In reading this blog post from Ms. Magazine entitled “Why I miss bell hooks” which mentions her essay, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” I decided to share it with all of you. Like Gina Ulysse, I too miss hooks, although I only recently became familiar with her in my graduate career. She was a real, incredibly intelligent soul.
So why this essay? Because it’s pretty fun. Madonna’s a little outdated, I know, but just try and tell me you don’t see 90% of this in Lady Gaga. Her large gay male fan base? Her blond hair? Her controversial “Alejandro” video (just look at whiteness and homosexuality in that one)? Madonna’s “emotional cripples” to Lady Gaga’s “little monsters”? Anyone? Bueller?
Excerpt from bell hooks, ‘Black Looks: Race and Representation.’ Read the entire essay here.
No black woman I talked to declared that she wanted to “be Madonna.”
Yet we have only to look at the number of black women entertainers/stars (Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Vanessa Williams, Yo-Yo, etc.) who gain greater crossover recognition when they demonstrate that, like Madonna, they too, have a healthy dose of “blonde ambition.” Clearly their careers have been influenced by Madonna’s choices and strategies. For masses of black women, the political reality that underlies Madonna’s and our recognition that this is a society where “blondes” not only “have more fun” but where they are more likely to succeed in any endeavor is white supremacy and racism. We cannot see Madonna’s change in hair color as being merely a question of aesthetic choice. I agree with Julie Burchill in her critical work Girls on Film, when she reminds us: “What does it say about racial purity that the best blondes have all been brunettes (Harlow, Monroe, Bardot)? I think it says that we are not as white as we think. I think it says that Pure is a Bore.” I also know that it is the expressed desire of the nonblonde Other for those characteristics that are seen as the quintessential markers of racial aesthetic superiority that perpetuate and uphold white supremacy. In this sense Madonna has much in common with the masses of black women who suffer from internalized racism and are forever terrorized by a standard of beauty they feel they can never truly embody.
Like many black women who have stood outside the culture’s fascination with the blonde beauty and who have only been able to reach it through imitation and artifice, Madonna often recalls that she was a working-class white girl who saw herself as ugly, as outside the mainstream beauty standard. And indeed what some of us like about her is the way she deconstructs the myth of “natural” white girl beauty by exposing the extent to which it can be and is usually artificially constructed and maintained. She mocks the conventional racist-defined beauty ideal even as she rigorously strives to embody it. 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, and that the majority of nonwhite men, particularly black men, are among that group. Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning suggests that many black gay men, especially queens/divas, are as equally driven as Madonna by “blonde ambition.” Madonna never lets her audience forget that whatever “look” she acquires is attained by hard work–“it ain’t natural.” And as Burchill comments in her chapter “Homosexual Girls”: I have a friend who drives a cab and looks like a Marlboro Man but at night is the second best Jean Harlow I have ever seen. He summed up the kind of film star he adores, brutally and brilliantly, when he said, “I like actresses who look as if they’ve spent hours putting themselves together–and even then they don’t look right.” Certainly no one, not even die-hard Madonna fans, ever insists that her beauty is not attained by skillful artifice.
And indeed, a major point of the documentary film Truth or Dare: In Bed With Madonna was to demonstrate the amount of work that goes into the construction of her image. Yet when the chips are down, the image Madonna most exploits is that of the quintessential “white girl.” To maintain that image she must always position herself as an outsider in relation to black culture. It is that position of outsider that enables her to colonize and appropriate black experience for her own opportunistic ends even as she attempts to mask her acts of racist aggression as affirmation. And no other group sees that as clearly as black females in this society. For we have always known that the socially constructed image of innocent white womanhood relies on the continued production of the racist/sexist sexual myth that black women are not innocent and never can be. Since we are coded always as “fallen” women in the racist cultural iconography we can never, as can Madonna, publicly “work” the image of ourselves as innocent female daring to be bad. Mainstream culture always reads the black female body as sign of sexual experience. In part, many black women who are disgusted by Madonna’s flaunting of sexual experience are enraged because the very image of sexual agency that she is able to project and affirm with material gain has been the stick this society has used to justify its continued beating and assault on the black female body.
The vast majority of black women in the United States, more concerned with projecting images of respectability than with the idea of female sexual agency and transgression, do not often feel we have the “freedom” to act in rebellious ways in regards to sexuality without being punished. We have only to contrast the life story of Tina Tumer with that of Madonna to see the different connotations “wild” sexual agency has when it is asserted by a black female. Being represented publicly as an active sexual being has only recently enabled Turner to gain control over her life and career. For years the public image of aggressive sexual agency Turner projected belied the degree to which she was sexually abused and exploited privately. She was also materially exploited. Madonna’s career could not be all that it is if there were no Tina Turner and yet, unlike her cohort Sandra Bernhard, Madonna never articulates the cultural debt she owes black females.
