POPULARISING REPRESENTATIONAL POLITICS:. MADONNA AND THE TEXTUAL POLITICS OF DIFFERENCE
It is against this theoretical background and the demand for a proliferation of representations of sexualities that the emergence of Madonna as a ‘gay icon’ can be read. As Hann (1995:5) comments, ‘Madonna embodies one accessible point in popular culture where representations of homoerotica, bisexuality, s/m, sexual freedom etc reach the wider public’. The central element in Madonna’s ‘positioning’ is her ‘ambivalence’. On one level Madonna can be ‘read’ as the ‘traditional erotic spectacle for male fantasies’; at another level ‘her ambivalence is thought to create spaces for a lesbian/gay oppositional reading’ (ibid.). In this context Madonna’s representations can be seen as a ‘site of contestation’ for a range of identities and practices. As Hann contends, this is seen ‘as positive by many gays and lesbians fighting for their identity and rights in the midst of a conservative backlash in the West’, and reifies essentialist ‘ideals of identity’ (ibid). It is the sense of ambiguity that belongs to the politics of the ‘queer nation’.
Lisa Henderson’s article Justify Our Love: Madonna and the Politics of Queer Sex’ (1993) raises many of the issues around Madonna’s status as a ‘queer icon’, including: the idea of cultural representations as ‘sites of contestation’; Madonna as a signifier of sexual resistance; Madonna as the embodiment of ‘strategies of proliferation and diversity’; and Madonna as encouraging the expression of lesbian lust and fantasies.
Schwichtenberg (1993:6) claims that much of Madonna’s later work (Express Yourself, Vogue, Justify My Love, the Blond Ambition Tour and Truth or Dare) deals explicitly with representations of sexuality that have particular resonance for gay and lesbian audiences. She argues that they ‘recontextualise those elements, within gay history, fantasy and political struggle’ (ibid.). Schwichtenberg claims that the Madonna paradigm provides the impetus to shift ‘the margins to the centre’ and thus ‘it highlights the complexities of gay and lesbian politics and pleasures as they are lived, constructed and contested’ (ibid.).
Henderson draws on the censorship controversy around Justify My Love as a centrepiece within which to examine a number of discourses that situate Madonna within the context of the sex and pornography debates. Henderson, arguing from an anti-antipornography position, ‘affirms the pleasures of Madonna’s gay-directed rearticulations and visibility; however she concedes that, unlike Madonna, gay and lesbian people represent an oppressed minority of whom sex-identification entails tremendous risk’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:6).
Henderson contextualises Madonna in relation to the gay community. She notes that Madonna, unlike Robert Mapplethorpe, has never identified herself as a gay artist. Madonna, also unlike Mapplethorpe, has ‘circulated bits and pieces of lesbian and gay subculture in popular genres to popular audiences. Especially for many young gay people in the United States Madonna came closer than any other contemporary celebrity to being an above ground queer icon’ (Henderson 1993:108). Henderson considers Madonna’s ‘positioning’ in relation to gay politics and the gay community and in relation to the essential ambiguity in much of Madonna’s work. She notes that for many lesbians and gays the lyrics of Justify My Love (among others) articulate the gay community’s ‘refusal to await sanction, from [Jessie] Helms, or the church, to have sex and to forge their identities through the medium of sexual polities’ (Henderson 1993:122). However, as Henderson goes on to point out, the messages in Madonna’s lyrics are double-edged, both liberating and conforming, and Madonna remains ‘the essential female spectacle’ appealing to heterosexual male fantasy. Henderson claims that ‘Many of Justify My Love’s sexual gestures depend on dominance and subordination for their effect, overturning the standard of mutuality in much feminist and humanist rethinking of sexual relationships’ (ibid.).
