Friday Hoyden: Madonna

Provoked by this Naomi Wolf Guardian piece: Madonna acts just like a serious male artist would – and people hate her for it, I realised 2 things – that despite her many manifestations of saucy iconoclasm we’d never done Madonna as one of our Hoydens, and that Wolf’s article quite possibly outlined some reasons why.

a collage of 8 different Vanity Fair magazine covers featuring Madonna

This array of Vanity Fair covers shows some of her many styles

Is Madonna a self-absorbed megalomaniac with a touch of the arriviste? Probably; but so are dozens of equally brilliant male artists in other mediums, whose imperfect but worthwhile new efforts are treated with hushed awe […]. The reliable media theme of “Hating Madonna”, whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth, is so consistent that it deserves scrutiny in its own right.

Why can the press just not wait to hate Madonna at these moments?

Because she must be punished, for the same reason that every woman who steps out of line must be punished. Madonna is infuriating to the mainstream commentariat when she dares to extend her range because she is acting in the same way a serious, important male artist acts. (And seizing the director’s chair, that icon of phallic assertiveness, is provocative as hell.) She is taking for granted that she is allowed to stretch. This is intolerable, because Madonna has not done the sorts of things that allow women of immense talent to get “permission” or “to be liked”.

What is so maddening? She does what every serious male artists does. That is: she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

Madonna is that forbidden thing, the Nietzschean creative woman.

Wolf may have, as is her wont, overstretched her argument a tad (although do read the whole thing, not just the quote above), but one thing I think she does have right – Madonna doesn’t appear to care much about being likeable/relatable in terms of the expected media/showbiz-industry approval-seeking (obviously she must care in terms of getting bums on seats) – she simply doesn’t go around kissing arse, and our world really does expect talented women to kiss arse much more than they expect it of talented men.

I also wonder whether perhaps there’s a segment of the showbiz press that’s never quite forgiven Madonna for moving beyond the Manic Pixie Dream Girl pigeon-hole they originally assigned her to when she first appeared on the scene. She keeps on being challenging rather than simply flaky (as they would love to dismiss her), and she’s stubbornly refused to have a juicy nervous breakdown for them even when her love-life has gone awry. She keeps her family life in the background with no “relatable” mumsy photo features – indeed she mocks the idea with photo-shoots such as the famous one of her feeding chooks on the lawn of her English country house in a Marilyn-esque cocktail length gown and high heels.

a group of chickens on the lawn outside a Georgian country manor house - a pale skinned woman with blonde hair is feeding them.  She is wearing a creamy full-skirted cocktail length dress with a matching three-quarter sleeve cashmere cardigan and high heels.

Originally appeared in Vogue Magazine | image source SMH

Madonna also only does Patriarchy Beauty Standard Compliance up to a point – she’s famously very focused on her physical appearance remaining youthful etc, but she also works out more than “they” would like and doesn’t care about having obviously muscular arms, for instance. According to Wolf, she has a household staff full of pretty-boy eye-candy, too. Of course the movie she recently directed centres the women’s story with the men as Muses on which the women project their aspirations rather than the men being personalities in their own right – quite predictable that this flipping of what we expect gender-wise in a film narrative has been comprehensively panned (although even Wolf, who loved that aspect, described the movie as “flawed” as well as “daring”).

Just like the political press gallery, the showbiz beat reporters love to have a predictable narrative for artists, especially female performers, and she just doesn’t play that game. And what the media hates most is that despite (because of?) Madonna not playing according to their preferred script, the world remains fascinated with her – her latest video uploaded to her YouTube channel less than a week ago has already had more than 12 million views. Her typical savvy marketing is at play with the visuals being football-themed and released the day after her elaborate SuperBowl halftime performance.

I’m not personally that big a fan of her music generally, although I’m regularly pleasantly surprised when I hear her songs on the radio and note how well-crafted and meticulously produced they are. But why does it surprise me so? It shouldn’t.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: , ,

8 replies

  1. I’ve never been a big fan either, but I do admit that her music is her strength and she can dance up a storm. I just wish she’d leave the movies alone. You can only praise good things, and she just can’t act. I’m looking forward to her latest movie mainly because she isn’t in it. I hope she can direct. She should be able to, her video clips look like she’s been in control of them.

  2. she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

    I recall much the same thing being said about Joni Mitchell. I wonder if there are others?

  3. Well, I believe the bit about being serious and ego-less about Joni Mitchell before I’d believe it about Madonna. Serious, yes. Ego-less?

  4. Hm, I think Wolf is trying to make a point about what she perceives as a burying of one’s ego in dedication to the work that others misperceive as egotism when it’s actually not about the self. I don’t think she’s meaning that people who are that buried in their art are necessarily ego-less in all aspects of their lives, just that artistic aspect.
    Not sure that I totally buy that producing art can be that divorced from ones ego by anybody, mind you: not even by Joni Mitchell.

  5. Great piece of writing, tigtog and thanks for highlighting the piece by Wolf, which I had not come across. Have been a big fan of Madonna for a long time and this was a thought provoking take on her and her career.

  6. Being rock-trivia show tragics, R (partner) and I have been watching the repeats of Spicks ‘n Specks currently airing nightly on ABC2.
    Practically every time Madonna’s name comes up, one of the (mostly male) comedians makes a crack that tends to involve the words “old” and “slut”. It is pretty amazing how predictable this is and the comparative nastiness is jarring.
    Really enjoyed this article about such an extraordinary women.

  7. I know this is late, but I can’t help but get all =/ at the timing of choosing Madonna as Friday Hoyden, right after she criticized M.I.A. for flipping the bird at the Superbowl, given her history of appropriation.

%d bloggers like this: