Tuning In: Glee's “The Power of Madonna”

Alyx Vesey
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After much anticipation, Glee’s “The Power of Madonna” finally aired on Tuesday. I watched while following Bitch contributor Sara Reihani’s live-tweets on “Power.” 

In all candor, I wasn’t impressed with tonight’s episode. Some of my dissatisfaction with ”Power” may have to do with lofty expectations. Also, though I like Madonna, I find her contributions to feminism and womankind to be overpraised. Like many pop stars, Madonna has always been relied on producers, songwriters, music video directors, journalists, publicists, stylists, and many others to help her create “Madonna”, which challenges just how singular a presence she really is.

Furthermore, while the Material Girl has a robust catalog of pop anthems, I would’ve been happier to see the cast pay tribute to the work of another empowered female pop star who ruled the 80s: Janet, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty. Jackson’s politicized contributions to pop music are often ignored. “Control” is Jackson’s salute to her own burgeoning sense of autonomy. “What Have You Done For Me Lately?“ is a woman’s demand that her partner treat her with the respect she deserves. ”The Pleasure Principle“ celebrated female desire and sexual agency several years before janet. was released. “Rhythm Nation” urges for a peaceful end to racism. “New Agenda” encourages black women to reclaim their worth after centuries of oppression. “Free Xone” speaks out against homophobia. “What About” interrogates intimate partner abuse. “Together Again” eulogizes a friend of Jackson’s who died of AIDS. Ms. Jackson’s first name is most certainly not “baby.”

Despite Will Schuester using Madonna as a teaching tool because of Sue Sylvester’s influence, I found the episode and the incorporation of Madonna’s oeuvre to be disappointing. Madonna’s role in empowering members of New Directions, the Cheerios, and virginal guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury enforced staid gender stereotyping and pretty conventional attitudes toward sexuality. Most of the girls took Madonna’s message to mean self-empowerment through “owning” their sexuality, culminating in a performance of “Like a Virgin.” Yet Pillsbury and Rachel Berry remain virgins. I found this unsatisfying, primarily because Finn Hudson does have sex for the first time, but as it’s with Cheerio Santana Lopez, who he doesn’t care about, he regrets that it “wasn’t special.”

These exchanges prompt Schuester and Hudson, along with New Directions member Artie Abrams, to recognize that they’ve been mistreating the ladies in their lives. The guys in New Directions express this musically by rehearsing “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” The song choice indicates they’ve matured in their views toward women and girls through Madonna, as they originally felt uncomfortable performing her songs. They also read the spoken introduction together, which is actually a sampled monologue delivered by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film The Cement Garden. However, some of their actions are misguided acts of chivalry. While Schuester realizes he put too much pressure on Pillsbury, he also persuades her into counseling. As Reihani noted, it would’ve been nice if she made that call for herself.

I also found it disconcerting that Madonna is upheld as a role model for young girls without any mention of more contemporary female artists. If Fox isn’t down with Beth Ditto, Karen O, or M.I.A., what about Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, or Lady Gaga? None of these public figures are perfect, but to have Pillsbury suggest that it’s either Madonna or Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or Ann Coulter is outdated and insensitive.

Frankly, the show seemed like 50-minute advertisement for Madonna’s Celebration retrospective. Thus, I was also disconcerted by Sylvester’s unchecked hero(ine) worship. While I like the connections Sylvester drew between Madonna’s and her own commanding presence, I didn’t appreciate that she was perhaps the worst perpetrator of the Madonna = sex = power rhetoric the show was espousing. She made the Cheerios date middle school boys, took away their last names, and pumped Madonna songs through the school intercoms. She even denied Pillsbury the ability to listen to Madonna because she didn’t own her confidence (i.e., sexuality) enough.

