Madonna and Gender Trouble

By Reena Mistry

With her constant image changes, parodies of blonde bombshells such as Marilyn Monroe, her assertion of female power and sexuality, and her appropriation from gay/queer culture, the popular music icon Madonna can be seen as the virtual embodiment of Judith Butler’s arguments inGender Trouble (1990, 1999). In this postmodern feminist text, which is credited with introducing ‘queer theory’ to the world, Butler critiques identity-based politics as the method for female emancipation, claiming that presenting ‘women’ as a coherent group performs ‘an unwitting regulation and reification of [binary] gender relations’ (1999:9). She exposes and derationalizes the social power systems that construct the norms regarding the ‘natural’ gender identities of men and women, the ‘logic’ of heterosexuality, and the idea of a pre-discursive core gender identity, through which women are subordinated, and homosexuals, cross-dressers, and those others who are located beyond the ‘imaginable domain of gender’, are marginalised (ibid:13). Butler suggests that ‘subversive’ identities demonstrating the constructedness of sex-gender-desire continuity will work to destroy its normative status, thus allowing all ‘cultural configurations of sex and gender [to] proliferate’ and become intelligible (i.e. not deviant) (ibid:190). In that Madonna parodies traditional female stereotypes and adopts at her will identities that ‘contradict’ herself as a heterosexual female, Butler’s idea of the ability for a ‘variable construction of identity’ (ibid:9) beyond traditional binary constructions is exposed. Further therefore, people are not restricted to (in addition to ‘traditional’ gender identities) the empowered female, gay and lesbian; in true queer theory style, ‘one could participate in a range of identities – such as the lesbian heterosexual, a heterosexual lesbian, a male lesbian, a female gay man, or even a feminist sex-radical’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:141). Indeed, Madonna has demonstrated such fluidity and ambiguity through her sexual political work – notably in the music videos for Vogue, Erotica and Justify My Love, her film Truth or Dare: In Bed With Madonna, and her bookSex.

The strong connection between Madonna and Gender Trouble is not one that has gone unnoticed; a number of writers on popular culture, queer politics and feminism have given it much consideration (see for example Kaplan 1993, Schwichtenberg 1993 and Skeggs 1993). Within such discussions – and others in ‘Madonna Studies’ – however, there is evidence suggestive of a limit on the extent to which Madonna can be seen to epitomise Butler’s arguments. Moreover, she can be seen to contradict the aim of subversive politics, despite her public support of gay rights, her AIDS charity work and her ‘flirtations’ with lesbianism (Robertson 1996:119). Hence critics have started to ask: «Is Madonna a glamorized fuckdoll or the queen of parodic critique?» (ibid:118).

The ways in which Madonna can be seen to contradict the political recommendations of Gender Troubleare complex and stem from a number of critical perspectives – hence a detailed understanding of Butler’s work as the next step is essential. (In part, however, the detailed description of Butler’s arguments that follows is necessary also to demonstrate the extent to which Madonna embodies these arguments, which led the two to be connected in the first place. Thus, one of the aims of this essay is to determine how much Madonna contradicts Gender Trouble in relation to the extent to which she embodies it. Perhaps this will enable us to decide whether we can hold up Madonna as a political icon, a queer ambassador as it were, or whether she should be resigned to a passing (flawed) example of the variable construction of identity).

