Thank You Thursdays: Madonna

As Madonna celebrates the launch of another album today, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect a little bit on her influence on the way that we (or at least those of us born before, like what, 1985) think about our bodies and ourselves.
When my friends and I made dances in my living room, sliding down walls seductively, moving our hips in circles, donning those fingerless gloves, it was Madonna we were channeling. In a fairly frigid suburb, she was one of the only experiences we had of a girl/woman who seemed resolutely in charge of her own sexuality and the expression of it. I think amid all the virgin/whore thinking that permeates too much of most American girl’s childhoods, she’s was always an interesting anomaly, a woman who couldn’t quite be pinned down, someone who disrupted all of those categories with a certain sinful glee (think “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer”).
Her legacy is confusing. After all, she is also the material girl–urging total conformity to conspicuous consumption. And as she says in the above clip, she can be “spoiled and petulant.” But who can’t? And how awesome is it that she is honest about herself? She did smooch Britney Spears during the VMAs in what seemed like a totally flagrant display of “kissing for boys’ titillation.” Her lyrics have sometimes been incredibly boring, but they’ve also been awesome: think “Express Yourself” and, one of my personal favorites, “Human Nature”–“Did I say something true? Oops, I didn’t know we couldn’t talk about sex. Did I have a point of view? Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you?”
And as Latoya so thoroughly points out over at Racialicious (thanks for the heads up readers), she’s got a really bizarre and possibly colonial mindset when it comes to race and the entire continent of Africa. Major grounds for pause.
Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to me that this working class gal from the Detroit suburbs, who had dreams of becoming a ballerina and studied with Alvin Ailey, who dropped out of the University of Michigan and hopped on her first plane ever to New York City with $35 in her pocket, ended up changing the way just about every young woman of a certain generation understood sex. Thank you, Madonna, for being someone who complicated the idea of female sexuality on such a grand scale.

Join the Conversation

  • kittentheverb

    Okay, I have to comment, this is a pet peeve of mine.
    In regards to the problematic-ness of Madonna’s “Material Girl”: to get early Madonna, the visual is critical, and the video for “Material Girl” pokes fun of the Marilyn-Monroe-ish sentiment the lyrics of the song express. In fact, the video Madonna rejects the man who gives her baubles for the working class guy she loves.
    If you find some of her concert performances of the song, you’ll see that she carries on this interpretation, essentially a parody on the ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ Marilyn, onstage.
    Unsurprisingly, the media would rather take the whole thing as literally as possible. In interviews, Madonna expresses her disgust at being referred to as “the Material Girl.”
    (ahem, Madonna & Marilyn aficionado here…)

  • CourtneyEMartin

    Ah, thanks kittentheverb, I obviously haven’t watched the video since I was like eight and not really all that familiar with sarcasm. I guess that’s the risk of putting it out there with an potentially naive audience.

  • norbizness

    Patty Smyth wants some Feministing love as well.

  • talknormal

    what fascinates me about madonna is her ability to single handedly appropriate pretty much EVERY CULTURE IN THE WORLD. (but ok i may also have a little guilty fondness for her.)
    also racialicious just had a post on the vanity fair piece on her which due to lack of interwebs-savvy i don’t know how to hyperlink so here’s the url:

  • Amanda Stein

    Yay kittentheverb! When I was little my Mom made me watch Material Girl and explained it to me, so I would walk around complaining about adults not getting it (I was, er, moderately precicious.) ;)
    Madonna, as well as Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, were huge influences on me, and definitely a big part of why I’m the woman I am now. HUGE thank you to them (and to Feministing for bringing it up)!!

  • tinfoil hattie

    Ha. When I was doing all those dance moves, I was channeling Michael Jackson!

  • Dio

    Ok, but could she please drop the affected British accent?

  • biancamarisa

    That racialicious article is great, btw!
    I, too, danced around living rooms belting out madonna lyrics when I was little. I am also conflicted about her legacy. But I am mostly confused about the accent.

  • marileec

    tinfoil hattie: I, too, danced to Michael Jackson. A lot. I still have the urge to do the moon walk whenever I hear one of his songs haha.

