She Pop: Madonna, Motherhood, and Choices

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: a lot of people have problems with Madonna. In fact, pretty much the entire history of Madonna has been the history of people having various problems with her! I first learned of her existence when a news channel reported on one of her concerts. I was maybe five or six. It was her "crucifix as fashion accessory" phase; possibly, also, her "pretending to masturbate on stage" phase. And my mother turned to me and said, "you know, it's important to realize that not everyone likes her. Some of us have issues with her blaspheming our Lord Holy Jesus Christ."


Madonna, on the cross and - unlike our Lord Jesus - not topless

ILLUSTRATION: Oh, OK, so Mom had a point. 

And then we had the discussion about how "Madonna" is also the name of the Virgin Mary Mother of Lord Jesus, who was a far better role model (and yet, set an equally attainable and realistic standard for female behavior!) and etcetera. And, for some reason, this exchange resulted in me having the same unreasonable affection for her - yes, even when she is terrible! Even when she is arrogant and self-absorbed and culture-appropriatey (although that last one, actually, gives me serious pause) and all of those other annoying things she so often tends to be - that I have for every other girl who has publicly figured out that she is never, ever, ever going to live up to the Virgin Mary. And is cool with that! And is cool with herself, even!

Madonna's appearance on Letterman last night gave me, if only fleetingly, the same warm and fuzzy feelings. Jezebel has a post (and video!) up on the matter, noting that Madonna doesn't seem "very likable," and criticizing her for coming off as arrogant and "ungraceful." Which: yeah. Fair enough. But then there was this exchange: 

LETTERMAN: If you had to be one thing in your life, in this world, would you just want to be a parent? 

MADONNA: No! Yikes! 

 And then:

LETTERMAN: [Parenting] is the most important job, isn't it? 

MADONNA. Yeah. Uh, yes. That's the politically correct answer. Uh-huh. 

These moments actually seemed like the least scripted, rehearsed, artificial-media-event-like exchanges in what was otherwise an extremely scripted, rehearsed, artificial-media-event-like interview. Madonna may have made a career out of striking various calculated poses for other people, but I honestly believe all of the following: Madonna is a mom. Madonna doesn't consider being a mother the most important thing about herself. And if Madonna had to choose between being a mother and being, well, Madonna, she wouldn't go for the babies.

It's refreshing to hear a female celebrity say this stuff, especially in an environment where getting married, getting impregnated, and shopping around pictures of your totes adorable impregnation-results is de rigeur for other female celebrities, where women whose lives don't and may never include a husband and baby are portrayed as pathetic lost souls ("Jennifer Aniston is freezing her eggs," anyone?) and where motherhood is consistently portrayed, for women, as the Holy Grail and the key to becoming a whole, fulfilled, worthwhile person. How many times have you heard that women don't know what love means until they become mothers, that being a mother automatically becomes the most important and fulfilling thing in a woman's life whether or not she ever believed it would be or planned for it to be (just GET PREGNANT, ladies! It'll make you happy EVENTUALLY), that women are sacrificing their one true destiny and purpose in life by delaying children or not having children at all? I mean, God knows people have children and love their children and should, by all means, consider the well-being of their children a major priority. But I don't hear talk-show hosts asking men if they'd sacrifice their careers for fatherhood. Nor is anyone shocked when men don't consider having children a priority, or don't consider "fatherhood" the one true purpose of their lives. 

The fact is, Madonna didn't have to give up on being successful in order to be a mother. She got to be both. Which is great for her. Lots of people do both - and lots of people also have to deal with substantial issues surrounding time and material resources that either make it necessary for them to choose careers they don't want in order to provide for their families, or to put off or cancel plans for starting a family in order to have the careers of their choice. The pressure to choose family over career, however, is specifically applied to women. Dudes get to weigh their options; ladies get told that they either have babies or fail at life. The fact that Madonna evidently believes she would be a success at life whether or not she had children makes me absurdly happy. 

And, yeah, Madonna believes herself to be hot shit. She will no doubt continue to believe this, whether or not it is objectively true. And that will continue to result in her being obnoxious in public. But what that belief allows her to do sometimes - to be an openly sexual woman in her fifties, to eschew appropriately feminine self-deprecation, to say out loud and on national television that being a mother is not the only important thing about her - is, really, kind of wonderful. Whether or not I like Madonna's music, or would like to hang out with her one-on-one, isn't really important to me. I'm just glad we have one of her around. 


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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks for this post!

<em>... to be an openly sexual woman in her fifties, to eschew appropriately feminine self-deprecation, to say out loud and on national television that being a mother is not the only important thing about her - is, really, kind of wonderful. Whether or not I like Madonna's music, or would like to hang out with her one-on-one, isn't really important to me. I'm just glad we have one of her around. </em>

This. Exactly this.

OK, on this point, I get why

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 <i>harming</i> people from cultures that don't have much of a voice in the English-speaking world.

