Postfeminism and representational politics
Schwichtenberg (1993) explores the issue of gay and lesbian representational politics around Madonna within the context of the broader theoretical debate around a postmodern feminism.11 As Schwichtenberg (1993:7) contends, ‘Madonna’s postmodern interventions prey open a space in the mainstream to provide sexual minorities with visibility and confirmation’. She notes that much of Madonna’s later work—Express Yourself, Vogue, Justify My Love, the Blend Ambition Tour and Truth or Dare, for example—‘deals explicitly with representations of sexuality that have particular resonance for gay and lesbian audiences but are typically misread or ignored by the mainstream’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:6). Schwichtenberg goes on to argue that ‘The Madonna paradigm provides the impetus to shift the margins to the center and thus it highlights the complexities of gay and lesbian politics and pleasures as they are lived, constructed and contested’ (ibid).
In her essay ‘Madonna’s Postmodern Feminism: Bringing the Margins to the Centre’, Schwichtenberg argues from a postmodern feminist perspective and cites Madonna’s later music videos (Express Yourself and Justify My Love) within the context of the ongoing feminist/postmodernist debate to illustrate how ‘Madonna’s postmodern representational strategies challenge the foundational “truths” of sex and gender’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:7). She contends that the use of deconstruction and sexual multiplicity in Madonna’s texts address marginal groups (such as gay men and lesbians) ‘while at the same time provoking feminism to rethink its own lines, limits and boundaries’ (ibid). She argues that Madonna’s multiple video incarnations have been described as a postmodern challenge to aesthetic boundaries, and refers to Kaplan’s (1987:126) view that Madonna’s ‘postmodern feminism’ is part of a larger postmodern phenomenon in her blurring of boundaries such as male/female, high/popular art, fiction/ reality, private/public.
Schwichtenberg notes that Madonna’s postmodernism is of particular concern for feminists, who see postmodernism’s lack of authenticity, unity and stable categories as challenging the modernist foundational tenets of feminism. She considers the debate around the intersection of feminism and postmodernism and notes that, while ‘feminists have willingly subordinated philosophy to social criticism, philosophy as a male preserve has continued to subordinate questions of feminism’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:130). She goes on to discuss postmodernism’s neglect of generalised aspects of modernist social theory, citing both Christine di Stefano (1990) and Kate Soper (1990), who maintain that ‘postmodernism with its emphasis on fragmented identities runs the risk of destroying or subverting a feminism that, as gender politics, is based on a unified conception of women as social subjects’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:131).
In the debate surrounding the relevance of postmodernism for feminism, Schwichtenberg notes that postmodernism may not be a political liability for feminism. She draws on the concept of simulation, the key concept of Jean Baudrillard’s (1983) postmodern theory, which she points out is often overlooked in feminist debates. She states that ‘simulation which stresses the artificial as “dress – ups”, “put-ons” and “make-overs” is not a political liability for a postmodern feminism intent on reclaiming simulation for the “other”’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:132). Schwichtenberg argues that this is relevant for ‘Madonna’s political stylistics’ and their appeal for lesbian feminists who she argues have long been ‘the other’ in feminism.
Schwichtenberg contextualises Madonna within Baudrillard’s theory and notes that ‘simulation is the pivotal term for a postmodern feminism that addresses differences between and among women’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:132). She argues (1993:133) that Madonna uses simulation strategically to challenge the stable notion of gender as sexual difference, and, although Baudrillard’s postmodernism may appear to have nothing in it for feminism, she argues that the concept of simulation challenges the binary opposition of male/female, which she maintains ‘buttressed the edifice of heterosexuality, ostensibly excluding all “others” who did not accede to the male/female couplet (de Lauretis 1986, 1987)’.Using the concept of simulation, Schwichtenberg shows how constructions of gender, such as femininity, can be regarded as artifice or masquerade. She cites the work of psychoanalystJoan Riviere (1926), who notes that ‘women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and retribution feared from men’. However, Schwichtenberg notes that although Riviere contends that ‘femininity is used as a masquerade in the form of “protective coloration” she is unwilling to assert that all femininity is put on’ (cited in Schwichtenberg 1993:133).
