Sunday, February 12, 2012

Confessions on a Laptop, or How Madonna Changed My Life

It all started in 1993, when I was just five years old. My family and I were on a cruise, and being the precocious little douche bag I was, I insisted on staying up late every night and doing everything the ship had to offer. This included nightly revues and midnight buffets, where I mostly ate slivers of coconut and admired the ice sculptures. On one such night the revue was an impersonator, a not-at-all convincing (now that I think back) Madonna act. This was the Erotica era, when Madonna’s latest offense had to do more than ever with her overt sexuality. It was the age of her Sex book and the “Erotica” music video so risqué that MTV would only play it after midnight. And there I was, just months after starting kindergarten, watching a Madonna-be (Madonna Wannabe) slink through the audience lip-synching “Fever.” And I was transfixed.

So began a lifelong love affair with Her Madgesty. I remember only bits and pieces of that fateful night: fleeting images of a blonde woman in a bowler hat and sequined unitard sitting in men's laps on the Big Red Boat (oh yes, it was a Disney cruise, which makes this whole story all the more ridiculous); instants of the snappy jazziness of Madonna’s “Fever” arrangement pulsing through the sound system. I remember the feeling of confusion and curiosity, and then later of utter love. That night I had no idea who Madonna was, but I would never forget her afterward. My parents probably tried to explain the spectacle of it all while ignoring the glaring sexuality, but I don’t remember that. I do remember returning home and being wholly in love with this new woman in my life, this beacon of femininity and otherness. I quickly requested (and received) each of her albums released up until that point on cassette and inflicted them upon my parents at any given moment, particularly on the stereo of our new Jeep Grand Cherokee. I walked into first grade singing “Papa Don’t Preach,” into baseball practices singing “Material Girl,” around the house belting “Like a Prayer.” I was somewhat inexplicably drawn to this (probably inappropriate) music performed with such reckless abandon by this out-there woman. It was more than just childhood fascination, and all these years later I can only surmise that my connection to Madonna formed back then on a very basic and human level.

You see, I was always different. I knew this. I hated the organized sports teams on which I played, everything from baseball to soccer to flag football to a one-practice stint in roller hockey, but I loved dance classes. I obsessively played with action figures, but my favorites were Batman and Robin because they were the same size as my sister’s Barbies. I would often make Batman and Robin kiss as they played house with Barbie; I always relegated that bitch to the garage while the male couple retired to the bedroom or the dream Jacuzzi. It was just who I was and what I inherently wanted to do; I knew no better, other than that it wasn’t what Batman and Robin were intended to do. I watched the campy 1960s Batman series and saw them fighting crime, but to me they were lovers. Obviously that was different, though I never thought (or was taught) that it was bad. Just different.

Enter Madonna. Enter this enigmatic, fantastic figure of exactly what it means to be different. Her image was unlike any other; there were so few empowered women in music at the time, especially ones so egregiously using sexuality as a confidence-booster and attention-grabber. Madonna was a trailblazer. She defined what it meant to be different in the music industry and in popular culture, and as a gay child I somehow latched onto that. If Madonna could be so outrageously different and strange and still be so successful and beloved, then there was hope for me. Of course I didn’t know what gay was, or that it described what I was feeling; but I knew that I understood Madonna on a level that was way beyond the surface antics. She never felt like everyone else, and she used that to her advantage to prove that different doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. If you think about it, that’s such an amazing message to impart on young people. Was it entirely appropriate that I was in elementary school watching her roll around on the floor in a wedding dress at the MTV Awards? Probably not. Was it appropriate that I would sneak out of bed to catch the 2:00 AM airings of her “Erotica” video? Not really. But I grew up thinking that I was okay as long as people like Madonna were around, and that’s definitely appropriate.

I guess you could say Madonna changed my life. As I got older and began to understand the implications of her music, particularly the Like a Prayer album, which became my favorite, I took away more and more from it. Watching the music video for “Like a Prayer,” I didn’t fully comprehend all of the controversy because to me it was just beautiful. Seeing Madonna grab her crotch and dance around in a suit in the “Express Yourself” video allowed me to mature without such a rigid definition of what is feminine and what is masculine. For a child, these images were not stigmatizing or controversial, they just were.

