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Let's get "Serious," The Attack on Madonna Scholarship
by Laurie Ouellette
DESPITE ITS OPEN CELEBRATION OF BISEXUAL, HOMOSEXUAL, AND INTERRACIAL SEXUALITY, AND NOT-SOSUBTLE EXPLORATIONS OF TABOOS LIKE SADOMASOCHISM AND RAPE, MADONNA'S MUCH-HYPED BOOK OF EROTIC PHOTOGRAPHS SEEMS TO HAVE COME AND GONE WITHOUT AS MUCH AS A HINT OF CONTROVERSY OR PROTEST. PRESS COVERAGE OF SEX (TIME WARNER, 1992), WHICH WAS MARKETED AS MADONNA'S OWN SEXUAL FANTASIES, TENDED TO DISMISS THE WHOLE AFFAIR AS A BORING, TASTELESS, AND EVEN COMICAL SELF-PROMOTION THAT IN NO WAY LIVED UP TO ITS OWN PUBLICITY. AS ONE DISAPPOINTED NEW YORK TlMES REVIEWER QUIPPED, "THERE'S LITTLE IN THE BOOK YOU COULDN'T FIND AT A BIG CITY NEWSSTAND." HAS AMERICA'S MOST VISIBLE FEMALE ICON LOST HER POWER TO TITILLATE, ENRAGE AND SHOCK?
Hardly. Madonna has always made a lot of people uncomfortable, and she still does. But it's been conservatives who have complained the loudest, and whose charges have generated the Madonna related media controversies we've come to expect. As with her "Justify My Love" video before it, Madonna's Sex was a sure target for cries of moral outrage and right-wing threats of censorship, protest and boycotts. The radical right, still licking their wounds after their homophobic, antifeminist rhetoric was overwhelmingly rejected by the American public last fall, declined to comment on Madonna this time around. But that says more about the breakup of a 12-year conservative stronghold over cultural politics than it does about a declining interest in Madonna.
As much as Madonna's haters wish she would just go away, evidence suggests that the pop star is as provocative and influential as ever. Fans and curious-minded culture watchers alike doled out 50 bucks to buy Sex, now a national bestseller (150,000 copies sold on the first day alone, 600,000 were bought in only nine days); and serious discussion about the book, while all but missing from the mainstream press, is certainly alive and well in popular discourse. Audience members and callers on radio and television talk shows have passionately debated the erotic photos in Sex - as well as Madonna's relationship to feminism, gays and lesbians, female sexuality and pornography, and discourse about Madonna has thrived in letters to the editor and in ordinary conversations.
If Sex failed to live up to the controversy we've come to expect from Madonna, one reason may be that the media has discovered another Madonna-related phenomenon with an even greater potential to cause shock and outrage: "Madonna scholars." There is nothing new about the flourishing body of academic scholarship revolving around Madonna and her songs, videos and films: Scholars, most of them working out of feminist, gay and lesbian, and cultural theory, have been leading classroom discussions and filling the pages of academic journals and textbooks since Madonna's early days as the Material Girl.
Paying close attention to the way Madonna parodied gender in videos such as "Material Girl" and "Like a Virgin," the power she holds in creating and recreating her own representations, and the way she experiments with bisexuality, cross gendered playfulness, and gay iconography, Madonna scholars are not so much interested in Madonna herself, but in the way they believe she shakes up traditional social roles and power hierarchies. Contrary to "antifeminist" Camille Paglia's well-publicized argument that prudish feminists have been opposed to Madonna from the start, Madonna in fact has provided academic feminists with a concrete means to explore recent theoretical debates within feminist theory, particularly the notion that the way we think of gender - as well as race and sexuality - is not static, but is open for construction, subversion and change.
At a time when disputes over multiculturalism and the canon are under fire, Madonna's influence on academic scholarship has not gone unnoticed. Surprisingly, however, the most hostile attacks waged against scholarly work on Madonna have come not from the right, but from the intellectual left. Madonna scholars have captured the amused attention of an occasional journalist in the past, but it wasn't until word got out about a scholarly anthology exclusively devoted to the pop icon - The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory (Westview, 1992) - that such scholars became a fashionable target for "concern," condescension, and scorn from progressive quarters. The first attack, written months before the book was even published, was a biting piece in the leftist Nation that was subsequently reprinted in liberal magazines and newspapers, including Harper's. Starved for a Madonna controversy and perhaps disappointed that one had not emerged over Sex, the mainstream press has waged its own nasty critiques of Madonna scholars. The charges against Madonna scholarship are all remarkably similar: First, Madonna is a tasteless opportunist and, like consumer culture in general, is unworthy of academic study; and second, academic work on Madonna, while passing as "serious" scholarship, is in fact convoluted puffery that has little social significance and adds nothing to the advancement of knowledge.
