Madonna and the politics of postmodernism: ‘material girl’ and the. politics of consumer culture
Madonna’s high measure of success as ‘a postmodern phenomenon’ highlights the interplay between postmodernism and consumerism, and her transformative identity can be understood at the level of materiality and simulation. At a material level Madonna’s ability to market herself and to accommodate the ‘late capitalist marketplace’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:9) addresses the needs of ‘the media, beauty and music industries’ demand for flexibility in its requirements for an ‘inauthentic and reinventionist’ response to marketing strategies. Tetzlaff (1993) outlines the ‘metatextual’ narrative of the ‘material girl’ which explores how power is a ‘material issue’ and is linked to Madonna’s success. Tetzlaffs is an ‘ideological critique’ of Madonna’s material reality: her popularity confirms his model of the way in which popular culture has been incorporated into late capitalist values and thus cannot act as a site of resistance to patriarchal and capitalist domination.
The issue of simulation within the conceptualisation of Madonna as ‘a postmodern phenomenon’ is explored by Pribram (1993) in her analysis of Madonna’s ‘performance documentary’ Truth or Dare. Pribram sets out to ‘deconstruct the simple binary framework of truth and illusion’ which has characterised commentary on the film in the popular press. In this context Pribram explores feminist critics’ challenge to the ‘subject/object’ dichotomy within which Madonna has been framed and from which position she has been seen as both ‘inauthentic’ and ‘as object’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:9),
Pribram draws on the postmodernist concepts of ‘simulation’ and ‘seduction’ as developed in the work ofJean Baudrillard (1983, 1988, 1990). She challenges the materiality of the ‘realist’ critiques of Madonna and claims that Madonna’s use of ‘simulated seductive techniques’ reveals a ‘large measure of control over her own images’ (ibid.). While cautious in her conclusions, Pribram suggests that postmodernism and feminism may not be antithetical and further that this model may be seen as a ‘point of departure’ for the development of a postmodern feminism.
This is not a view shared by Roseann Mandzuik, in her essay ‘Feminist Politics and Postmodern Seductions: Madonna and the Struggle for Political Articulation’ (1993). Mandzuik critically assesses the viability of postmodern theory for feminist theory and politics. She holds a feminist realist position and examines a number of Madonna texts, including the ‘Nightline interview, and the videos Rock the Vote and Vogue to illustrate the political dangers inherent in mistaking individual play for social intervention’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:8). Mandzuik’s critique of what postmodernism has to offer feminism is based on what she sees as inauthentic and ‘ephemeral promises of liberation’. She claims that postmodernism denies women any real position from which to speak. Mandzuik, while critical of feminist ‘identity polities’, advocates a more reflective reworking of such politics and she warns against a postmodern feminist politics as exemplified by Madonna. From Mandzuik’s feminist realist position, to adopt a postmodernist feminist position is simply to deny women ‘as real subjects’ a voice and a position from which to speak, and involves relinquishing real politics. As Mandzuik comments, this is tantamount to ‘sleeping with the enemy’.
Mandzuik argues that Madonna’s texts constantly equate pleasure with power and sexuality with control. She notes that Madonna’s assertion that personal freedom and sexuality are inextricably linked is part of a larger debate over political articulation in contemporary feminist theory. Mandzuik (1993:168) claims that ‘Madonna is a fitting representation of feminism’s theoretical struggle to come to terms with the intersection of cultural images and political practices.’
She notes that, for feminism, ‘the postmodern holds out a theoretical enticement to leave the public sphere of reason for the private, localized regions of pleasure’ (Mandzuik 1993:169). Mandzuik asks whether feminism’s enticement by the postmodern has resulted in feminism ‘relinquishing something too precious by celebrating the political potential of images like those projected by Madonna’ (ibid,.). She expresses a deep concern with feminism’s ‘enticement’ by postmodernism. She argues that to move from an analysis of Madonna texts to the interrogation of the interchange between feminism and postmodernism entails a large step from praxis back to theory.
Mandzuik investigates three of ‘Madonna’s texts’ and central to all texts is Madonna’s insistence on the individual ownership of her sexuality, and the ‘conflation of sexual expression and political freedom within her discourse’ (Mandzuik 1993:170). She considers first Madonna’s appearance on Nightline, which she argues stands as Madonna’s most fiercely ‘modernist’ appearance on television.
Madonna’s defence against some of the charges made by feminists about her work is to assert ‘authorial intentionality’ and ‘unified identity’. As Mandzuik (1993:172) argues, Madonna’s appearance on Nightline was framed in terms of a ‘feminist realist epistemology’ which argues for ‘a direct relationship between public images and public responsibility as the grounds for feminist polities’. In assessing Madonna’s performance on Nightline Mandzuik (1993:173) comments that ‘Feminist politics conceived as cultural intervention in the name of woman seems hopelessly bound up with the discourse of essentialism and epistemology, domination and subjugation.’
Mandzuik’s summary of Madonna’s Rock the Vote video ‘underscores questions of feminist realist epistemology and its alternatives’ (Mandzuik 1993:175)9 and leads Mandzuik to comment that ‘It is a particularly good example of a text where representational politics engages and exposes the liberal pluralist belief in the transparency of images and the serious facade of interventionist polities’ (ibid). Mandzuik notes that Madonna, as a signifier of both femaleness and Americanness, operates at a number of discursive levels and challenges the politics of feminist realist epistemology. The ‘theoretical boundaries that view representation as an unproblematic process’ (ibid.) are as a result challenged. The deficits of the realist model thus make a theoretical move in the direction of postmodernism more attractive.
The multiplicity characteristic of the alternative definition of politics in postmodernism is a feature of Madonna’s 1990 video Vogue. As Mandzuik (1993:178-179) notes, ‘the content of the lyrics and the discourse of posing that constitute this video offer the perfect textualization of the postmodern dream of a politics in which subjectivities constantly traverse different forms’. The shooting of the video in black and white adds to the sense of timelessness of the setting. Further, Mandzuik notes that the men in Vogue, as in Rock the Vote, are ‘coded as gay’ and ‘the act of voguing is traceable to the gay subculture in which various personas and identities are enacted in dance and drag as a form of subversion of and opposition to the dominant heterosexual culture’ (Mandzuik 1993:179). Mandzuik notes the postmodern vision of politics is as problematic as the politics of feminist realist epistemology, for it ‘refuses responsibility for itself while reinforcing the very power structures and boundaries it promises to violate’ (Mandzuik 1993:180). The problem for feminism of postmodernism is that, ‘when feminism accepts the dehistoricizing tendency of the postmodern, it loses its specificity as a discourse different from and in opposition to the historicized power of patriarchal narratives’ (Mandzuik 1993:181).
Mandzuik (1993:181) maintains that postmodern feminism involves the abandonment of ‘feminism’s ability to retain its status as a theoretical enterprise motivated by critique’. Christine di Stefano (1990:73) argues that the abandonment of categories within postmodern feminism produces what she calls ‘the postfeminist tendency’, that is, ‘a refusal to privilege any particular form of difference or identity against the hegemonic mainstream’. As Mandzuik comments, regardless of how much fun Madonna’s notion of ‘voguing’ may be, ‘posturing’ cannot be allowed to replace politics. She contends that ‘If feminism relinquishes the authority of identity in favour of an elided distinction between politics and pleasures, we have gained nothing but an invitation to participate in the endless dance of non commitment’ (Mandzuik 1993:182). Thus, for Mandzuik the postmodern feminist politics as represented by Madonna’s texts involves the replacing of intervention or resistance with the ‘discourse of style’.