Butler opens Gender Trouble with a description of the established gender ontology in which the duality of sex (i.e. male-female) forms the basis of gender identity (masculine-feminine). This ontology carries with it the ‘invocation of a nonhistorical «before»‘ (1999:5), hence the idea that the duality of sex, and the gendered characteristics that are said to mirror sex, are contrived is not entertained. Butler continues that the unity of sex and gender in the binary system is maintained by its oppositional nature. Society sets up ‘the experience of a gendered psychic disposition or cultural identity [as] an achievement’. Hence ‘one is one’s gender to the extent that one is not the other gender’ (ibid:29-30). Following this, the unity of sex and gender (the male’s masculinity and the female’s femininity) are seen to necessitate heterosexual desire – male and female desire ‘therefore differentiates itself through an oppositional relation to that other gender it desires’ (ibid:30). A causalrelationship is established, therefore, between sex, gender and desire. As a result, anything that falls outside these gender configurations is seen as pathological, hence the marginalization of the ‘assertive female,’ the ‘effeminate man,’ the ‘lipstick lesbian,’ and the ‘macho gay’ (Sawicki 1994:301). As assertiveness, [ef]feminacy, lipstick and machismo are all allocated as various heterosexual constructs which are therefore seen to be appropriated in homosexual/queer contexts, the assertive female et al are seen merely as ‘chimerical representations of originally heterosexual identities’ (Butler 1999:41). Thus the original gender ontology is reified and rationalized.

Butler proposes that if the gender sequences of man and woman are fictive constructs – that is, ‘socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility’ – ‘gender as a substance, the viability of man andwoman as nouns, is called into question by the dissonant play of attributes that fail to conform to sequential or causal models of intelligibility’ (ibid:23, 32). The idea that gender is not a noun leads Butler to one of her most notable arguments – that gender is performative. ‘Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed… There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very «expressions» that are said to be its results’ (ibid:33). (Butler here draws on Nietzsche’s claim that ‘there is no «being» behind doing, effecting, becoming; «the doer» is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything’).

With these arguments, Butler opens up two central sites for the ‘intervention, exposure, and displacement of [binary masculine/feminine] reifications’ (ibid:42). First, the idea of using heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames, Butler notes, ‘brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original’ (ibid:41). Thus the repeated performance of ‘queer’ identities may eventually be ‘normalised’ and seen as ‘culturally intelligible’. Second, Butler points to the potential of gender parody as exemplified by the practices of drag, cross-dressing and butch/femme identities. The performance of drag emphasises the discontinuity between anatomy (of the performer) and gender (that is being performed); it also exposes the illusion of gender identity as a fixed inner substance (ibid:175, 187). ‘In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency‘ (ibid:175). Further, this notion of gender parody does not assume it imitates an original, rather the parody is of the very notion of the natural and the original: ‘gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy’ (ibid:175, 41). Thus there is ‘subversive laughter’ ‘in the realization that all along the original was derived’ (ibid:186, 176). The displacement in drag suggests a ‘fluidity of identities’ that is open to resignification and recontextualisation (ibid:176). Related to this is the postmodern notion of pastiche; Jameson asserts that it is ‘without [parody’s] satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic’ (1983:114). Butler is adamant that this does not undermine the subversive potential of gender parody, but is another site from which notions of core/fixed gender identities can be exposed as fictitious.

It is from these sites of variable and fluid identity construction, parody and pastiche that Madonna can be seen to embody Butler’s call to cause gender trouble, at which we will now look in detail. A central element of Madonna’s sexual politics is female empowerment and the freedom to express female sexuality. She communicates this by taking on a ‘butch’ role in the sense that she reappropriates the mechanisms used to control women (Skeggs 1993:67). Most notable is her anti-antiporn position; she uses the currency of pornography to challenge the idea of women as passive sex objects. For example in the Open Your Heart video, the woman is seen to perform pornographic acts for the men who pay to peep through a small screen. Skeggs notes how ‘as their money runs out and the screen slowly closes they are shown contorting to try and see through the last minute slit. They look pathetic, silly and desperate’ (ibid:68). Similarly, in The Blonde Ambition Tour, Madonna performed sexual acts on her male dancers, taking the ‘top’ position which, in the traditional sense, is a male reserve. (ibid:68).