As I matured, it was as if Madonna was anticipating every step of my life. Somewhere around 1995 I latched onto her single “Secret” from Bedtime Stories. I was growing more and more aware of my sexuality, as children do, and for some reason (which is obvious now) could not stop singing the lines, “Happiness lies in your own hand” and “My baby’s got a secret from me.” Clearly I was grappling with something, and Madonna seemed to let me know that it was normal. If someone was keeping a secret from Madonna, it was okay if I kept one too. This was confirmed by a later single from the same album, “Bedtime Story,” which also contained a lyric I held close to me and sang often to myself: “Words are useless, especially sentences. They don’t stand for anything. How could they explain how I feel?”

I can then credit Madonna with introducing me to my love for musical theatre the following year. Aside from knowing the song “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity because of a dance routine I’d performed, my knowledge of musicals and what they were was nonexistent. That changed the year I turned nine when Madonna played the lead role in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Evita. I immediately loved “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and after seeing the film became enamored with musical theatre. This love continues today, but it was that initial exposure from Madonna which shaped the course my life would take. Theatre became my primary extracurricular activity by the time I was twelve and well into my twenties.

Aside from Evita, my love for Madonna’s older material continued through my childhood years into the latter parts of 1999. Ray of Light had been released the year before, but I didn’t grasp the depth of that record until I entered middle school and began three of the most torturous years of my life. By late 1999 I had fully realized my attraction to other boys, and on the cusp of adolescence I again turned to Madonna. In my haze of confusion and questioning, “Ray of Light” was… well, a ray of light. It was a happy, uptempo, freedom-granting song. On days when I’d feel like crap, which was more often than anyone would like to admit for sixth graders making the transition not only to a new school but to the hormonal years associated with it, “And I feel like I just got home” would bring me some solace and a smile. And on days when I didn’t feel like being in a happy mood, I would put on any number of other songs with sappy overtones: “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” about searching the earth for what is truly meaningful; “Frozen,” about closing yourself off to connection; or “Mer Girl,” the story of a young girl constantly running away. There was an element of soul-searching to Ray of Light that I didn’t appreciate just a year before but came to understand as the millennium changed and my emotions became more complicated.

The mixture of pure joy and crazy complication that was Music fully embodied the remainder of my middle school years. From the fun dance beats and general hope and happiness of “Music,” to the downtrodden and strange “Paradise (Not For Me),” I could find something new to connect with everyday. More often that not I would lie in bed and blast “I Deserve It,” paying particular attention to the first two verses with lyrics like “This guy was meant for me, and I was meant for him.” Everything seemed life-or-death in those years, particularly my growing infatuation with the boys around me, regardless of their sexuality and what that meant for my own. I would quickly quell these thoughts with another track on the album, “Nobody’s Perfect.” I think the connection is obvious from the title.

It all came to a head when Madonna released her next record in 2003, American Life. By now I was well into high school and growing increasingly frustrated with myself. I was consumed by the guilt of lying to everyone around me about who I really was. I was sick of talking about girls as if they meant anything to me, sexually or romantically. I was depressed, pissed off and unable to sleep because of it. I was angry at myself for not being honest, for being too weak and confused to just be me. I was angry at everyone around me for not making it easy for me to just be me. Madonna came just in the nick of time with an album all about being angry and frustrated. With so many emotions swimming through me, I turned to Madge for guidance and enlightenment. I found solace in knowing that the biggest female star on the planet could possibly be feeling the same: “There are too many questions. There is not one solution. There is no resurrection. There is so much confusion.” In the immortal words of Lori Lieberman, she was singing my life with her words. The anger at the modern world in “American Life,” the frustration for one’s self and everyone else at the same time in “I’m So Stupid,” and the total appropriateness of “X-Static Process” for exactly what I was feeling (“I’m not myself standing in a crowd, I’m not myself and I don’t know how”) … all of it made me feel whole and like I was not alone. More than anything, that was what I needed at the time. Solace, comfort, companionship, even if just from a voice on a CD. With the power of Madonna’s words, and what I like to think would be her approval, I came out of the closet in January of 2004. All of the anger, the confusion, the exhaustion… it built to a climax that changed my life, one supported by the work of the woman who first made me feel like I could be different and be loved.

