convention…We say we have listened to her voice asking, ‘Of what materials can that heart be composed which can melt when insulted and instead of revolting at injustice, kiss the rod?’…And from what is dark and deep within us, we say, tyranny revolts us; we will not kiss the rod.”