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In developing a critical analysis of a contemporary text, I instead chose to focus on a contemporary cultural phenomenon: Madonna.  As an artist, Madonna has had many public incarnations and as a result, has represented many subcultures bringing them into the mainstream for mass consumption and, of course, critique.  Among her many representations of the female, Madonna has played the exotic nymph, the glamorous beauty, and the androgynous provocateur.  Beyond her explorations of the feminine, Madonna has also personified numerous cultures such as gay culture, Indian, Asian and Latin cultures.  Douglas Kellner uses the Madonna phenomenon as an example of how "considerations of production, textual analysis, and audience readings can fruitfully intersect in cultural studies (1). As Kellner suggests, Madonna rose to stardom during the Reagan administration and during a time of "materialistic and consumer-oriented ethos" (Kellner, 18).  For many cultural analysts, Madonna is the picture of the 1980's era of greed.  Yet it is fascinating that a woman who has achieved an enormous amount of success also embodies the quintessential negative associations of women (greedy, manipulative, sexually deviant, gold-digger, etc.).  Michael Jackson and Prince have both arguably reached similar levels of success but with very different consequences.  Madonna confronts the hegemonic ideology of women and turns it on its head.  It is no wonder then that the dominant groups view her as a threat to the status quo.

Jean Kilbourne's Killing Us Softly 3 examines representations of genders in the media, specifically advertising.  Her observations and studies have shone a light on the ideology at play in the media, which the public has taken for granted as normal and acceptable.  For example, she cites numerous examples of women literally silenced by men or by society. Women are consistently shone as passive and vulnerable in the media (2). Media and advertising targeting young girls encourages them to strive for beauty so they can "get the guy."  From a very early age, girls are taught that their main objective is to find a husband who will care for them.

There is a clear double standard at play in the media, which tells men that they must be active, strong, and opinionated. Although, there have been strong female images in the media prior to Madonna, no one has had the reach that Madonna has had or the influence she has had over other young girls.  The Madonna of the early 1980's was playful, innocent, and provocative in her fashion statements.  She was hardly a threat to anyone.  But as the 80's were coming to a close, Madonna was finding her voice, and it would incite an uproar.  Madonna's image at the time was that of a blatant sexual being that was not only in control of her sexuality but also proud of it.  In the 1984 song, "Like A Virgin," Madonna sings:

"You're so fine
And you're mine
Make me strong
Yeah you make me bold
Oh your love thawed out
Yeah your love thawed out
What was scared and cold
Like a virgin
Touched for the very first time"

Madonna sings of sex making her stronger, bolder, as opposed to sex being the means to making her a possession of the man in question.


In another example, the video for "Express Yourself" – itself a song about self-expression and feminist power – Madonna is shown nude, and in chains, but later dressed in a man's power suit dancing a heavily choreographed number in which she grabs her crotch and bares her breasts (see example A).  Madonna herself has explained in interviews that the chains represent desire, which she placed on herself, clearly showing that she is in control since a man did not place the chains on her.
Lastly, in the video for "Open Your Heart," Madonna plays the role of a peep show dancer while she sings longingly for a man to open his heart to her.  Although seemingly typical of an ideological representation of women as subservient to men's pleasures, in the end of the video, Madonna's character walks out of the peep show dressed in a man's suit and holding the arm of a child representing innocence (see example B), clearly showing Madonna calling the shots for herself as she chooses innocence and purity over self-exploitation.  The message to young girls was to own their sexuality for their own personal enjoyment, not for the sake of giving it over to Mr. Right.  The audience's reading of Madonna's early work was certainly strong.  There were legions of fans, known as "Madonna Wanna-be's," who dressed like the star and began to flaunt their sexuality and speak their minds – a movement in late 1990s popular culture knows as "girl power."  This was the catalyst for so many of today's generation of artists who cite Madonna as an influence.  The 1990's saw women take more influential roles in the entertainment industry and being much more sexually provocative than in previous generations.
When examining the effects of media, specifically the effect of media on gender relations, Kilbourne suggests that media "normalizes" the idea that women are childish and not to be taken seriously; females are gentle and sweet whereas men are portrayed as strong, physical beings (3).


Madonna was interested in exploring these conventions. Madonna herself has publicly said that she was interested in holding up a mirror to society to show them that a woman can be intelligent, powerful, and sexual.  She chose the picture book Sex to make her point.  Madonna's interest in sexuality went into overdrive in the early 1990's as she explored the darker aspects of human sexuality and fantasy. The 1992 Sex book is a collection of Madonna's sexual fantasies reflected in photography.  In complete contradiction to Madonna's mantra of sexual empowerment and feminist liberation, it is surprising to see that Madonna fantasies about being tied up with a knife to her throat.  In fact, the book includes one sequence where Madonna is dressed as a schoolgirl in a schoolyard.  She is shown being raped by two male students.  However there are clear differences in these images from similar images in the media of sexual domination of men over women.  In the rape scene, Madonna is shown clearly smiling; in the image where she is tied up with a knife to her throat, the offender is another woman (see example C).  In other photos, Madonna kisses an androgynous male with long feminine curls and applies lipstick to another. Once again, Madonna's version has similar themes of ideological domination over women, but Madonna makes them her own completely.  Ann Bar Snitow suggests that in a less sexist society, "there might be a pornography that is exciting, expressive, interesting, and even perhaps, significant as a form of social rebellion, all traits, which, in a sexist society, are obscured by pornography's present role as escape valve for hostility towards women, or as a metaphor for fiercely guarded power hierarchies, etc." (4).


