Madonna, pleasure and ‘cultural populism’
The location of popular culture at the intersection of debates around modernism and postmodernism can be seen to coalesce around a number of themes, including representational politics, (subcultural) identities and cultural theory. Centrally placed in many of these debates has been the popular cultural phenomenon of Madonna, which can act as a valuable case study framing a particular moment in cultural studies and more particularly feminist/ postfeminist inflections of it.
The work of the cultural theorist and criticJohn Fiske (1987a, 1987b, 1889a, 1989b) has been influential both in his contribution to the significance of popular culture generally and more specifically in his analysis of the representational politics around Madonna. Fiske’s definition of popular culture is quite different to that of other cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall or Tony Bennett. Fiske, as Tester (1994:25) notes, is more concerned to emphasise those aspects of popular culture which make certain products and activities pleasurable. Despite the importance of this definition of popular culture in Fiske’s work, he does not ignore the political dimensions of cultural studies. Fiske (1989a:43) notes that ‘popular culture is always formed in reaction to, and never as part of, the forces of domination’. Elsewhere Fiske, clearly influenced by postmodernist and poststructuralist interventions into popular culture, claims that ‘The differences that I call popular are produced by and for the various formations of the people: they oppose and disrupt the organized disciplined individualities produced by the mechanisms of surveillance, examination and information’ (Fiske 1992:161).
Fiske’s (1987b:239) emphasis on popular culture as providing ‘pleasure in the processes of making meanings’ draws on the work of Roland Barthes, who maintained in his later work that ‘markedly polysemous texts generate particular intense and liberating pleasures’ (During 1993a: 18). Fiske, in writing about Madonna as a popular cultural form, maintains that she offered her fans ‘her own form of feminist ideology-critique’ (1987a:275). He claims that Madonna ‘calls into question binary oppositions as a way of conceptualizing women’, and maintains that Madonna offers young girls the opportunity to find independent meanings of their own feminine sexuality.
However, there are a number of problems with Fiske’s analysis. Kaplan claims that one of the problems involves a shift
from the level of discourse analysis (how girls are constituted by male adolescent culture or what female images are in circulation) to the level of lived psychological or social ‘development’ as if such development were not always already discursively constituted.
A second problem which emerges is the issue of what During (1993a:18) calls ‘cultural populism’ and to what extent this passes over the question of co-option.6 He claims that Madonna’s later work in particular has been very much aligned with the ‘needs of capital’. During (1993a:18) points out that Madonna the ‘material girl’ subtly (in some cases, not so subtly) draws from the ‘iconography of sexuality (including “perverse” sex like S and M)’ as part of her repertoire, extending to new and larger markets, the representational industry around Madonna. Thus Madonna, at the same time as claiming subversion and transgression, is also promotional of market forces. However, During does recognise that ‘a cultural populism’ which can celebrate Madonna can also be a positive one. He comments:
This is not to say that Madonna is not an important agent in breaking down the barriers which organised the relation between the popular and the sexual as well as the popular and femininity, nor is it to say that entering cultural markets means co-option in any rigid or formal way…cultural populism requires a very nuanced account of these relations between cultural markets and cultural products, and between culture and politics, in order convincingly to celebrate (some) popular culture as progressive.