I was ecstatic. For the remainder of my years in high school I was free to be myself, openly gay and accepted for it. So when Madonna’s 2005 disco-influenced album Confessions on a Dance Floor surfaced, I was dancing with her. Just as she was letting go of the anger expressed on her previous album, so was I. Just as she wanted to stop and just dance, so did I. I celebrated my freedom and angry release with her. I let go and had fun, just like Madonna wanted me (and everyone else listening to the record) to. It was my senior year, and all of the hurt and confusion would be over for good in just a few short months when I graduated; I languished in the joyous beats of this album, as if each bass thump brought me one step closer to freedom. In the ultimate celebration of my love for Madonna and to commemorate all that had happened to me, I finally got to see her live on The Confessions Tour in 2006. The tickets were a graduation gift, and nothing could have been more appropriate. I took one of my closest friends with me, and as Madonna descended from the rafters in a disco ball which bloomed to reveal her inside, my friend yelled, “This is like gay Mecca! You made the pilgrimage! You’re here!” At the time I just started weeping, mostly because everything was so fabulous and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed. But there was so much behind those tears.

There in front of me, in the same room as me, was a woman who will never know the impact she’s had on my life. Madonna will never know that she comforted me in my teenage years, or that she made me smile on days when I could barely lift my head, or that she first taught me what it meant to be different from everyone else and how you could turn that into adoration and success. She’ll never know the strength and joy she’s given me. She’ll never know that she’s the reason I graduated college with a concentration in women’s and gender studies. She’ll never know how she changed and helped shaped me. She’ll never know that she’s part of the reason I’m here. And I am. I’m here, and it’s like a dream to me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Casey Anthony, Motherhood and The Media

Over the past few weeks, there has been outrage across the country regarding the verdict in the trial of Casey Anthony. Accused of murdering her young daughter, among myriad other lesser charges, Anthony was found not guilty by a jury in Florida. People are calling this "the crime of the century," threatening death upon both Anthony and the jury members. The passion from both sides, but especially those who believe Anthony is truly guilty, is overwhelming. But it begs the question: what makes us think we know better than a sequestered jury and a judge? Who are we to judge this woman and this jury for their actions/inactions? Why do so many of us care so much?

I can't answer any of these questions easily, to be honest. And I can only answer them for myself, in my own opinion. I know that I, personally, do not care about Casey Anthony, her deceased child, or her verdict. It's none of my business. Maybe she murdered her daughter, maybe it was an accident. I don't care. I have no personal investment in the case. But this is what I do know: people tend to put their noses where they don't belong. There is absolutely no reason for the personal investment so many Americans have or had in this case. Anthony was accused of murdering her own child; it's not like there's a serial killer on the streets. She was given the maximum sentence for the crimes of which she was found guilty; how can we fault the system for that? The real problem is the portrayal of the case in the media, which is what it usually comes down to.

Casey Anthony was vilified from the beginning. Yes, she is absolutely guilty of lying. And she was imprisoned for it. But the aspect of this story that the media (and then its consumers) took and ran with was the identification of her as a "bad mother." It sort of sickens me to think of the country in which we live. With all of our forward motion and liberation, we are still such backwards thinkers. It is inconceivable of so many media consumers that a woman would want to give up a child, or continue to have a social life after giving birth, or murder/cover-up the murder of her child, or lie about her child's whereabouts, or whatever. We still think of women as all possessing a certain nurturing maternal instinct, and those women without it (or who choose to ignore it) are bad. Casey Anthony was painted as a "bad mother" because she went out to parties after giving birth to a daughter. Conservative news programs and commentators even used this as motive for her to have killed her child: she just wanted to be free of the burden of motherhood. But why shouldn't a mother continue to live her own life and have fun, even if she does happen to have a child at home? We as a society are still so concerned with "traditional values," but nowadays it begins to look like regression.

How often do you see or hear a woman judged for having a child and continuing to work? The stigma surrounding this is becoming less, I know, but the judgment is still there. We still expect women to take care of the child, giving up what life she had before to this new person. How is that fair?

How often are women who have chosen to abort a fetus judged for it? Constantly. They are vilified just as Casey Anthony was/is. They are portrayed as selfish or murderous. When did other people's lives become our business? Why do we care what others are doing with their bodies? What happened to all of this personal liberation that suposedly came out of the 1960s and 1970s? Our return to "traditional values" like the woman in the home with a gaggle of kids is not the type of thinking characteristic of a society that is moving into the future. Wishing death upon a woman who has expressed a desire to live her own life over living for her child is 100% regressive thinking.