In Madonna's world, women may succumb to fantasies of bondage, but at the hands of other powerful women.  Women objectify men and feminize their power.  Madonna challenges the notion that women must be sexual but silent.  In another collaboration with photographer Steven Meisel for the June 13th issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Madonna is photographed as an androgynous cross dresser in a Parisian whorehouse clearly in charge of her stable of cross-dressing companions.  Once again, the men are objectified and emasculated while Madonna personifies male power. It is no coincidence that during this time in Madonna's career, the gay subculture was also on the rise.  Ellen DeGeneres had a popular sitcom in the early 1990's, gay characters were popping up in daytime soap operas, and many television programs had recurring gay characters including All My Children, thirty-something, and Roseanne. Diane Raymond theorizes that ideology in media will portray heterosexuality as "normal and inevitable" (5).  This makes any alternative to heterosexuality seem unnatural and inappropriate.  Evidence of this is seen throughout the many portrayals of gay characters in television.  Raymond cites Will & Grace as an example of a gay character that is made palatable to American audiences because of his relationship with his female best friend who is in essence his wife in all aspects but sexual.  She also cites a theme she calls "pretending to be gay" where a straight man may pretend to be gay, but the audience never doubts his heterosexuality.  Homosexuality in the media is still in its early stages of creating its own signifiers and identities.  Much of the critique made of Madonna is the accusation that she appropriates subcultures for her own personal gain as a manipulative, calculating tactic to remain on the cutting edge of popular trends.  One example of this was the use of an underground dance called vogue-ing in a song and video of the same name.  Madonna introduced mass audiences to the gay culture and its influence in dance, fashion, and art through her "Vogue" video and her all-male, and all-gay, dancers which she cast as a "family of choice" in her 1991 tour documentary called Truth or Dare.  Madonna may have used gay culture to further her image, but both parties came out winning.


Perhaps less justifiable is Madonna's appropriation of world cultures such as Latin, Asian, Indian cultures and their artifacts.  Sanjukta Ghosh argues that the Indians as people, are completely erased from images in the media but their culture is robbed for use in advertising or fashion (6). "This erasure conveniently creates the category of the "exotic" as an empty space that can be used to denote both the repulsive and the desired, the fearful and the fascinating, the fantastic and the phantasmatic" (7). This is evidenced throughout Madonna's work.  Specifically, she appropriated Indian saris, bindis, and clothing in an Indian-inspired photo shoot by David LaChapelle for the July 9th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone magazine. She does not make a statement about Indian culture or representation in the media; she simply uses Indian artifacts and practices as a fashion statement.  In 1999, Madonna was inspired by Japanese culture (specifically geishas) in a photo shoot by Patrick Demachelier in the May issue of Harper's Bazaar magazine; and in 1986 she took on the Latin culture to stylize her "La Isla Bonita" video (see examples E, F, and G).  Although one can argue that by taking on the personas of otherwise under-represented cultures and giving them exposure to the masses, she is doing to world cultures like India, Japan, and Latin America, what she has done for feminism and gay culture. However, she made political statements about feminism, female sexuality, and homosexuality about their ideological representations in the media.  In the case of her Indian, Japanese, and Latino looks, she has made no political or cultural statements.  Her use of these cultural artifacts is superficial and the consequence is great.  She has further perpetuated the narrow and stereotypical representations of minorities in the media.  Today we see adolescents wearing bindis and henna tattoos as fashion accessories.  Gwen Stefani, a contemporary artist influenced by Madonna, uses a group of Japanese girls she calls the "Harajuku Girls" as a fashion accessory.  The girls do not speak; they simply follow behind the artist like an obedient puppy follows his owner.  These are vapid representations of world cultures that encourage fragmentation, not universality.

In closing, Madonna has offered a rich and prolific body of work to analyze.  From her interpretations on feminine power, gender relations, sexuality, and cultural identity, it is clear that Madonna has a lot to say.  Her power as an entertainer is immense with influences over other artists, fashion, music, and our social and cultural values.  She rebelled against the hegemonic ideology of the early 1980s and has played a significant role in developing the identity of the modern woman as an independent and sexual being.  This has not gone unpunished by the dominating group of white, heterosexual men who have vilified her, asked for her excommunication from the Vatican, and questioned her motives for the most benign of things including her interests in a spiritual enlightenment, and most recently her adoption of an African baby.  No rebel goes unpunished.



Douglas Kellner, "Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 18.

Jean Kilbourne, "The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 263.

Jean Kilbourne, "The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 265.

Ann Barr Snitow, "Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 428.

Diane Raymond, "Popular Culture and Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 103.

Sanjukta Ghosh, "Con-fusing Exotica: Producing India in U.S. Advertising" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 278.

Sanjukta Ghosh, "Con-fusing Exotica: Producing India in U.S. Advertising" Gender, Race, and Class in Media
(California: Sage Publications, 2003) 278.


Works Cited

Ghosh, Sanjukta. "Con-fusing Exotica: Producing India in U.S. Advertising" Gender, Race, and Class in Media.
California: Sage Publications 2003.

Kellner, Douglas. "Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture" Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 
California: Sage Publications 2003.

Kilbourne, Jean. "The More You Subtract, The More You Add: Cutting Girls Down to Size" Gender, Race, and Class in Media. California: Sage Publications, 2003.

Raymond, Diane. "Popular Culture and Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective" Gender, Race, and Class in Media. California: Sage Publications, 2003.

Snitow, Ann Barr. "Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different" Gender, Race, and Class in Media.
California: Sage Publications, 2003.

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