The issue of pornography is raised by Henderson (1993:115) in the context of a broader discussion of sexual freedom, questions of legitimacy, and the political significance of pornography and sexual practices ‘(penetration, sadomasochism, lesbian butch/femme roles)’. She outlines the antipornography and the anti-antipornography7 positions as follows: ‘In characterising the antipornography stance, I have noted elsewhere that female subordination in patriarchy is assumed to be both the cause and effect of the female degradation in pornography (Henderson, 1991:3)’ (ibid.). Henderson indicates that for the anti-antipornography lobby the suppression of pornography is part of a broader definition of sexual expression, including lesbian sex. She claims that as with ‘earlier songs and videos (e. g. Open Your Heart, Express Yourself and Hanky Panky), Justify My Love can thus be read from the anti-antipornography position, which separates power and coercion rather than power and sex’ (Henderson 1993:115-116).
Henderson also shows how Justify My Love is available for lesbian reading, now codified as ‘oppositional reading’.8 As she states, ‘however gratifying even a glimpse of eroticism may be, lesbian viewers hardly need to await pop culture’s nervous forays into homosexuality in order to produce their own erotic identifications’ (ibid.). Henderson, in drawing on this range of cultural contexts, shows the lesbian and gay appeals of Justify My Love; however, as she indicates, ‘the context is created through, not despite its contradictions and volatilities’ (ibid.).
Henderson considers how Madonna, and in particular Justify My Love, is articulated by the gay press in terms of lesbian and gay politics and identity. Many writers in the gay press, she notes, go to the heart of Madonna’s appeal to lesbian and gay audiences:
These include her willingness to act as a political figure as well as a popular one and to recognise that such fraught domains as sex, religion, and family, are indeed political constructions, especially for lesbian and gay audiences. Like politics, the sex in Madonna’s repertoire is conspicuously there.
Within the gay press Henderson (1993:119) shows that Madonna becomes ‘a queer icon whose very sensibilities are “gay” and whose ironies resonate with particular power in lesbian and gay imaginations’. Don Shewey (1991:44), who interviewed Madonna for The Advocate, a national lesbian and gay magazine, claims that ‘Hollywood doesn’t really get Madonna. She doesn’t fit any past models of Hollywood stardom’ (cited in Henderson 1993:119).
Another group of writers in mainstream publications, feminist writers, have also focused on where Madonna and Justify My Love fit into contemporary feminist politics. Their critiques reflect the more ambivalent relationships between Madonna and feminism around ‘sexual pleasure and representation’. Henderson, however notes that gay writers give Madonna a more generous appraisal. Michael Musto9 acclaims Madonna’s ‘artifice and multiplicity as a bridge between lesbian and gay fans’:
Her pride, flamboyance and glamour reach out to gay guys as much as her butch/femme dichotomy and her refusal to be victimised strike a cord in lesbians. As a result, Madonna—the great leveller, a breath mint and candymint—is the first superstar to appeal equally to both camps.
(cited in Henderson 1994:121)
Henderson notes in conclusion that, despite Madonna’s appeal to the gay community, gay and lesbian writers remain sceptical about the double edge of Madonna’s appeal. Henderson (1993:123) argues that ‘Madonna’s penchant for metamorphosis beckons to us to recognise and toy with our own self-construction’, but, as she points out, the ‘universe’ available to most people is a much more limited one. In addition Madonna’s ‘plasticity’ carries with it many of ‘the oppressive meanings of consumer society’, as well as retaining the greater audience and greatest profit. As Henderson notes, ‘It is difficult finally to acknowledge the divided self and engage the pleasure of masquerade while at the same time fighting a strikingly antagonistic, legal and social system’ (ibid.). She maintains that
Madonna cannot be seen to be the answer to significant social and political problems but in terms of articulating and problematising the issue of representation for the lesbian and gay community, she has captured the politically powerful ground of the popular.
Patton, like Henderson, contextualises the debate around lesbian and gay identity and politics and its representations within a political and theoretical context. Patton identifies the same critiques of the internal operations and theoretical framework developed within lesbian and gay politics as developed within feminism. She claims that by ‘the end of the 1980s, much of the theoretical work in lesbian and gay studies de-essentialized the once apparently stable “homosexuality”’ (Patton 1993:82). The process of self-reflection was further developed by poststructuralist and postmodernist debates. As Patton notes
poststructuralist work appeared to undercut the claims of the most visible gay and lesbian rights organisations that had, for more than two decades, hitched their wagons to the rhetoric and practices of postwar US Minority politics.. .lesbian and gay critics were caught between the desire for theoretical clarity and the hope for political and cultural freedom.