  • feministgal

    I was all about Madonna, until this week when US Weekly did a piece on Madonna’s new “diet.” In quotes because it consists of eating about 800 calories a day and exercising about 2hrs daily… If this isn’t an eating disorder guide for girls i don’t know what is.
    Needless to say, it left me a bit disappointed in Madonna…

  • tweedledee

    I think she would be the only mainstream artist that embraced her sexuality but there were certainly other musicians that took a more radical tone that would never get radio play.
    I also have the urge to link to this bell hooks piece on Madonna circa 1989 with the “Like A Prayer Video” and its racial images.

  • Amanda Stein

    Wow feministgal – that US article actually made me a little queasy. I can’t believe they published a workout that extreme without advising you to first see your doc at least. Insane. :(
    On the plus side, at least there seem to be quite a few angry (and well informed) commentors. Maybe this is blatant enough that it’s going to cause some backlash and hopelessly positive actions…

  • Liza

    Wow, that US Magazine was scary…I was glad to see most of the comments seemed to be from people who at least knew this was unsafe. Of course there were the few “oh, I bet all of you who think this is bad are on the couch with a burger you must be teh fatties” asshats, but the majority of the people on their knew that diet was too extreme and unhealthy.

  • Jill Zimon

    I was in college when Madonna hit the scene in the early 80s. For all the reasons Courtney mentions, I respect her.
    However, her treatment of other people has been a bit borderline (in the literal clinical sense and yes, a play on her song of the same name). If you haven’t watched Truth or Dare before or in a while, you might want to refresh your memory.
    She’s controversial, she makes us think. That’s what she has icon status which is deserved.
    But there always seemed to me some kind of a meanness, or something, generated toward others, that drove what she did – to get a reaction kind of thing, that really bothers me still about her motivations.
    How big a role should that play into acknowledging her influence? Maybe not so much – but I do believe it’s relevant to think about when we think about her.

  • Kate217

    Maybe I’m just an old fart, but I associate the rise of Madonna with the rise of the hyper-sexualization of little girls. I don’t consider this a good thing.

  • Kate217

    I apologize if this double posts, but the first one seems to have disappeared –
    I may just be an old fart, but I associate the rise of Madonna with the rise of the hyper-sexualization of little girls. I don’t consider this a good thing.
    My take in college (Madonna’s break onto the music scene), and my take now is that any one is welcome to participate in any sort of consensual adult sexual activity s/he wishes to. I just really don’t want to have to watch it.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for posting this. I love Madonna so much, and when I was little I used to watch her ‘human nature’ video and I’d ask my family what it meant— They would tell me it means girls can do whatever boys can do.
    I’m annoyed by the criticism of Madonna in the feminist community… we have a strong, powerful, female legacy who opened the doors for female sexuality in so many ways… and some people still aren’t satisfied. Wake up people! Things are not going to be perfect for a long time. I appreciate Madonna for her ruthless sexual expression and her deep belief that women are just as sexual as men and SHOULD be allowed to express it.

  • Sarah

    Also, I have heard that Madonna is bi…and I don’t think that the kiss was for the ‘boys’ I think it was for the lesbian and gay community.

  • sapien

    Madonna? Really? That’s the best person you could think of to thank?

  • Maggie

    What I’ve always admired about Madonna (not so into her music–just generally not my thing) is how incredibly persisting she is. I don’t know much of her early history (I was very young in the 80s), but she seems to have handled being a young female star with more grace than many (Traci Lords, for example). She has completely altered her image over and over, and the remarkable thing is that she at least seems to be completely in control of it and of her media presence. She doesn’t show up on tabloid covers the way I’m sure lots of tabloids would love, and neither do her kids.
    There are plenty of criticisms to be made about her attitudes towards other people, her racial politics, and the sexualization of little girls (someone already mentioned this–I actually see that becoming more of a problem in the mid 90s with Britney Spears, but maybe that’s just when I was old enough to notice it), but I’ve always seen her as a great role model for girls and women just in terms of the control she has (or seems to have) over her image and her life.

  • JenLovesPonies

    I always liked Madonna for her honesty about her abortions. How many other famous beyond belief celebrities talk about that in public?
    But I read that bell hooks article, and I have to admit, “Like a Prayer” is weird with race. I’m not sure I get what the video is talking about, but it is strange to have a Black Methodist choir in a Catholic church.

