The Material Girl as Postmodern Icon

Whether you think she is a genius or a crass self-promoter, a savvy feminist business woman or a tasteless poseur, it is impossible to deny that Madonna has cultural and commercial staying power. In 1998, the same year she turned forty, the singer's single "Ray of Light" became her fortieth Top 40 hit in the United States. By 1999, only the Beatles and Elvis Presley outranked her for accumulating Top 40 hit recordings during the rock era. Between 1984 and 1994, eleven of Madonna's singles reached No. 1 on the charts (the Beatles had 20 No. 1 hits between 1964 and 1970; Presley scored 18 No. 1 hits between 1956 and 1969). Madonna's Ray of Light album has sold more than three million copies and brought her three more Grammy Awards in March 1999, the first she had ever won for best song and best album.

Born the daughter of devout Catholics in Bay City, Michigan, in 1958, Madonna Louise Ciccone has arguably commanded more international attention than any cultural figure since the Beatles. Since the Vatican condemned her 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour and an early 1990s release sold "only" two million copies, critics have been writing her obituary as a pop superstar. However, the parade of Letterman and Leno jokes and the academic treatises that have been trying to uncover her meaning suggest that she remains a controversial symbol for both positive and negative aspects of postmodern culture.

In 1989, Pepsi-Cola withdrew an expensive two-minute TV ad starring Madonna on the day after her controversial "Like a Prayer" music video premiered on MTV. Almost immediately after its release, Italy banned the video when a Catholic group threatened court action. The same song, used as background in the commercial, netted $5 million of Pepsi's money for Madonna. The video tells a fairly conventional story of a woman who sees a white man commit a crime while an innocent black man takes the rap. As an eyewitness, Madonna's character comes forward to tell the truth. Beyond the basic plot, however, the video blurs the border between the sacred and the secular, between religious fervor and sexual energy. When various groups protested the video and its use of Christian symbols (burning crosses and Madonna kissing a black saintlike figure), Pepsi decided to withdraw the ad. Although the ad used none of the footage from the music video, Pepsi feared the negative publicity and potential boycotts.

Over the years, such boundary blurring has been Madonna's hallmark. She has been, in her words, "pushing buttons" to provoke cultural disputes since her 1984 single "Like a Virgin" became the year's biggest pop hit. In 1990, a sexually explicit video, "Justify My Love," was banned by MTV. The video tested the borders between heterosexuality and homosexuality and again mixed religious symbols with sexual images. Later, Madonna appeared on Nightline to defend herself and to promote the independent release of the banned video. Nightline slyly decided to air the video and drew one of its largest audiences ever.

Although Madonna's personal conduct has been heavily criticized, her defenders argue that she has become one of the premier entrepreneurs in a media world where men have historically called the shots. She has also contributed to social causes, and she appeared in voter-education promotions for MTV in the early 1990s, which helped register millions of young voters (although Madonna herself was not registered). Critics chide her for her imitativeness. Perhaps no one has been assailed more often than Madonna for not being original. One writer criticized her for continually imitating old movie icons, "inventing herself as a mutable being, a container for a multiplicity of images."1

Other critics argue that there's more than photocopying going on in Madonna's work. Although her music videos deliberately recall pop culture goddesses from Greta Garbo to Marilyn Monroe, Madonna reinvents them with a contemporary spin. Unlike the original icon, for instance, the Monroe of Madonna's 1985 "Material Girl" coquettishly rejects her wealthy suitors at will. During a Saturday Night Live appearance in 1993, Madonna appeared in a "Wayne's World" skit to make fun of her own music and image.

Madonna has continually split the feminist and critical community. Some assess her as a no-talent master of self-promotion, who perpetuates the stereotype of women as sex objects and "boy toys." Culture critic and Madonna fan Camille Paglia believes that many feminists are simply threatened by Madonna's overt celebration of eroticism: "Madonna is a true feminist. . . . [She] has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control of their lives."2

Another media critic, Michael McWilliams, makes a different case. He says that Madonna is despised because her fans are not the conventional adults and mainstream critics who condemn her: "What [the mainstream] never understood about Madonna was her thrill in role playing-changes in hair color, costumes, body tones, complete images-in much the same way that her greatest fans [gays, blacks, kids, and teens] have had to role play in order to survive."3

One of the strongest critiques of Madonna comes from African American scholar bell hooks, who has written about the postmodern paradox of the singer's cultural image in "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?" Hooks admires Madonna for "creating a cultural space where she can invent and reinvent herself and receive public affirmation and material reward."4 Yet hooks notes that Madonna's many personas often subordinate the black and gay characters she uses in her white-girl-makes-good dramas, perpetuating conventional hierarchies. In Truth or Dare, the film documenting her 1990 concert tour, Madonna surrounded herself with what she described as "emotional cripples" (mostly racial minorities, gay men, and other members of oppressed groups) so that she could fulfill her need "to be a mother."

Now Madonna is over forty and a real mother; in 1996 she gave birth to a daughter, Lourdes, after one of the most publicized pregnancies in media history. After the birth of her child, Madonna continues to reinvent herself as she explores her spirituality through eastern religions and the Cabala, a form of Jewish mysticism. She has also stayed on the cutting edge of trends musical, economic, and iconic; in 1999 she contributed a single to the hit soundtrack for Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me, recorded a duet with latin music superstar Ricky Martin, and continued her film acting career. In the end, contradictions surround Madonna: Her music seems to champion oppressed groups at the same time that it has made her wealthy and a global icon for consumer culture.

1. Luc Sante, "Unlike a Virgin," The New Republic (August 20 and 27, 1990), 25-29.
2. Camille Paglia, quoted in Joseph Sobran, "Sign of the Crotch: Sex and the Single Girl," National Review (August 12, 1991), 32.
3. Michael McWilliams, "Why the Rock World Hates Madonna,"Detroit News (April 21, 1990), p. C1.
4. bell hooks, "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?" in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 157-58.