In her most recent appropriations of blackness, Madonna almost always imitates phallic black masculinity. Although I read many articles which talked about her appropriating male codes, no critic seems to have noticed her emphasis on black male experience. In his Playboy profile, “Playgirl of the Western World,” Michael Kelly describes Madonna’s crotch grabbing as “an eloquent visual put-down of male phallic pride.” He points out that she worked with choreographer Vince Paterson to perfect the gesture. Even though Kelly tells readers that Madonna was consciously imitating Michael Jackson, he does not contextualize his interpretation of the gesture to include this act of appropriation from black male culture. And in that specific context the groin grabbing gesture is an assertion of pride and phallic domination that usually takes place in an all-male context. Madonna’s imitation of this gesture could just as easily be read as an expression of envy.
Throughout [many] of her autobiographical interviews runs a thread of expressed desire to possess the power she perceives men have. Madonna may hate the phallus, but she longs to possess its power. She is always first and foremost in competition with men to see who has the biggest penis. She longs to assert phallic power, and like every other group in this white supremacist society, she clearly sees black men as embodying a quality of maleness that eludes white men. Hence they are often the group of men she most seeks to imitate, taunting white males with her own version of”black masculinity.” When it comes to entertainment rivals, Madonna clearly perceives black male stars like Prince and Michael Jackson to be the standard against which she must measure herself and that she ultimately hopes to transcend.
Fascinated yet envious of black style, Madonna appropriates black culture in ways that mock and undermine, making her presentation one that upstages. This is most evident in the video “Like a Prayer.” Though I read numerous articles that discussed public outrage at this video, none focused on the issue of race. No article called attention to the fact that Madonna flaunts her sexual agency by suggesting that she is breaking the ties that bind her as a white girl to white patriarchy, and establishing ties with black men. She, however, and not black men, does the choosing. The message is directed at white men. It suggests that they only labeled black men rapists for fear that white girls would choose black partners over them. Cultural critics commenting on the video did not seem at all interested in exploring the reasons Madonna chooses a black cultural backdrop for this ~video, i.e., black church and religious experience. Clearly, it was this backdrop that added to the video’s controversy.
In her commentary in the Washington Post, “Madonna: Yuppie Goddess,” Brooke Masters writes: “Most descriptions of the controversial video focus on its Catholic imagery: Madonna kisses a black saint, and develops Christ-like markings on her hands. However, the video is also a feminist fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White waited for their princes to come along, Madonna finds her own man and wakes him up.” Notice that this writer completely overlooks the issue of race and gender. That Madonna’s chosen prince was a black man is in part what made the representation potentially shocking and provocative to a white supremacist audience. Yet her attempt to exploit and transgress traditional racial taboos was rarely commented on. Instead critics concentrated on whether or not she was violating taboos regarding religion and representation.
In the United States, Catholicism is most often seen as a religion that has [few] or no black followers and Madonna’s video certainly perpetuates this stereotype with its juxtaposition of images of black nonCatholic representations with the image of the black saint. Given the importance of religious experience and liberation theology in black life, Madonna’s use of this imagery seemed particularly offensive. For she made black characters act in complicity with her as she aggressively flaunted her critique of Catholic manners, her attack on organized religion. Yet, no black voices that I know of came forward in print calling attention to the fact that the realm of the sacred that is mocked in this film is black religious experience, or that this appropriative “use” of that experience was offensive to many black folk. Looking at the video with a group of students in my class on the politics of sexuality where we critically analyze the way race and representations of blackness are used to sell products, we discussed the way in which black people in the video are caricatures reflecting stereotypes. They appear grotesque. The only role black females have in this video is to catch (i.e., rescue) the “angelic” Madonna when she is “falling.” This is just a contemporary casting of the black female as Mammy. Made to serve as supportive backdrop for Madonna’s drama, black characters in “Like a Prayer” remind one of those early Hollywood depictions of singing black slaves in the great plantation movies or those Shirley Temple films where Bojangles was trotted out to dance with Miss Shirley and spice up her act. Audiences were not supposed to be enamored of Bojangles, they were supposed to see just what a special little old white girl Shirley really was. In her own way Madonna is a modern day Shirley Temple. Certainly her expressed affinity with black culture enhances her value.
Eager to see the documentary Truth ar Dare because it promised to focus on Madonna’s transgressive sexual persona, which I find interesting, I was angered by her visual representations of her domination over not white men (certainly not over Warren Beatty or Alek Keshishian), but people of color and white working-class women. I was too angered by this to appreciate other aspects of the film I might have enjoyed. In Truth or Dare Madonna clearly revealed that she can only think of exerting power along very traditional, white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal lines. That she made people who were dependent on her for their immediate livelihood submit to her will was neither charming nor seductive to me or the other black folks that I spoke with who saw the film. We thought it tragically ironic that Madonna would choose as her dance partner a black male with dyed blonde hair. Perhaps had he appeared less like a white-identified black male consumed by “blonde ambition” he might have upstaged her. Instead he was positioned as a mirror, into which Madonna and her audience could look and see only a reflection of herself and the worship of “whiteness” she embodies– that white supremacist culture wants everyone to embody. Madonna used her power to ensure that he and the other nonwhite women and men who worked for her, as well as some of the white subordinates, would all serve as the backdrop to her white-girl-makes-good-drama. Joking about the film with other black folks, we commented that Madonna must have searched long and hard to find a black female that was not a good dancer, one who would not deflect attention away from her. And it is telling that when the film directly reflects something other than a positive image of Madonna, the camera highlights the rage this black female dancer was suppressing. It surfaces when the “subordinates” have time off and are “relaxing.”
As with most Madonna videos, when critics talk about this film they tend to ignore race. Yet no viewer can look at this film and not think about race and representation without engaging in forms of denial. After choosing a cast of characters from marginalized groups–nonwhite folks, heterosexual and gay, and gay white folks–Madonna publicly describes them as “emotional cripples.” And of course in the context of the film this description seems borne out by the way they allow her to dominate, exploit, and humiliate them. Those Madonna fans who are determined to see her as politically progressive might ask themselves why it is she completely endorses those racist/sexist/classist stereotypes that almost always attempt to portray marginalized groups as “defective” Let’s face it, by doing this, Madonna is not breaking with any white supremacist, patriarchal status quo; she is endorsing and perpetuating it.
Some of us do not find it hip or cute for Madonna to brag that she has a “fascistic side,” a side well documented in the film. Well, we did not see any of her cute little fascism in action when it was Warren Beatty calling her out in the film. No, there the image of Madonna was the little woman who grins and bears it. No, her “somebody’s got to be in charge side,” as she names it, was most expressed in her interaction with those representatives from marginalized groups who are most often victimized by the powerful. Why is it there is little or no discussion of Madonna as racist or sexist in her relation to other women? Would audiences be charmed by some rich white male entertainer telling us he must “play father” and oversee the actions of the less powerful, especially women and men of color? So why did so many people find it cute when Madonna asserted that she dominates the interracial casts of gay and heterosexual folks in her film because they are crippled and she “like[s] to play mother” No, this was not a display of feminist power, this was the same old phallic nonsense with white pussy at the center. And many of us watching were not simply unmoved–we were outraged.
Perhaps it is a sign of a collective feeling of powerlessness that many black, nonwhite, and white viewers of this film who were disturbed by the display of racism, sexism, and heterosexism (yes, it’s possible to hire gay people, support AIDS projects, and still be biased in the direction of phallic patriarchal heterosexuality) in Truth or Dare have said so little. Sometimes it is difficult to find words to make a critique when we find ourselves attracted by some aspect of a performer’s act and disturbed by others, or when a performer shows more interest in promoting progressive social causes than is customary. We may see that performer as above critique. Or we may feel our critique will in no way intervene on the worship of them as a cultural icon. To say nothing, however, is to be complicit with the very forces of domination that make “blonde ambition” necessary to Madonna’s success.
Tragically, all that is transgressive and potentially empowering to feminist women and men about Madonna’s work may be undermined by all that it contains that is reactionary and in no way unconventional or new. It is often the conservative elements in her work converging with the status quo that have the most powerful impact. For example: Given the rampant homophobia in this society and the concomitant heterosexist voyeuristic obsession with gay life-styles, to what extent does Madonna progressively seek to challenge this if she insists on primarily representing gays as in some way emotionally handicapped or defective? Or when Madonna responds to the critique that she exploits gay men by cavalierly stating: “What does exploitation mean? . . . In a revolution, some people have to get hurt. To get people to change, you have to turn the table over. Some dishes get broken.” I can only say this doesn’t sound like liberation to me. Perhaps when Madonna explores those memories of her white working-class childhood in a troubled family in a way that enables her to understand intimately the politics of exploitation, domination, and submission, she will have a deeper connection with oppositional black culture. If and when this radical critical self-interrogation takes place, she will have the power to create new and different cultural productions, work that will be truly transgressive–acts of resistance that transform rather than simply seduce.