I was surprised by Kurt Hummel and Mercedes Jones, who shook things up in “Power.” It turns out they were the ones who created the “Vogue” video we were all talking about last week. They perform “4 Minutes to Save the World” with the Cheerios. They join the squad because, as they explain to Schuester, they are tired of being marginalized. This complaint of course echoes the criticisms many have made about the show relegating token characters to the background. Maybe they can get Quinn Fabray back on the squad, as she hasn’t made much noise since the season resumed. I’d be fine with seeing a pregnant cheerleader execute a floor routine on stilts.

But these moments aren’t enough. Once again, Berry is showcased in two songs: ”Express Yourself” and “Like a Prayer.” She and Hudson also do a mash-up of “Borderline” and ”Open Your Heart,” which is intended to ramp up continued romantic interest in the couple. Jones does tear it up with some solo runs on “Express Yourself” and ”Like a Prayer.” But this is just as she and the viewers at home predicted, thus making the episode’s events at once meet and miss expectations.

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25 Comments Have Been Posted


Agreed. Since last week I've noticed that Glee has been less like it's wonderfully campy self and more like a cheap imitation of what the show was last season. They're not the mid-season underdogs anymore, they're an international sensation. Unfortunately, it seems to mean that they aren't trying as hard as they used to. The musical numbers feel forced, most of the time, and are all out of place. The writing is getting lazy. Glee has two more weeks to impress me again before I tune out completely.

Schuesters advising the consular

I agree that it was a little presumptuous of him to push her into counseling. Sometimes you need that extra push to take that step. She could have been considering it but somehow felt self-conscious about going. By him showing his support about it, she may not feel as awkward or hesitant about going.


Your post touches on a lot of the reasons last night's episode fell flat for me. Additionally, I felt there was a lot of lip service paid to respecting and empowering young women, while at the same time still blaming them for the marginalized status they voiced concerns about. Will and Sue talk about needing to "save" them, "one girl at a time," by sexualizing them (further), rather than actually encouraging the boys to change their behavior as well. And at the very end, when Finn apologizes to Rachel, he is actually respecting her for a moment, until he turns to her new boyfriend and promises to "stay away from his girl" as if Rachel is property who cannot make her own decisions. To name only a couple of examples. So close and yet so far, Glee.

I thought the whole 'stay

I thought the whole 'stay away from your girl' was suppose to be ironic and funny, especially since Jesse responds with 'she's a keeper' and fist bumps her arm...

Oh, also?

I REALLY thought Kurt should have been included in the Express Yourself number.

Oh, also?

Excellent call, CL. Talk about a missed opportunity.

When the episode started it

When the episode started it seemed as if it was going to be all about empowering the girls and lifting their spirits and leading to respect from the guys. Then the episode turned into being all about sex and I sadly shook my head...

Why unsatisfying?

I haven't seen this episode, so perhaps I'm misinterpreting, but why is it considered so unsatisfying that two characters remain virgins?

I'm not saying that this should be held up as some sort of superior choice, but why is it considered perfectly acceptable to judge and put down women who choose not to have sex, for whatever reason. It is possible to own one's sexuality while not having sex--why can't there be role models doing that, as well as women who are sexually active? The two shouldn't be pitted against each other somehow, or it's still the Madonna/Whore complex; the only difference is which archetype is being vilified and which admired.

Why unsatisfying?

<p>Fair question. And actually, if the situations were given more nuance, this wouldn't be so bad. Emma and Rachel characters aren't ready to have sex, which is totally fine (frankly, I would've been happy if Rachel had sex and didn't have much of a reaction to it, like Jenny in <em>An Education</em>, but that's just me). </p><p>HOWEVER, Finn is the only male virginal character and he does have sex. Even though he regrets doing it, I still find it unfortunate that both female characters abstain but the one male character doesn't. It's an unfortunate juxtaposition.</p>

I found the shows

I found the shows "empowerment" of women through oversexualization to be a critique of mainstream media and culture, and how they seem to depict women's power as strictly related to their sexual utility (e.g. gossip girl). I thought taking away the cheerios' last names commented on how marriage is still so glorified and denying Pillsbury access to Madonna was a criticism of who we're willing to invest in for the empowered sisterhood and who we're willing to leave in the dust.