Madonna also rejects the self-monitoring of female sexuality by disrupting the ‘male gaze’ whereby ‘Men actand women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Mulvey 1975; Berger 1972:47). Instead Madonna subjects men to the scrutiny of her gaze, confronting the camera eye directly; ‘looking at men is treated as something to be blatant and positive about’ instead of the usual case where ‘women often avert their eyes in modesty and submission to the gaze of the male audience’ (Skeggs 1993:69; van Zoonen 1994:101). (Whereas traditionally dancing has been used to display the female body to men, Madonna uses it to signify fun and self-indulgence. Hence the lyrics of Into the Groove: ‘Only when I’m dancin’ do I feel this free’. ‘Free’ implies freedom from the male gaze; further dance signifies power, energy and vitality, rather than passivity (Bradby 1994:85; Skeggs 1993:67)). Hence Madonna claims «I can be a sex symbol, but I don’t have to be a victim» (Robertson 1996:127).

Madonna is also seen to appropriate ‘masculine’ power through her notoriety for having complete control over her career and image in a way that other female artists do not (Skeggs 1993:64; Robertson 1996:127). She also has a great deal of financial power – estimated at around $200 million (Williams 1999:127) – thus she is perceived to be a shrewd businesswoman.

The overt display of sexuality and the desire for control in women are typically labelled as ‘whorish’ and ‘manipulative’ by patriarchal narratives; Madonna throws such views back at men by also emphasising what is ‘female’ in her. As Camille Paglia notes: ‘Madonna is the true feminist… Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising control over their lives’ (1990:39). Skeggs notes how she takes feminist issues of domestic violence and emotional attachment seriously, ‘express[ing] vulnerabilities and celebrat[ing] strengths’ (1993:65). Further, Madonna is not afraid to discuss her domestic side and her role as a mother – it is not seen as an undermining of her capability for control. (In Vanity Fair, she has recounted her domestic pleasure in picking lint from lint screens and mating Sean [Penn]’s socks. More recently, she has become famous for her role as a mother – and a good one at that. When asked: «What’s been the most surprising thing about motherhood?», she replied, «How much I could love something» (Hirschberg 1991:196-8; William 1999:46)).

Madonna’s appropriation of both ‘male’ and ‘female’ constructs supports Butler’s idea of a variable construction of identity. She takes this to the extreme by dressing in drag; in the Express Yourself video, she wears a suit and monocle. At one point she teasingly opens and closes the jacket to reveal a black lace bra, thus exposing gender as a ‘put-on’ (Schwichtenberg 1993:135). Here, Madonna can be seen to mock male power and identity by reducing gender and sex to the level of fashion and style (ibid:134).

More subversively, however, Madonna’s parodic drag performances are not limited to the appropriation of male style. Parker Tyler observes that: ‘[Greta] Garbo «got in drag» whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck… bear the weight of her thrown back head… How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is allimpersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not’ (cited in Butler 1999:163). Madonna exposes femininity as a masquerade in her retro-cinephiliac parodies of femme fatales such as Marilyn Monroe and Veronica Lake. In the video for Material Girl, she imitates Monroe’s «Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend» number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The video reproduces the elements of blondness, sexuality and gold-digging, but ‘parodies the gold-digger’s self-commodification as a form of 1980s crass materialism: «The boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right/ Cause we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl»‘ (Robertson 1996:126). Madonna portrays a ‘more savvy’ Monroe in contrast to the traditional nostalgic treatment of her as a ‘witless sex object’ (ibid:126). By manipulating the femme fatale image, Madonna demonstrates its constructedness and performativity; further, simply by imitiating Monroe as one of a succession of images in her career, Madonna mocks femininity as a ‘meta-masquerade’.

Madonna’s notorious image changes demonstrate what Butler referred to as the ‘fluidity of identity’. As part of these periodic style changes, Madonna dramatizes the discontinuity of sex, gender and desire, particularly inJustify My LoveTruth or Dare and Sex. The Justify video depicts Madonna in a sexual encounter with Tony Ward (a former gay porn model). Later, other figures enter the scene, many are androgynous; one of them engages in an open kiss with Madonna – it is difficult to tell whether it is male or female. Next we see two men facing each other, and so Justify continues, ‘alternately steamy and campy’ (Henderson 1993:111). The polymorphism and ambiguity of these images blurs the boundaries between sex, gender and desire, demonstrating that they are neither causal nor constant, even within individuals.

