She Pop: Madonna Is Your Dorm Room Poster, And Further Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Sady Doyle
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Sady Doyle is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown and the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear, and Why. Her writing has appeared in The GuardianThe Atlantic, The Awl, Buzzfeed, and all across the internet.  ​

You know what I totally appreciate? Being called out when I am stupid! An exciting incidence of this occurred recently, on my Madonna post, where commenter Crys T notes: 

OK, on this point, I get why you're happy to have Madonna around. But it would be nice to see more recognition on the part of Anglo-American feminists on Madonna's extensive history of cultural appropriation. It's not just that she now buys African children (though even I never thought she'd become that monstrous), it's a very long history of exploiting, offending and therefore harming people from cultures that don't have much of a voice in the English-speaking world.

Which is a darn solid point! In that post, I made reference to Madonna's history of cultural appropriation, and that it gave me "serious pause." And then I just kind of breezed on by it like it was no big thing! Because apparently that was the day that I decided to be gross and obviously privileged, SORRY. Madonna's appropriation of other cultures definitely deserves to be addressed and critiqued at length, in its own post. A post such as this one, right here!  

Madonna has been around so long, and has been so extensively written about, that it's difficult to say anything new about her. So, let's start with what everyone already knows: Madonna is a cultural magpie. If she has an art, it's the art of cutting and pasting pre-existing images together and embodying them in a way that hopefully conveys some larger point. Everything she does is appropriation, of one kind or another. Some of her work has been profoundly transgressive: personally, I think she's at her best when she's working with the material that is closest to home, images of women and desire. Madonna in Marilyn Monroe drag, Madonna as Marlene Dietrich in a suit, Madonna as woman in chains, Madonna as dominatrix. The way she moves back and forth between images of stereotypical femininity and masculinity, images we associate with "victimization" and images we associate with "power," can be really smart and provocative, because she never stays in any one role, and by taking on so many of them, she gives the lie to the idea that they're something inherent and essential and true. By creating and abandoning and juxtaposing so many images for herself, she points out how artificial and constructed and limiting and untrue images are. Some people have objected to the fact that she's often playing a traditionally feminine, porny, unrealistic and unattainable fantasy, and to them I say: that was always part of the point. Whatever image Madonna adopts, "this is a fake" is always an assumed part of the message. No matter who she is this week, you're never seeing Madonna, you're seeing "Madonna," and in a sense that's why she seems so powerful: you can't pin her down into any one identity. She reserves the right to slip into and out of them as she chooses. 

But one thing that IS kind of an unavoidably true and permanent part of Madonna's identity is that she is a privileged, American, white person. In a sense, that whole "ultimate sex object" thing that she's been playing on from the first moment she dressed up like Marilyn Monroe, is very much a function of her whiteness, and her ability to uphold the mainstream white beauty standard. And it's when Madonna starts assuming that she has the right to pick and choose images from other cultures, including cultures that are not privileged and not predominately white, that she moves from being subversive to just flat-out asserting her privilege.


Madonna is a "geisha." Or not.

EXHIBIT A: Um, no thank you, Madonna.


My first clue about this, actually, came around 2001. I was hanging out with a group of friends, and people were discussing Madonna, and expressing the (once-trendy, possibly-untrue) opinion that, OK, Madonna was just crappy sucky pop music, but "Ray of Light" was the one album that miiiiiiiiiiiiiight be worth your time. And one of my friends was from India, and she was like, "um, you are all aware that 'Om Shanti' IS A PRAYER, right?" 

"Huh?" I said.

"She has a dance remix of a prayer on her album. A prayer that people take pretty seriously. It's not just some fun clubby thing that you get to take ecstasy to. It's like... I don't know. Marilyn Manson releasing 'The Lord's Prayer' as a single."