  • loafamatic

    The bell hooks article is great, but there was something that stuck out to me as just wrong…”Given her obsession with exposing the reality that the ideal female beauty in this society can be attained by artifice and social construction, it should come as no surprise that many of her fans are gay men…”. Yeah, because obviously gay men just really want to be women?

  • lizadilly

    MADONNA? Groan. Ooh, she’s controversial, she’s provocative, yeah, but why? To forward feminism or to keep attention on herself so she can rake in the bucks? I have nothing against ambitious women (obviously), but Madonna is just a capitalist in a misfit’s clothing. She’s never been a talented singer, and currently her only claim to fame is being able to touch her toes despite her age. There are so many better examples of female musicians to hold up and thank.
    Madonna has not made my life better as a woman; if anything she has perpetuated the expectation of women wanting to be objectified and to be judged as a sexual fantasy. She owes her career to a very unique time in history when people did not care about the quality of music from their musical icons yet still wanted longevity from their icons’ careers. Even in the beginning, she was nothing original, she was just one of many NY scenesters who happened to become visible. But her fashion and vulgarity was all she had going for her. Her music, her lyrics? No different from any other pop star of that era. And the fact that she has had to completely reinvent herself with every album just shows how uninteresting she is and how far she must go to keep people’s attention.
    I think it is a HUGE sign of white privilege that Courtney can acknowledge and yet readily overlook all the ways Madonna has exploited and discarded minority cultures and systems of faith, not to mention the way she puts down and bullies other female musicians.
    I also don’t see how upholding the unrealistic beauty standards of 20 somethings in her 50s is helpful either. I mean she can do what she wants, but if she had real power or self-esteem I think she’d stop cutting her face up and starving herself all day.
    Bottom line — few people are more fake, arrogant, or overrated than Madonna.

  • lovehater

    A good book on Madonna worth a read is “The I Hate Madonna Handbook” by Ilene Rosenzweig. I resisted it for many years due to my own conflicted emotions re Madonna (I am close to her age). The book covers her history up to the Blond Ambition Tour, yet gives gives an extensive picture of how self-interest has been the main motivator in her life. I’ve read enough bios on her that I am convinced she is a victim of child sexual molestation, somewhere in her background. She says she has had psychological help, but there is something about her that is “off”, even today. She learned early in her life how to work it, at other’s expense. In order to appreciate Madonna, I have to separate the person from the entertainer.
    Cher said Madonna has always been a cunt when it comes to needing to be the center of attention. Since Madonna is stinking rich, I won’t fork-out money for anything she does unless I can purchase it used. I do not like the way she needs to contrast herself to other performers (who can actually sing). She has managed to set some different standards for modern females, based entirely on her use and exploitation of sex.
    A few Madonna facts from this book: she was Mick Jagger’s groupie and screwed the daylights out of him. She didn’t practice birth-control and had at least 3 abortions before her first album was published. She survived NY by borrowing money and ripping-off anyone who tried to help her. She DID sleep with girls and also ripped every one of them off. She married Sean Penn and proceeded to rip-off George Harrison hundreds of thousands of dollars on Shanghai Express. She took the Pepsi Company for several hundred thousand more. She was an exhibitionist, stripping down to her underwear and/or going naked in public for shock value. She’s ripped-off other people’s cultures (especially the gay culture) not as a philanthropist but in self-interest. A lot of people who have loved her also ended up suing her. She’s thrown screaming fits in front of her staff, belittling them and scaring them into submission.
    Jackie O. forbid her son, John, to date her because she felt Madonna was a “social-climber, a tramp, and sacrilegious.” Madonna used to cruise the ghettos in a limo and invite several Latino boys in for sex. Madonna has had to pay-off people, to ensure they will keep their mouths shut. How are these patterns, for starters?
    This book is worth reading for any strong, intelligent female who has conflicted emotions regarding Madonna. Madonna has enjoyed the luxury of keeping her secrets from a public that did not have access to the internet for many years. She got away with living-hell, because we, her older fans, never had a place where we could question of discuss our confusion. We just had to suck her up at face-value. An updated copy of Madonna’s accounts is needed! “The I Hate Madonna Handbook” is worth a study, and should be available on Amazon.