When feminists and other progressives in the Anglo-American world talk about why you don't like her, its seems that all you can say is that she seems unpleasant on a personal level. If that were all it was, I wouldn't give a damn. But it's not. Acknowledge her positive points, but please, acknowledge her negative ones as well.

That is a darn solid point!

That is a darn solid point! And I am happy to give weight to those considerations. You're right: I wanted to make a point about this specific interview, and the Madonna/motherhood thing, but ended up minimizing her history of cultural appropriation by addressing it without giving it enough emphasis. Let's see what I can do to fix that.

Madonna has been around long

Madonna has been around long enough to know how things work, and more importantly, secure enough to be comfortable saying what she really thinks. The real shame is that younger women who aren't as established (which is pretty much all younger women) can't say things like this lest they become controversial and damage their careers. As long as they're just a pretty face and a hot body and don't say anything interesting, they can't lose. Or so it goes.

The Return Of Madonna - Remember "Like A Prayer"?

Madonna is definitely still hot. One of the things that surprised me the most about her appearance with David Letterman was when he left alone having pizza with the hordes of paparazzi in a frenzy outside the restaurant. I wondered how she could ever make a safe getaway from that mob of photographers. Naturally I then thought of Lady Gaga and her tour Fame Kills. It turned out Kanye West had dropped out of the tour and that Lady Gaga would be going it alone. Thinking back to the article on Lady Gaga I started to wonder whether Madonna would retake the position of the new Madonna. Your post with Madonna on the cross caused me to instantly want to watch the Madonna video "Like A Prayer" on YouTube that I had bookmarked. When I tried to watch it I discovered that Google's YouTube subsidiary and Warner Music Group (WMG) were having a dispute and a whole bunch of WMG videos had been pulled. Checking the Warner Music Group's website I found out that there is a resolution in the works and that the videos should be back up by the end of the year. I loved that Music Video "Like A prayer" and was remembering how controversial it was at the time with the burning crosses behind Madonna as she sang and the portrayal of Jesus as a black man. Although that video wasn't available I saw others like "Vogue" with Madona in her panties (before Gaga) and remembered her get out the vote ad something to the effect of people not voting were going to get a spanking. She has always been controversial and deliberately so. She's an intelligent woman and I'm sure she knew full well that her remarks concerning mothering versus her career and not being in any hurry to remarry would spark controversy (and cause guys and gals to fantasize about her). I'm sure she would be getting a lot more attention if it hadn't been for the revelations about David Letterman's past womanizing (reportedly coming in part an unauthorized foray into Stephanie Birkitt's diary) suddenly all over the news and the tabloids. Great post on Madonna. Older women can definitely still be hot. Is Tina Turner still rocking?

I'll second with caveats.

Mostly I agree with you about Madonna personally. She's brash, successful, unashamed. I want to think these are great things.
However, and ironically enough, as mother to a yet tiny daughter, Madonna is about the last role model I would choose for her, nor much of a feminist icon when one thinks about it.
Think about it: She has gotten to the top playing by men's rules (good looking, sexually available, blond set on remaining unnaturally young looking, anyone?) Now successful, she acts like the same shallow male materialists floating from one sexquest to another. She doesn't try to promote middle aged women, she pays tons of money and spends more time in the gym than most of us have free to not be perceived as such.
What's more, with that much younger buck on her arm, one gets the feeling she has internalized the male success paradigm all too completely, and is now imposing the youth imperative on her lovers. Talk about the slave making the harshest slave master.
As for me, I'm still waiting on a world where a woman doesn't have to be beautiful, 20 something-looking, and dance around in her panties to not be found sexually neuter, if not repulsive. I don't think buying into the porn culture's vision of female sexuality is the road to women's liberation.
Similarly, although I think it is utterly valid (if not, in some cases, advisable) for women to opt out of motherhood in exchange for any other compelling calling, once they opt IN the welfare of their children--and fathers are not excused--absolutely must be their biggest priority. Or rather, ask yourself what it would be acceptable for an individual to prioritize over their child's health or education.
I don't think women need to become the same self-important narcissists or indifferent losers that many deadbeat dads are, in order to be tough and successful. Which is to say that there is a distinction between saying one's role as a mother does not define them (great!) and that there are bigger priorities than the welfare of another (helpless vulnerable) human, whom they signed on to bring into the world and safeguard (shallow and creepy...)
The whole situation of adult female success and sexuality demands a rethink, and Madonna, as far as I can tell, is beating the same old patriarchal drum.

One need no theological

One need no theological proof to realize that Madonna and Jesus have one vital thing in common - they both have the sophisticated "ancient accent" as detailed in the historical documentaries you may have heard of ... Gladiator and Troy. Also a favorite of the Monty Python guys.
A friend of mine said that Madonna does have one thing on the Son of God: Jesus was only resurrected once.

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