Schwichtenberg (1993:6) claims that, for Patton, Madonna’s Vogue serves as a touchstone from which she develops a poststructuralist theory that explains the formation of subaltern memory in relation to gay politics, identity and representation. Schwichtenberg shows how ‘Patton explores the tensions between Madonna’s liberation body politic in Vogue and the live experience of voguing as a kind of “folk” dance that originated among black and Hispanic queens (a particular gay, subaltern formation)’ (ibid.).
Patton’s theory explores the possibilities of cultural representations around Madonna’s video Vogue. As such it offers a number of openings for debates in the area of popular culture and gay cultural identity and representation. Patton’s analysis positions debates around Madonna’s appropriation and commodification of elements of gay, popular and cultural identity against debates which understand her position as establishing ‘sites of resistance’ in popular culture. In addition, Patton’s (1993:86) analysis of voguing establishes new ways of conceptualising gay identity because of its link to non-white gay culture. Finally Patton draws on the work of Michel Foucault10 to develop the concept of ‘lieux de memoire’.11 As Schwichtenberg (1993:6) comments, Patton gives a ‘provocative and nuanced account of the political stakes invested in popular embodiments of subaltern memory’.
Patton outlines the theoretical debates that frame the analysis of black and gay culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and positions Madonna and Madonna’s work in relation to these wider debates. She observes that
where some critics have viewed Vogue and Madonna’s work in general as parasitic on, variously, black and gay culture and even on feminism, I will suggest that she re-routes through mass culture quotidian critiques of dominant culture (in this case voguing’s critique of whiteness and of gender) making them more available as places of resistance…
Patton at one and the same time undertakes an ideological critique of ‘Voguing’ as an art form, and a textual analysis of Madonna’s music video Vogue. She goes on to say that
what seemed vital about the diffusion of voguing through release of the video was the battle it sparked over control of the popular memory of homosexuality, for a new generation of queens. Young gay men and women were coming out through their imitation of voguing and Madonna. They were learning to remember their bodies in a critique of gender that is autonomous of gay liberation and feminism.
Patton charts the ‘popular history of homosexuality’ in terms of homosexual subcultures which she maintains ‘developed elaborate signifiers of membership’ (1993:87).12 Vogue and voguing, she notes, is positioned at a site of intersection of race and gender in terms of its representation and history:
In both its intertextual components and in the hype about the video’s subject— voguing— Vogue constitutes a site of memory reconstituting Afro-Latin and gay history due to: (1) its prominence and popularity, (2) its self-referential claims to being a kind of history and (3) its intertextual linkages.
Patton develops the theme of history in terms of the text itself, maintaining that Vogue can be ‘read’ in historical terms because of its use of black-and-white photography and ‘retro’ costuming. In addition, Patton claims that the listing of the names of iconic figures from gay male culture are both a traditional form of history and a traditional mode of establishing one’s lineage and thus one’s authority to speak. However,
textual analysis provides us with only a glimpse of the ways in which popular cultural artifacts connect with a wide range of memories and folk knowledges; textual analysis is mute at the moment that we try to understand how dancers operate in the lieux de memoire.
In conclusion, Patton (1993:98) notes that, while the ‘moves of voguing deconstruct gender and race’, Vogue itself makes it problematic to understand why such a process of deconstruction is necessary. As she indicates, ‘in constructing its historicity, Vogue alludes to a popular memory of repression that it then anxiously undercuts by atomizing and dequeening the performance of the dance’ (ibid.).
The weight of both Henderson and Patton is on the capabilities of cultural readers. Kemp (1994:11) comments that, while putting emphasis on the importance of diverse cultural readers, this in itself cannot provide a complete analysis of how meaning is created. A fuller explanation would also take account of the processes that create these readers, as they cannot be understood as completely free agents. As he claims, ‘To suggest this would be to ignore the possibility that cultural products can exert any normalising influence, and that the intended meanings of culture might have effects upon audiences’ (ibid).