... and ain't i a woman?: Madonna: sexual revolutionary?

Issue 

Madonna: sexual revolutionary?

"I think that, for the last 10 years I have been trying to empower women, mostly. In all my work, my thing has always been not to be ashamed, of who you are, your body, your physicality, your desires, your sexual fantasies ..." So says pop icon Madonna, in one of the many interviews conducted as part of the lead-up to the release last week of her book of erotic photographs, Sex.

Madonna, as well as capturing an enormous mainstream audience, has had a perhaps surprising impact in progressive circles. Many feminists, myself included, skipped out of In Bed with Madonna feeling empowered, joyful and positive about being both a sexual being and a woman. Madonna remains a favourite in gay and progressive dance venues as we heed her exhortations to express ourselves, fantasise, pose, dance, flirt and liberate the playful, creative and sexual sides of ourselves, perhaps abandoning for just a little while our conscious social, political and psychological analysis of our own sexual behaviour and sexuality — and just "doing it".

But what is the actual significance and effect of what Madonna calls "my work"? On balance, does the "Madonna phenomenon" advance the cause of women's liberation within Western societies? If we thought we could get an answer to the $64 000 question from the icon herself, we are in for a disappointment.

"My book is nothing to do with the social liberalism of the '60s", she has said, in answer to an accusation that her work, like the social movements of the '60s, threatens the nuclear family and thereby contributes to delinquency, violence, drug-taking and welfare mothers. "My book is one on one", she continues. "It's human beings learning how to love their neighbour and tolerate each other. OK. I think that families are very important and having a mother and father is very important. I don't understand how the ideas that I present are against that."

So, clearly, there's no point going to Madonna for help, although, to be fair, she's never claimed to be a feminist theoretician.

I think the beginnings of an answer lie in seeing "Madonna's work" for what it is: a commodity in a capitalist market which has been influenced, at least to some extent, by the demands of the women's movement and other progressive movements. Sex, the book, is a commodification of sexuality, albeit a broader and more female-centred sexuality

than in most other such commodities. Its producers, like the producers of pornography, profit from the alienation of people from their feelings, bodies and sexual needs.

Human sexuality has been straitjacketed into heterosexual lifelong monogamy to serve the requirements of capital and, to add insult to injury, capital has made a further profit by packaging "acceptable" sexuality, or alienated sexuality such as violent and degrading images, and selling it back to us as a commodity.

But I believe the territory Madonna has begun to tread will lead, in the end, and with the work of more conscious sexual revolutionaries, to a popular realisation that we must reclaim our own sexuality.

Madonna has not ventured too far into the realms of real sexual liberation, because in order to "sell! sell! sell!", products such as Sex must stick with the old formula: young, blonde, conventionally beautiful and, to some extent at least, alienated. Nevertheless, she has begun to take advantage of the openings provided by the women's movement, particularly the most progressive "free speech" elements of that movement.

By Karen Fredericks