And she was right! Except, I would argue, it is worse! Because Marilyn Manson and the Lord's Prayer both hail from the same powerful cultural nexus. If Marilyn Manson made a song out of it, he would have a history with it, and would share in the privilege that contributes to its being seen as sacred and not-to-be-fucked-around-with, and he would probably have a take on it that was informed by a relatively deep understanding of its implications and its place in the culture, no matter how oppositional and intentionally sacreligious his take might be. Madonna recording 'Om Shanti' was informed, apparently, by nothing other than the fact that she thought it sounded cool and a history of spiritual tourism and/or people thinking of India as a place where white folks go to get magically enlightened by all the inherently mystical and exotic people who live there. When Madonna takes on Catholicism and Christianity, she's subversive in a way that betrays an understanding you can only get by growing up Catholic and/or in a culture where Christianity is privileged. When she takes on "Eastern spirituality" (huh? There's only one of those now?) it's less about commenting on it than claiming it for herself, whether or not she understands it at all. And she doesn't, apparently, so it winds up an offensive mess. 


Madonna is "spiritual" and/or "Indian"

EXHIBIT B: Still "no," actually, Madonna! 


And that's the thing: when Madonna appropriates archetypes and stereotypes from her own culture, she's typically subverting them, or at least has a take on them. When Madonna appropriates stereotypes from other cultures, she's just reinforcing them. She doesn't understand them well enough to have anything to say, and typically only seizes on Western stereotypes of them rather than the real deal. If she's doing "Indian," it's a weird mishmash of saris and henna tattoos and bindis and vaguely mystical hoo-ha. If she's doing "Japanese," she's a freaking geisha. It's less about understanding a culture than it is about perpetuating the stereotype that Japanese and Asian women possess some exotic, alluring, alien sexuality. (Also? The life of a "geisha" is not always the empowered, glamorous fantasy beloved by Westerners.) When Madonna's doing Che Guevara, well... Che Guevara's image has already been so extensively appropriated and neutralized by American college students who want to believe they have Revolutionary Tendencies and think of him less as a representative figure from a specific history than as a brand logo for anything vaguely lefty that it's hard to get offended at her specifically. Madonna's just completing the history of alienating Che Guevara's image from his actual life and politics. But that history is fucked up, and Madonna's playing along.  


Madonna is a poster in your dorm room. She smells like bongwater, probs.



And, of course, you can also make the point that Madonna has appropriated a lot of gay culture and GLBT signifiers, whether that's "Vogue" or staging a kiss with Britney and Christina for TV. But Madonna's relationship with GLBT communities, despite her Katy Perry moments, has - I'm told, and correct me if I'm wrong - been one of give and take. She's thrown her weight behind GLBT causes, she has GLBT people in her life, she produces stuff that is informed by gay culture but which has also been accepted and celebrated by those portions of the culture which informed it. When she appropriates from a culture that isn't hers (and, again, the fact that they tend to be cultures with a history of European exploitation or Orientalism to deal with is a big part of the problem: if she were out performing in lederhosen, it would be a different story) there doesn't seem to be any meaningful "give" there. It's just about taking. 

The thing is: for me, as a white, Western woman, who will age one day and might possibly have children and is really grossed out by the whole "Madonna is OLD and UGLY! It's time for her to just HANG UP HER VAGINA and CALL IT A DAY with the whole 'having a sexuality' deal" outcry, it feels right to defend her on occasion, whether or not I like her music or her personality. But that's because she and I face many of the same kinds of prejudice. And it is really, really gross to only care about prejudices or oppressions insofar as they are bummers for you, specifically. The fact is that Madonna, like a lot of people, is both privileged and oppressed. And she seems to have thrown herself into the whole "privileged" part of the deal with not inconsiderable gusto. So, yes: it's important to continue to call Madonna out for her oppressive behavior, even as we defend her from the misogynist rhetoric that has been aimed at her from the beginning of her career. Because, no matter what else she is, she - like the rest of us - should always be accountable.


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16 Comments Have Been Posted

Isn't she Italian-American?

Great post. I don't know that much about Madonna but isn't she Italian-American? If she is then that just shows how culturally placed race is. In Australia, those of Italian descent are definitely not "white". That doesn't make what she does any less shocking but it does make me ponder larger questions.

Yes, Madonna is Italian-American

Yes, Madonna was, I believe, born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone in August of 1958.

The US & Australia are bit different in this case

Italian-Americans are definitely considered "white," though in the past, they were considered "less white" (like other immigrant groups, such as the Irish) and there were some ugly stereotypes. Those have mostly faded, though (outside of the Sicilian mobster stereotype, which has been interestingly embraced by black kids who like <i>Scarface</i>), and even really Italian Italian-Americans (ie, not Madonna) are perceived as white in the US.