A form of postmodern pastiche is recognizable in Justify My Love in that Madonna borrows from gay subcultures – the record sleeve combines gay male S&M imagery, Monroe features and a James Dean stance (Skeggs 1993:71). In Vogue, she adopts the gay practice of vogueing, which is prominent among African American and Latino gays, claiming «it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl», and that anyone can «strike a pose, there’s nothing to it». Combined with cross-dressing images and retro-cinephilia, a camp-drag montage is created (Robertson 1996:131-2). In this way, Madonna dissolves boundaries between gay subculture and mainstream culture – thus you do not have to be gay to vogue, nor do you have to be straight to be afemme fatale.

Indeed, it is Madonna’s mainstream position in popular culture that facilitates her potential to cause gender trouble (in a 1994 interview, Butler agreed that symbolic subversive politics is tied to political practice through the role of the mass media (Osborne & Segal 1994)). Gay journalist Don Baird writes that: ‘Never has a pop star forced so many of the most basic and necessary elements of gayness right into the face of this increasingly uptight nation with power and finesse. Her message is clear – Get Over It – and she’s the most popular woman in the world who’s talking up our good everything’ (1991:33). Similarly, Carol Queen claims that ‘The importance of Sex lies in its appearance in chain bookstores, its superstar creatrix, its presence on the front page’ (1993:151). Madonna seems to be a willing ‘queer’ supporter: she has publicly aligned herself with gay politics being one of the first celebrities to perform in AIDS benefits; biographies refer constantly to her close friendship with her gay dance teacher Christopher Flynn; and she has jokingly refused to clarify he nature of her ‘friendship’ with Sandra Bernhard (Robertson 1996:130-1).

It appears that Madonna’s work mirrors Butler’s vision of gender trouble very closely; the examples outlined above provide a mere few of those that are available. Although the evidence presents Madonna as a ‘true feminist’ and queer icon, a closer, more critical analysis of her work reveals not only a number of factors undermining its subversive potential, but also evidence that Madonna appropriates from sexual subcultures for her own ends rather than for the ends of those from which she borrows. Moreover, there is reason to believe much of her work is not subversive at all.

A central obstacle to the subversive potential of Madonna’s work is that its audience may not read it in the way they are intended to. Brown & Schulze found much variation in the way students interpreted the videos to Papa Don’t Preach and Open Your Heart; for example, the pornography in Open (see above) led Madonna to be perceived by some as ‘a classic object of male desire’ rather than demonstrating ‘an escape from a patriarchal construction of woman as «something to be looked at»‘ (1990:100, 97). Robertson notes how ‘jewellery thieves in… Resevoir Dogsargue if Like A Virgin is about «big dick» or female desire’ (1996:118). This signals either an unwillingness or inability of society to embrace the idea of female sexuality; this is not restricted to men either – even Madonna’s young female fans describe her as ‘tarty’ (Bradby 1994:79). It seems patriarchal discourses embedded in society reduce Madonna’s sexual expression to prostitution – that is, a threat to society. Another danger is that her parodic presentations of femme fatales are not read ironically; if this is the case, all that is left is the makeup, high-heels and long hair, reinforcing the idea that women’s only purpose in life is to serve men. Thus despite her good intentions, Kaplan says we need to decide ‘if Madonna subverts the patriarchal feminine by unmasking it or whether she ultimately reinscribes [it] by allowing her body to be recuperated for voyerism’ (1993:156).