But, I could be giving the writers far too much credit. I was disappointed in the like a virgin scene, and especially that Finn had actually gone through with it while the women predictably had not.

I felt that this kind of

I felt that this kind of bitch slapped that sort of stereotypical 'guys want sex with whomever'. I do feel that women are told it's okay to say no, but men are not. So this was going through with the whole the women stay virgins and the guy doesn't. BUT the guy is visibly upset by having had sex with someone he didn't care about.

I want more sex scenes in which women are not ashamed to not have waited which would have not happened if Emma and Rachel would have had sex, but I like the fact that they have a scene in which Finn doesn't feel great about it.

It really seemed to me that

It really seemed to me that they chose to have Finn's character have the "sex that didn't mean anything" BECAUSE he is the guy. Like if either of the cis women characters had that revelation it would be "oh well, of COURSE, they're CHICKS" but because it is the guy the really heavy handed almost-abstinence-encouraging message gets through.

That piece especially seemed really calculated and contrived to me.



I admit it: I loved "The Power of Madonna." Both from a feminist standpoint and TV-wise, I thought it was imperfect but by far the strongest episode yet. I got the strange feeling that the writers created it directly after reading some of their critiques. Just to start with, three of the main issues we were discussing this past week -- Will's example of misogyny and non-inclusion, the younger boys' own tolerated sexism, and, of course, the lack of fairness in solo distribution -- were directly addressed. They could have been further explored, yes, but hopefully this is just the beginning. I feel like, with Mercedes and Kurt openly chafing to getting less attention, the show has turned a corner.
Also, the numbers, (mostly) successful incorporation of different plotlines, and incredible choreography get a thumbs-up in my book.
Most of the issues I had with the ep were quick-yet-unfortunate TV regulars (Rachel's "It means a lot to girls" shtick) or just silly (Florence Henderson insults, WHAT? She's beautiful!) My big problem was the counseling situation you and other commenters have brought up: whether to get help should really be up to Emma herself. I also found it troubling that her deciding not to have sex was largely attributed to her "problems." I didn't mind Finn having sex (and being disappointed, realistically) but would have appreciated a clarification that it can be anticlimactic regardless of context.
Unlike a lot of viewers, I hear, I did not have high expectations at all. My hatred of last week's (which is well-documented :P) made me wonder if/fear that the show's best days, never great to begin with, were over.

Janet isn't even close to

Janet isn't even close to Madonna's league. Madonna - one of the most powerful women to ever walk the planet.





great episode

The Power Of Madonna was a great episode. Glee won't be able to get away with too many of those, but as a one-off it kind of worked. But I hope not to be seeing any Mariah or Whitney or Christina-based episodes for a while

Hurry up and have sex already

Why is virginity such a curse? There's such a push to hurry up and lose it, like it's a shameful state of being. While I'm really glad that Emma and Rachel were honest and decided to listen to their bodies, they will constantly be labelled virgins, and we, the audience, will be compelled to feel shame for them, until they finally have sex. I wish Glee would celebrate virginity instead of demonize it, and maybe that would shift our perceptions to see all the glorious sides of sexuality.

But they don't demonize it,

But they don't demonize it, they actually address societies views on virginity, which is so flip-floppy.

A real feminist pop star

Alyx Vesey wrote:
"If Fox isn't down with Beth Ditto, Karen O, or M.I.A., what about Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, or Lady Gaga?"

She hasn't quite made it big here, but I would add Kate Nash to that list. Check out this interview from Nash where she actually identifies herself as a feminist(and lists Riot Grrrl bands as inspirations):
Maybe Bitch will review of Nash's recent album in the future(sorry if I missed such a review).