(Interestingly, Madonna's musical heir, Lady Gaga, is <i>also</i> Italian-American, and blond wig aside, <a href="">isn't afraid to flaunt it.</a>)

Madonna, Religions, Lady Gaga, Respect

As far as I know Madonna and Lady Gaga were both raised Catholic, are both Italian-American, and neither one of them is afraid to flaunt it or their panties. I just had the pleasure of watching "Madonna's musical heir", Lady Gaga's (born Stefani Joanne Angelina Gerranotta?) appearance on Saturday night live where she did some skits, one in bubble wrap and another being a catfight with Madonna skit (both in panties). She performed very obviously live versions of "Paparazzi" and later of "Poker Face" at the piano. What a treat. Getting back to the post topic, I had not previously read of Madonna being insensitive to any religion other than the rebellion against some the sexist theocratic interpretations of the Catholicism she was raised with and that she had learned about Kaballah. Certainly religion can be a very volatile subject for a lot of people. I don't believe Madonna intended any harm or insult. As far as the "Sicilian mobster stereotype" goes, I have heard some very biased comments about Italians from people who had no clue that I am of partly Sicilian descent myself due to my very light fair skin. I guess you can tell I like both Madonna and Lady Gaga. I wonder if they will ever work on some tracks together.

Tony Montana was Puerto Rican

Just saying. Big Louis Costillo, however, the antihero of the 1932 version, was Italian. But people generally refer to Tony "say hello to my little friend" Montana when they express an affection for <i>Scarface</i> these days. It's based on Shakespeare's <i>Richard III</i>, btw - just to be a dork-ass know-it-all about it.
But the black kids, they do like the mobster movies. Also the kung fu.

I just couldn't let this

I just couldn't let this pass:

<blockquote>But the black kids, they do like the mobster movies. Also the kung fu.</blockquote>

I'm assuming that you're satirizing the blanket statement McSnarkster made about "black kids who like <i>Scarface</i>", which presumes there's some critical mass of black people--specifically, I would venture to guess, black males <b>not</b> limited to Jay-Z and a handful of East Coast rappers--that love <i>Scarface</i>, <i>The Godfather</i>, et cetera.

If this is the case, thank you. If it is not, well, a pox on <strong>both</strong> of you.

Scarface is about a CUBAN-American mobster...

...who is, nevertheless, portrayed by an Italian-American actor. So I'm not entirely sure what all that means in the grand scheme of things. But at the very least, it means that <i>Scarface</i> isn't a pure example of Italian-American mobster archetypes.

On the actual topic at hand: yes to the overall argument about appropriation and yes to the wrongness of the ageist misogyny, but yes especially to the last line.

HALF Italian

Madonna is half Italian and half French Canadian. She looks 1/2 northern Italian and ultra white or she never would have become as famous as she is now.

I don't get it?

I'm mixed race Asian-American with a lot of family living in different parts of Asia (some of them extremely poor), and I really don't have any issue with her wearing Asian culture-inspired stereotyped costumes. I actually kind of like it -- it at least reminds white people that Asians actually do exist, unlike if she only wore white American/European culture-inspired stereotyped costumes. Her costumes and personas are so outlandish nobody thinks that's how Asians really dress and act, do they? Compare Madonna to TV shows, books and movies that dehumanize "real" Asian people, and I'll take Madonna's harmless costumes any day.

I agree that the biggest

I agree that the biggest cultural problem facing Asians in America is invisibility. If we are recognized as existing at all, it is as shallow props or worse freaks, and Asian men are particularly invisible. Whether Madonna dresses herself up as a geisha or not has no real bearing on that.

Besides, you could argue that it's an inversion/subversion of the more typical position of a non Western people adopting Western dress- for the cultural implications and insecurities still involved in that, just look at Hu Jintao eschewing a suit and tie during China's National Day celebrations. It proves that somewhere deep down inside, the suit and tie is still viewed as not authentically Chinese even though all the politicians have been wearing them for decades. Isn't that the real cultural imperialism? Though, I'll not get in the way of someone else who is offended because I understand everyone has different perspectives.