Some of this criticism holds a germ of truth: Like the vast majority of academic work, Madonna scholarship tends to be jargon laden and prone to over-interpretation. But the hostility and vapid sarcasm towards Madonna scholars in particular suggests that something else is at stake here. Consider, for instance, the way the Nation described the phenomenon as an "orgy of slumming" that goes "tooting around amid the rubbish of popular culture." The analogy suggested by the London Times is equally belittling: "The great thinkers of the New World sit around eating tortilla chips and watching pop videos, just like teenagers. The difference is that while teenagers consign such information to their mental trash cans, the academics feel it necessary to consign such information to their word processors." Not to be outdone, the New York Times remarked: "It's hard to read The Madonna Connection with a straight face. Many of the essays... read like National Lampoon parodies of academic criticism. One keeps expecting the author to interject an 'only kidding!' or a just joking!'"
What is really fueling such rhetoric? In defense of Madonna scholarship, Madonna Connection editor Cathy Schwichtenberg, an assistant professor of Speech-Communication at the University of Georgia, points to a kind of high culture snobbery. "Our whole culture is incredibly media dependent, and there in fact is a need to analyze popular culture in relation to larger political issues," says Schwichtenberg, whose academic work explores how Madonna "challenges the stability of gender as the edifice of sexual difference'' through drag and other mechanisms. "Madonna is a figure that is very important to subcultural groups, like teenage girls and lesbians. To say she doesn't deserve to be studied is very condescending to a lot of people."
And that's not all. There is also an antiwoman bias operating in hostile attitudes toward Madonna and the academics who study her, most of whom are women. As Schwichtenberg explains, "The same derogatory criticisms used by male reviewers to describe Madonna - 'she isn't a serious artist,' or 'she's trivial,' for instance - are also used to describe Madonna scholars. The fact that Madonna is an enormously successful businesswoman who is very confrontational accounts for some of the backlash as well. Madonna challenges people to reflect on their prejudices, and this can be very threatening to men."
Laurie Schulze, a teacher of film and television studies at the University of Denver and a contributor to the Madonna Connection, puts it more bluntly. "We're being treated as the 'sluts' of academia, in ways weirdly analogous to how Madonna herself is viewed," says Schulze, whose scholarly work includes research on how audience reactions to Madonna vary according to different interpretations of feminism. Why the hostility? Schulze links it to the fact that "the Madonna Connection is trading in the margins, both with its object of study - a woman artist who is also a popular artist - and also in her even more marginalized audiences - gays and lesbians, African Americans, and Hispanics."
Prominent feminist cultural scholar E. Ann Kaplan, director of the Humanities Institute at SUNY-Stonybrook, and also a Madonna Connection contributor, has been studying Madonna for nearly a decade. She is surprised and troubled that the recent backlash against Madonna scholars - which she feels is quite conservative - has emerged from a journal on the left. Why this seeming contradiction? Kaplan believes it relates to the recent backlash against feminism. "Madonna is a woman who has entered the public sphere as an entrepreneur earning a lot of money, something that is not considered natural for women," she asserts. "Sexually, she can be quite threatening for men, as well as for women, and this has made her a complicated, and highly contested phenomenon. Male pop stars, from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson and Prince, have gotten away with exploring male sexuality, but when a female icon like Madonna begins to open up discourse on female sexuality, she creates a disturbance."
Do Madonna scholars really make the case that Madonna is subversive, liberatory, or even feminist? Unfortunately, outrage over the fact that Madonna is studied at all has prevented meaningful debate around these questions. If critics had not been so hostile from the start, and had not spent so much time making scholarly work on Madonna seem ridiculous out of context, they might have been more fair in noting that the essays collected in the Madonna Collection, for instance, are nowhere near uniform celebrations of Madonna as a feminist or even populist idol. Sure, some work on Madonna does laud her cultural diversity and the issues she raises about gender, but other essays are more critical of Madonna's "flagrant self-marketing strategies," and others demand that Madonna push her destabilizing political agenda further. And, if those who have been so quick to yell phooey over the Madonna Connection had been more in touch within feminism, they might have realized how significant a number of the theoretical debates raised in many of the book's essays - debates over sexual difference, identity politics, postmodern feminism, and the social construction of gender - are to the future of feminism. These issues represent new turns in feminist theory, and raise difficult questions about any sort of universal female subjectivity and oppression. Surely this discussion is more relevant, and more interesting, than snide jokes about terms like "Metatextual Girl."
It remains to be seen what Madonna scholars will say about issues of pornography, domination, and sexual violence raised in Sex. But even those who find Madonna and her work truly banal or disturbing might think twice about condoning backlash against scholars who are no doubt already theorizing the book before they've even had a chance to, as Madonna would say, "express themselves." As Kaplan has pointed out, "Madonna may embody some undesirable characteristics, including an incredible sense of narcissism. But she is nevertheless a contradictory and complex cultural phenomenon that cannot be simply dismissed."
Certainly progressives and, especially, feminists should be the last to try to squelch those who are seriously attempting to make sense out of Madonna. What will ultimately emerge is a situation where the right no longer needs to tell those scholars - feminist, gay and lesbian, and people of color - who are not part of the white male establishment that their work is not appropriate for the academy. Because the left will have done it for them. Maybe that explains why conservatives have been so strangely silent about Madonna lately.
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