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.
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.
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.
EXHIBIT C:HRIST GOD ALMIGHTY, WE SAID "NO."
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.