Madonna in academe


The Madonna Connection: Representational politics, sub-cultural identities and cultural theory
Edited by Cathy Schwichtenberg
Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993. 336 pp. $19.95 pb
Review by Melanie Sjoberg

Love her or hate her, nearly everyone has an opinion about Madonna, which exemplifies how much of an impact she has made on popular culture. This book is an academic attempt to unravel, interpret and challenge the meanings and representations that Madonna offers through her music and videos.

Schwichtenberg describes Madonna as "dissolving the boundaries between public and private, academic and popular, theory and practice". The analysis in the book attempts to develop views about the effectiveness of Madonna's form of representational politics. It then shows how that relates to various sub-cultural groups and minorities, such as gays and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics.

There isn't one all encompassing analysis, but rather a collection of debates that raise both positive and negative aspects of how Madonna pushes the boundaries of acceptable sexuality.

The video clip "Justify My Love" has been one of the most hotly contested. Lisa Henderson argues that this is a clear example of challenging the sexual status quo, with its imagery of polymorphism which serves to eroticise all forms of sexuality. Madonna has never openly identified as a gay artist, but through clips such as this she speaks to gay and lesbian sexuality.

Clearly there are still many contradictions in these images, where Madonna is seen as liberating yet conforming. As Henderson points out, Madonna is "... ultimately the epitome of women's sexuality ... at best ambiguous in the end".

One of the reasons some segments of society hate Madonna is precisely that she challenges the sexual status quo. She dares to be sexual and dares to make

money from it. The book raises the obvious feminist question of why this should be such an outrageous issue when artists such as Elvis or Prince were acceptable using sexuality for the same purpose.

When Madonna was interviewed on Nightline about her so-called "sexual irresponsibility", she responded, "Why are images of degradation and violence toward women okay, almost mainstream, yet images of two women or two men kissing taboo?"

Readers more interested in subconscious representation can try the chapter by Ann Kaplan on "Perversion, Repression or Subversion?". She analyses the role Madonna offers for wearing different types of masks for purposes of play or distortion, hiding the real self.

Kaplan examines whether Madonna really challenges the patriarchal order or is recreating the "bourgeois illusion of the individual". She argues that Madonna is a mass-produced commodity, but that she can only then be made popular through acceptance by the audience. She suggests that as Madonna projects a variety of personas that are then accepted, this reveals that there is no essential femininity, but just a variety of constructions.

I enjoyed reading the book, although some of the chapters are clearly oriented to specific academic analysis and therefore perhaps a little too heavy on jargon. But it is accessible on the whole and can be read selectively without losing the flavour of the debates.