Thursday, May 13, 2010
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.
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." Youtube.com. 26 Oct 2009.
Newman, David M. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.