This brings me back to my original, overarching question: why do we care so much? What personal investment do we have in the outcome of the Casey Anthony trial? I think we care because we're told to care. We have no personal investment in the trial, other than the time we've put into watching or reading the coverage. So we expect a payoff. It's like watching a television series. In fact, I'll use an example I think fits perfectly: AMC's The Killing. This series is based around the investigation into the murder of a seventeen year old girl in Seattle and the ripples it creates in the city. I watched each episode, expecting (as one would) to be told who killed this girl. But the perpetrator was never revealed, and won't be until next summer when the new season begins. I felt slighted, betrayed, angry. I invested thirteen hours of my life into this series, even as the quality of the writing and characterization tumbled, because I wanted to know who the killer was. This is, I'm assuming, how most people feel about the Casey Anthony verdict. The media shoved this case down consumers throats for years, forcing people to become invested in it, only to have the outcome be the opposite of what was expected. Of course one would be angry that our time, so precious in a fast-moving world, was wasted.

The key difference? It's not a television show. Casey Anthony is a real woman, not a character on a show that we can easily hate. She's real. This is her life being broadcast. This is her life being judged. This is her life being put on display. And when you look at this way, it's not the jury that betrayed us. It's we that betrayed one woman.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Manly Appetite

We see advertisements for fast food restaurants everyday; some of us may even eat the products being advertised on a daily basis. But it's just food, right? We're not conforming to gender stereotypes by eating a Whopper. Or are we? As depicted above, fast food chains often resort to selling sex as a way to sell burgers to men.

It's common to find sexuality used in marketing ploys for many different types of products. Sut Jhally explains the reasoning for this: "Advertisers, working within a 'cluttered' environment in which there are more and more messages must have a way to break through the attendant noise. Sexuality provides a resource that can be used to get attention and communicate instantly" (253). In the case of fast food burgers, the market was saturated with images of food; so to differentiate, many companies such as Burger King and Carl's Jr., began to insert images of sexuality to set their products apart.

But at some point it became not about selling food at all; why else would the images above of celebrities eating enormous hamburgers be used as a selling point? Because it is not just about selling the food, but selling sex. This is a typically masculine ideal perpetuated through the media: "... the predominant cultural message remains that a hearty appetite and a large size are desirable in a man" (Kilbourne 261). This "large size" can refer not only to portions (as you can see the burgers above are very large in size) but to a relational representation of the penis. Looking at the above ads saying "Size does matter" as well as another for a burger called the "7 Incher" designed to resemble a penis, it is clear that the connotations of the word "meat" are not lost on these advertisers. There is the underlying assumption that if these women are eating these products, it must be a way for men to get these women; it all starts with a burger. But the overall feeling in these ads is that men really have an appetite for two things: food and sex. And now fast food advertisers have found ways to sell both.

Works Cited

Jhally, Sut. "Image-Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture." 1990. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines & Jean M. Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 249-257.

Kilbourne, Jean. "'The More You Subtract, The More You Add:' Cutting Girls Down to Size." 1999. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines & Jean M. Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 258-267.

Images courtesy of the following links:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Express Yourself:" Femininity and Masculinity, As Portrayed By Madonna

Madonna has been a huge cultural figure since the beginning of her career in the early 1980s. She has been a symbol of empowerment, of rebellion, of uniqueness for nearly thirty years. The impact of her music and her cultural domination was recently addressed in an episode of Fox's popular new series Glee. The messages contained in Madonna's songs were used in the episode to express feelings of female empowerment, young love, hesitation over sex, gender inequality, and self identification. The song used to express feminine empowerment was "Express Yourself," a feminist anthem which saw the young girls of the glee club reenacting Madonna's original music video for the song.

I find it particularly interesting that twenty years after the initial release of "Express Yourself," it is still highly regarded as an anthem for bucking the normative hegemony, "the power or dominance that one social group holds over others," of a masculine society (Lull 61). The lyrics in Madonna's song certainly empower stereotypically "weak" females, claiming "you deserve the best in life" and calling them to take charge of their relationships: "Make him express how he feels, and maybe then you'll know your love is real" (Madonna and Bray). This is not the typical love song, lamenting the fact that the woman may feel lesser knowing that her lover has had many others before and may have many others after; this song flips that stereotype on its head, empowering women to leave a relationship in which they feel subordinate, whether it be to another woman, a job or a hobby: "If the time isn't right then move on. Second best is never enough, you'll do much better on your own" (Madonna and Bray).