As for this episode my wife said(and I agree),the writers wanted to have it both ways,calling out the boys for their sexism while showing Will taking charge of Emma's therapy,etc.
Fucked up politics aside, the worst thing about the series is the continued use of auto tuning. Sure, Corey Montieth and Dianna Argon might be little wobbly, but Lea Michele has a great voice. She didn't need auto tuning on broadway. Same goes for Amber Riley(Mercedes),great voice but she still gets auto tuned. I guess the producers think that's what the kids who download the songs want to hear.

Yes! I adore Kate Nash. I

Yes! I adore Kate Nash. I second the request for a review of her albums!

Complete agree

I was really disappointed too, and for all the reasons you mention!

The end results of the "who will lose their virginity" plot line irritated me to no end, as I addressed in reply to another comment above.

But the paternalism screaming out from Will's actions towards Pillsbury was just infuriating. From "I should have never agreed" to have sex with you (because of course I, the man, KNEW you didn't REALLY WANT TO) to the "we're going to have to work on YOUR problems if we're to be together" bullshit was just too much.

Honestly I pretty much can't stand his character now.

And despite their best efforts and providing the few smiles I got out of the ep, Kurt and Mercedes just couldn't save it.


In conclusion (or my conclusion, anyway)

A lot of the commenters on here were not impressed with the "Power of Madonna" episode. Some people liked it, some people didn't. There will be other episodes and other seasons and other stars to pay tribute to. I personally thought it was fine. I'm just glad the episode pointed out that virginity is a social issue we need to continue to tackle, for both guys and girls. So, at least they brought it up, whatever their take on it.

Having totally missed the Madonna era, I didn't have huge expectations, but I did think Sue's idolization was funny. Sue forcing the Cheerios to "date middle school boys, [taking] away their last names, and pump[ing] Madonna songs through the school intercoms" was part of the joke. It was an exaggeration of her admiration for Madonna. Even her denying Emma the "power" was a complete Sue thing. It wasn't about Emma. Sue just needs to be mean to someone. Like, all the time. :D

Although it was thoughtful of Will to give Emma a number for counseling, I think it would have been wise for him to say that he would enter counseling too. He'll be going through a divorce soon, and he's going to need it, what with the additional bullying from Sue.

I agree with Alyx's point about contemporary female artists. It seems that Madonna is considered the "ultimate" in pop, and having been around since the early 80's, <i>Glee</i> wanted to use her to appeal to the who-the-f*ck-is-Lady-GaGa generation as well. (Like in last season's finale, when Berry belted Streisand's "Don't Rain On My Parade" - that was from 1968 - and the cast performed the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want", which was released a year after the film "Funny Girl". Naturally, the two were chased with a cover of "My Life Would Suck Without You". Not a criticism - just an observation. I like that the show incorporates both oldies and...newies...?)

I think it's good that <i>Glee</i> has got us talking about this, even if people didn't like the episode. I personally am going to continue watching it because it's fun and satirical and it makes me want to dance, and because Matthew Morrison is cute as a poodle. It's also just nice to be in on the gossip. Also, I'm like 17, so I'm not stressing out about the show. If I felt as critical of it as some other writers are on BitchMedia, I wouldn't watch it. (I'm not abandoning BitchMedia either, though. I like it.)

Right now it seems that the writers just need to feel their way around the season. And it <i>is</i> only the second season. It says a lot that they're responding to the criticism from viewers. I hope it doesn't get to a point where they write only to please viewers, though.

Oh, and also, it's Riley. Not Jones. :)

the Madonna episode

the Madonna episode of Glee was brilliant on every level. The dialogue and the entire script was genius. I completely appreciated the layers of irony especially when all those macho boys sang What It Feels Like For A Girl I also loved the fantastic performances of Vogue.

Janet is a lipsynching

Janet is a lipsynching machine who owes her dead career to nepotism and taking advantage of her husband Rene Elizondo gift for writing good music. Since he left Janet is like the king with no clothes on. If she wasn't a Jackson nobody would have given her a record deal and when she was successful (15 years ago) she was a very local star, outside of the US she was not that big of a deal. And together again is a rip off a Nintendo game music. K bye

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