The relationship between Madonna’s representational politics and feminist theory is a complicated one. A number of theorists have attempted to investigate the problem of representational politics by engaging with different dimensions of the ‘Madonna paradigm as an equivocal challenge to feminism as it is both lived and theorized within patriarchal culture’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:8).

E. Ann Kaplan’s (1993) essay ‘Madonna Politics: Perversion, Repression or Subversion? Or Masks and/as Master-y’ provides a wide-ranging analysis of the various cultural discourses within which Madonna has been constructed. She draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the mask, which locates differing conceptions of the mask in history.7 Kaplan wishes to use the concept of the mask in a Foucauldian sense in representing the fact that there is no stable identity (Foucault 198la).8 She investigates Bakhtinian theories of the mask in relation to strategies of subversion, and uses the concept of the mask to investigate resistance to the ‘patriarchal feminine’. Kaplan has not rejected concepts such as patriarchy and does not claim a postfeminist position. In this context she cautions against an over-optimistic interpretation of Madonna’s work, particularly the claim that her work ‘celebrates a girl culture’ which is resistive to patriarchy. At the same time, Kaplan presents a ‘compelling argument for the subversive potential of Madonna’s masks that eschew any inherent notion of identity’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:8).

Kaplan maintains that there are three dominant stances to what she describes as the ‘Madonna phenomenon’: the first she identifies as ‘perversion’, which she defines as the somewhat censorial attitude to Madonna by a number of countries including the US; the second is identified as ‘repression’; and the third as subversion. Many of Madonna’s videos and performances have been censored, sometimes even by the conglomerates which paid for the advertisement. Kaplan cites the case of the video/advertisement Like a Prayer, for which Madonna had been paid US$5 million which was subsequently censored by Pepsi-Cola. In addition, the video Justify My Love was censored by MTV and the Blond Ambition Tour was censored in some US cities. As Kaplan (1993:152) notes, the responses present Madonna ‘as a cheap exhibitionist at best, a pervert at worst’ and the media generally seem ‘unaware of the level of fantasy within which Madonna explicitly works’.

The second response to Madonna is ‘repression’. In this category Kaplan frames the ‘Madonna phenomenon’ within a wider discussion of psychoanalytic theory. Kaplan draws on the work of Freud, Lacan and Laura Mulvey (1975, 1991), to explain the implications of this concept. She cites Mulvey’s (1991) essay ‘Xala and Fetishism’ to show how an abstracted quality ‘(eroticism, status, power) is added to a material thing (the object to be consumed)’ and combines this with an analysis of Freud’s concept of fetishism. Kaplan (1993:152) maintains that this partly explains ‘the attraction of icons like Madonna who cover over or stand in for castration anxiety’.

Kaplan outlines the concept of ‘fetishism’ as developed in Mulvey’s (1975) work:

Freud’s theory of the fetish was the most semiotic of the perversions because the fetishist focuses on the sign (the shoe, the fur collar) that replaces the actual object…Within the Lacanian framework, men and women alike, if for different reasons, desire the phallus. Stars like Madonna fill this space of desire—this gap that constitutes the subject in desire for an object.

(Kaplan 1993:152)

The third dimension, and one which has resonance in the context of the debate around Madonna as a potential ‘site of resistance’, is ‘subversion’. One of the problems inherent in the concept of subversion is that it keeps ‘binarisms intact’. Kaplan (1993:156) points out that the ‘approach leaves untouched the notion of individual subjects. It entails deciding.. .if Madonna subverts the patriarchal feminine by unmasking it or whether she ultimately reinscribes the patriarchal feminine by allowing her body to be recuperated for voyeurism.’

A second approach to understanding Madonna’s subversive potential can be found inJudith Butler’s (1990a) theory of ‘parodic performance’. As Kaplan notes,

Butler’s notion of challenging binary constructs through parodic play with gender stereotypes in gay, trans-sexual and carnivalesque reversals is attractive.

In many ways Madonna would seem to precisely embody what Butler believes is the most useful future strategy to avoid oppressive binary ‘engendering’.

(Kaplan 1993:156)

Butler works through a number of possibilities for subverting and displacing ‘naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power, to make gender trouble’ (Butler 1990a:33-34). In order to do this Butler suggests a process of ‘mobilization, subversive confusion and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to keep gender in its place’ (ibid.). One of the limitations of Butler’s approach is that, as with many feminist theorists interested to ‘unpack’ issues of identity and subjectivity, she does not engage with cultural texts. However Kaplan contends that many of Madonna’s videos can be seen within the context of Butler’s mobilisation of strategies of subversion of ‘constitutive categories of gender’ (ibid).

Kaplan provides a range of examples from Madonna’s work which she claims force the viewer to question and challenge gender constructions. She notes that

The cross-dressing in videos like Express Yourself, the shocking violation of conventional sexual representations on prime-time television in Justify My Love…the constant parody through exaggeration of pornographic symbols in Open Your Heart and then throughout the Blond Ambition performance – these are just some of the ways in which Madonna has increasingly subverted dominant gender categories.

(Kaplan 1993:157)

Butler’s model of subversion is framed within a ‘politics of the signifier’, which, as Kaplan (1993:159) points out, sees agency as meaningful only within specific ‘gender sign systems’; Butler’s subject is only ‘a surface constituted through signs’. Kaplan points out that Butler’s theories tend ‘to mesh. with the concept of the mask in ancient folklore’.

Drawing on the two theories of the mask, Kaplan shows how they are useful in distinguishing ‘two “subversion” themes’ in relation to Madonna’s texts: first, ‘Madonna as resisting “a patriarchal feminine” in offering alternative female identification (the patriarchal mask can be abandoned and the “real” woman can step forth)’ (Kaplan 1993:150); and second, Madonna as problematising ‘the bourgeois illusion of “real” individual gendered selves’.

Kaplan uses the concept of the mask to highlight three main issues relating to

theories of subjectivity in relation to Madonna’s work. First, argues Kaplan, there is the theory that the Madonna image

adopts one mask after another to expose the fact that there is no ‘essential’ self and therefore no essential feminine but only cultural constructions – that is, the mask as mastery, as play with the given gender sign system, as, in Freudian terms, deployment and exposure of the oppressive processes of the fetish that rests on fear of castration. Secondly there is the theory that the Madonna image self consciously uses the mask to reproduce patriarchal modes and fantasies—the mask as deception. Finally there is the notion that the Madonna image offers a positive role model for young women in refusing the passive patriarchal feminine, unmasking it and replacing it with strong, autonomous female images.

(Kaplan 1993:160)

However, Kaplan goes on to note that what none of these positions offer is an analysis of Madonna as commodity and how this interacts with an oppositional politics. Kaplan argues that there is a need to understand how issues of ‘commodification’ intersect with issues of subjectivity and gender.

She draws on Butler (1990a) to show ‘that positing a strong or autonomous female subject leaves intact gender bi-polarities and institutional structures that given gender positions sustain’ (Kaplan 1993:159). As Kaplan notes, these binarisms in turn marginalise gay and lesbian sexual practices. Kaplan comments that, despite Madonna’s consistent support for gay and lesbian sex, it is argued her videos are predominantly heterosexist and even the video Justify My Love has been seen as ‘masking the lesbian scene or (making) it a spectacle for the male gaze—in the text’ (Kaplan 1993:161).

Kaplan concludes in maintaining that Madonna may well construct herself as merely making use of ‘consumption economies’ that she neither created nor can be held responsible for. However, Madonna has never addressed the process of commodification or the material level of stardom in anything other than a casual way.