Schwichtenberg goes on to consider drag as a second form of representational strategy used by Madonna. She maintains that
in Madonna’s video Express Yourself, drag is a deconstructive performance
staged against the futuristic intertextual backdrop of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
This revitalised postmodern backdrop provides a pastiche of sexually loaded
signifiers that reference everything from S/M to gay male pornography thereby setting the stage for a suited Madonna (Curry, 1990).
Schwichtenberg cites Dempster in stating that Madonna’s drag dance resonates with postmodern dance ‘which directs attention away from any specific image of the body and towards the process of constructing all bodies’ (Dempster 1988:48).
Schwichtenberg develops her argument further to maintain that, if for postmodern feminism the category of gender has collapsed, then the next stage is to deconstruct sex as the basis of identity. She asserts that
„.it is time for a break—a radical break from the impoverished script of univocal sexuality. Here the postmodern proliferation of bodies, pleasures and knowledges advocated by Michel Foucault (1980) deregulates the univocal aim of sexual agency, thereby calling into question the fundamental categories of sex and gender as the basis for a ‘unified identity’.
Schwichtenberg notes that a range of charges have been brought against Madonna’s Justify My Love, including nudity, bisexuality, sadomasochism and multiple partners (group sex), which she argues is judged by a single sexual standard.
Schwichtenberg draws on Judith Butler’s work on the deconstruction of sex as the basis of identity. Butler’s article ‘The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess’ (1990b:110) argues that ‘Fantasy enacts a splitting or fragmentation or perhaps better a multiplication or proliferation of identifications that puts the very locatability of identity into question.’ Butler draws on the Foucauldian strategy of proliferation which combats the attack on sexual pluralism by displacing ‘the binary structures of gay and straight as discursively uncontrollable’ (ibid.).
Drawing on Madonna’s video Justify My Love and others, Schwichtenberg argues that, rather than drawing clearer boundaries between feminism and postmodernism, movement should be in the direction of ‘the postmodern possibilities of multifaceted alliances’. As Schwichtenberg (1993:140) notes, Madonna’s popularity ‘traverses the ranks of cross-dressers, drag queens, “Dykes for Madonna” and various gay and lesbian sex radicals, [which] brings the margins to the center of feminist debate through representational strategies’. Schwichtenberg contends that feminism inflected by postmodernism may be more radical in its range of possibilities and potential sites of resistance. She notes that gay men and lesbians have been in the forefront of political movements challenging notions of identity. Schwichtenberg (1993:140) argues that ‘postmodern sex and gender representations as practiced within the gay community and popularised by Madonna can fracture the notion of “an identity” with a motley pastiche of interests, alignments and identities that intersect at decisive moments’.
Schwichtenberg maintains that Madonna’s videos, through the use of strategies of simulation, through masquerade, fantasy and drag, ‘fissure the destabilized sex identity’ and advance a sexual pluralism. Drawing on the relationship between the deconstruction of identity and the deconstruction of politics, Butler (1990a:148) argues that the two are not the same and the former ‘establishes as political the very terms through which identity is articulated’. Schwichtenberg concludes that postmodernism’s inauguration of regulation and fragmented identities need not be the cause of political pessimism, ‘especially in regard to “others” who have lived in the shadows of realist epistemology and sex and gender essentialism’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:141).
The intersection of postfeminist debates with popular culture and popular cultural forms is potentially a rich one for investigating representational politics and issues of identity. These elements are central for encapsulating the concept of feminist pluralism in its engagement with cultural theory, particularly postmodernism. This chapter has considered postfeminism’s redefinition and re-evaluation of popular culture, as an area of political and representational contestation. These debates can be seen to have coalesced around Madonna as a popular cultural icon. The intersection of postfeminist debates around Madonna can be seen as representative of a particular moment in feminism’s intervention into cultural studies.