White Characatures of Asian Americans

Both your comment and the comment it was in reply to make valid points. Margaret Cho has discussed the struggle to be visible that so many minorities face. There is more than one post with comments on her blog at referencing the practice of casting white or non Asian peoples in productions meant to depict Asians. With the a few notable exceptions (poker player Johnie Chan, Margaret Cho, Bruce Lee, Grace Chu of Grace The Spot, Jackie Chan, and perhaps Judge Ito at the OJ trial) it does seem that Asian-Americans are disproportionately less visible and characatured more often than people of many other races with the exception of First Nation (Indian) peoples who have really gotten the dirty end of the stick in every way including their portrayal on film. I'm sure Madonna was simply trying to be exotic, provocative and sexy as this post describes well. Even if none of the dress-up by Madonna quite makes the grade, the sexy part still succeeds. For this (fill in the blank) she's still intriguing.

Re: I don't get it?

.(apologies if this appears as a double post- I seem to have trouble getting posts to show up)

I agree that the biggest cultural problem facing Asians in America is invisibility. If we are recognized as existing at all, it is as shallow props or worse freaks, and Asian men are particularly invisible. Whether Madonna dresses herself up as a geisha or not has no real bearing on that.

Besides, you could argue that it's an inversion/subversion of the more typical position of a non Western people adopting Western dress- for the cultural implications and insecurities still involved in that, just look at Hu Jintao eschewing a suit and tie during China's National Day celebrations. It proves that somewhere deep down inside, the suit and tie is still viewed as not authentically Chinese even though all the politicians have been wearing them for decades. Isn't that the real cultural imperialism? Though, I'll not get in the way of someone else who is offended because I understand everyone has different perspectives.

"I spilled bong water..."

Funniest tag ever...and, along with the title, a scarily perfect comparison. Good work, Sady!

Dear White Ladies, I'm gonna Need You to Stop Stealing My Shit.

Can we also roast Gwen Stefani on the cultural appropriation tip? Although critiques of Madonna's culture vulture status are few and far between, it's even more rare to hear anyone call Ms. Gwen out. She started off with bindis, saris & bangles by the armful... then it's off to Jamaica with the red, yellow, green Rastafari stee-lo for the Rock Steady... followed up with the 'Luxurious' video of her tryna rock L.A. Chola steez (with fake teardrop tattoo y todo!!!) and Frida Kahlo-esque Tepehuana (read: Indigenous Mexican) styles. And don't even get me started on the Harajuku Girls debacle.

But maybe I've got it all wrong, and the best accessories are PEOPLE (some of whom weren't even Japanese. Whatevs. All East Asians look alike anyway, right?)

Are you suggesting that

Are you suggesting that everyone should be limited to the culture to which they are linked by their visible ethnicity? I think that it is a negative assumption to say that just because Marilyn Manson is white he "knows" about Catholicism and therefore has free license to criticize it, but because of that same whiteness he is NOT licensed to comment on Hinduism/Buddhism/etc. Certainly, experience and context do lend legitimacy to such displays, however the mere point of race is not sufficient on which to judge their credibility.

I'm a mix of Polish/Finnish/Korean, I was raised in Canada, but I have lived in Europe and spent extended periods of time in Nepal and India. To what cultural tradition would you say I am limited?

I see all of the possible negative aspects of Madonna's cultural "appropriation", however I do not think such behavior is necessarily bad. I think it can be a sign of honour and respect to incorporate various cultural traditions into one's own style of living. In other words, I agree with your main point, but would dispute your premises.

I didn't get it, either...

For a while I didn't really get it, but bell hooks' article on the topic lays it out pretty well:

Interestingly enough, today at my workplace it's 80s, and I'm dressed like Madonna in her Lucky Star video. When I was looking for shoes that would work, I realized I have a pair of moccasins that are kind of boot-like, and the first thing I thought was, "huh, I'm surprised Madonna hasn't tried to appropriate Native culture yet." (At least, not to my knowledge....)

I mean, generally I like the girl, but it would be nice if she treated other cultures a little less like...trends, I guess. It would be different if she were particularly invested in one or two cultures that she has some familiarity with, but she tends to attach herself to whichever culture is "in" at the time (African-American culture in the early nineties, Latino culture in the mid-to late nineties, South Asian, especially Indian, culture at the turn of the century, etc.) I still like her music and think she's pretty cool as far as celebrities go (I HATE most of them) but she could use a little work on the appropriation front.

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