Knowing this about the song itself, it is surprising how often stereotypical images arise in the song's music video. There are two concurrent "storylines" or images at work in the "Express Yourself" video: one showing Madonna in a glamorous, 1940s-style penthouse; the other showing a muscular man working, sleeping and fighting in a factory. The feminine images from Madonna are striking: pin curls in her hair, caressing a cat, lapping up milk, crawling on all fours, disrobing in silhouette, lying naked in bed. The images are very bright and vibrant, as if they are straight out of an MGM musical: the doting housewife awaiting her husband's return home. The images of masculinity are just as striking in the worker's segments: dark rooms, chains, water leaking from the ceiling, steel beds, helmets, cranks, wheels, metal. Everything is very strong and solid, even the man's muscles.

But there is a third storyline at work here: Madonna's character's husband, the overseer of the factory. It becomes clear that this man must be her husband, as she lounges in an enormous penthouse apartment wearing expensive clothes and jewels, and we see the penthouse is located above the factory. The man can be seen in an expensive suit, fiddling with a monocle. But then Madonna breaks through the entrance to the factory wearing a similar suit. She takes on the attributes of a man, dressing in a masculine suit and standing tall while dancing hard-hitting choreography and grabbing her crotch. Her hair is now pulled up completely and instead of jewels she wears the same monocle around her neck. She is not completely masculinized, however, as she pulls open the suit to reveal a lacy bra; the choreography becomes more sexual here as well, ending in the aforementioned crotch-grab. It's this blending of masculine and feminine images that creates one of the more memorable images from this music video; here is a beautiful woman, feminizing masculinity and masculinizing femininity. Madonna complicates what Newman calls the "sexual dichotomy," where men and women are seen completely separate (i.e. - men's and women's restrooms, separate clothing, etc) by wearing men's clothes and inhabiting the men's world of the factory (56).

The rest of the video then reveals that Madonna is not awaiting her husband's return, but rather she is trying to get the attention of the man working in the factory. She succeeds as her song bursts through the factory's sound system and the man is drawn up to her penthouse; Madonna seduces the man, grabbing him by the chain around his neck and kissing him. Meanwhile, her husband is downstairs watching a fight between workers; it seems he realizes that this was a distraction, as he looks up toward the penthouse where Madonna and the worker are sexually engaged.

Through these images, Madonna flips the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity on their heads. While she employs traditional images of both ideas, it is so that later she can destroy them. She takes a proactive position in her relationship with her husband, choosing not to be the waiting housewife; instead she begins a sexual relationship, in which she is the dominant figure, with another man while her husband is downstairs. She seems to be sick of being "second best" to his job, so she takes matters into her own hands. She becomes aggressive, sexually and emotionally; she is on top while she and her lover have sex, after initiating the exchange in the first place. She doesn't sit around weeping for her lost relationship with her husband, but instead seeks out new fulfillment.

Madonna was one of the first women in the public eye to own her sexuality. She overtly referenced it frequently, including here in "Express Yourself." She, through example in the video itself, empowers other women to own their sexualities as well and not to repress their feelings. The very title suggests so: express yourself. Express your sexuality, your femininity, your masculinity, your feelings, your frustrations. And each frame of this music video reflects that.

Works Cited

Lull, James. "Hegemony." 1995. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines & Jean M. Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 61-66.

Madonna. "Express Yourself." By Madonna and Stephen Bray. Like a Prayer. Sire Records, 1989.

Madonna. Fincher, David, dir. "Express Yourself." 26 Oct 2009.

Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Link-Hunt: Assignment 1

The Token Feminists are Missing
May 3, 2010
Lani Smith Phillips
Feminist Fatale

Mark Wahlberg's Catholic Priest Told Him No 'Brokeback Mountain'
April 28, 2010
Andy Towle

Gender, Language, and Scent
March 17, 2010
Feminine Things

Visuality and Feminism(?) in Lady Gaga's "Telephone" Video
April 16, 2010
Amy Littlefield
Gender Across Borders

"Glee" and Madonna Have a Queer Old Time
April 26, 2010
Mark Blankenship
The Critical Condition

Link to Blogging in College: The Main Gender & Pop Culture Blog