Clearly, overlooking the intended meaning of Madonna’s work is an obstacle; more fundamentally problematical, however, is the contention that Justify My Love et al are not subversive at all. An article in the New Yorker (February 1993) claims that: ‘Camp is dead…gender tripping can’t be subversive anymore’ because Madonna ‘has opened all the closets, turning deviance into a theme park’ (in Robertson 1996:118). The ‘heterosexualisation’ of camp by popular culture has led to a ‘watering down’ of its ‘critical and political edge’ (ibid:122). To make camp culturally intelligible it has had to be mainstreamed – but Butler’s notion that there is no original implies that there should be no ‘mainstream’, every sex-gender-desire configuration needs to be regarded on equal terms. This is not really something we can blame Madonna for, but we do need to be aware of the restriction it places on her ability to subvert. Madonna’s heterosexualisation of camp suggests that her work may not be as ‘queer’ as it seems. For example, one image in Sex ‘seems to be designed to mark [Madonna] off from… the [lesbians] in that scene… it’s more like lesbians having sex together with Madonna along for the ride’ (Crimp & Warner 1993:109). Hence, ‘she can be as queer as she wants to be, but only because we know she’s not’ (ibid:95).

This ‘superficial’ queerness relates to accusations that Madonna uses her sexuality, changing image and ‘controversial’ sex politics as mere fuel for publicity. Hooks claims that she ‘publicly name[s her]… appropriation of black culture as yet another sign of [her] radical chic’ (1992:157). Similarly with queer appropriation, ‘the gay men in [Sex] seem to be there more as suppliers of sexual glamour than actual sexual partners… It’s more about their exotic appeal… than it is about gay sex’ (Crimp & Warner 1993:97). Similarly, rather than a variable construction of identity, Madonna’s changing image is seen as consumer-interest driven. Millman describes her as ‘the video generation’s Barbie’ (1993:53). ‘Like Barbie, Madonna sells because, like Mattel, she constantly updates the model – Boy Toy Madonna, Material Girl Madonna, Thin Madonna, Madonna in Drag, S&M Madonna, and so on’ (Robertson 1996:123).

Of course, only Madonna (and her marketers?) know[s] the real reason for her various styles. Either way, however, because of her privileged social position, Madonna’s appropriations are unable to do justice to the subcultures from which she borrows. Hooks asserts it is ‘a sign of white privilege to be able to «see»… black culture… [it] enables one to ignore white supremacist domination and the hurt it inflicts…when [Madonna attempts] to imitate… the «essence» of soul and blackness, [her] cultural productions…have an air of sham’ (1992:158). Again, in gay subculture ‘in ignoring real difference («it doesn’t matter»), Madonna’s Vogue denies real antagonisms and real struggles’, thus ‘no matter how well intentioned, can never be more than a form of subcultural tourism at the level of style’ (Robertson 1996:133, 135). Hence, for those who are not superstars, Madonna’s appropriations are unattainable escapist fantasies. In response to Madonna saying «A lot of people are afraid to say what they want and so they don’t get what they want», Martin Amis sarcastically points out that ‘the book [Sex], remember, is… fantasy, a realm in which it is presumably okay to get what you, even if it’s your sister, or your dog’ (1993:260)!

Although Madonna’s work aligns itself with Butler’s feminist/queer political strategy, to say Madonna embodiesGender Trouble is clearly Utopian. This does not mean we should overlook her attempts completely, for the messages that much of society appear to be oblivious to can still be used to illustrate subversion. Nevertheless, so far, the association between Madonna and Gender Trouble is more of an academic observation than a queer revolution.


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Paglia, Camille (1990), ‘Madonna – Finally, A Real Feminist’, New York Times, December 14, p.A39. Cited in Laurie Schulze, Anne Barton White, & Jane D. Brown (1993), ‘ «A Sacred Monster in Her Prime»: Audience Construction of Madonna as Low-Other’ in Cathy Schwichtenberg, The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identites, and Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, p.28.

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Williams, Greg (1999), ‘And Still I Rise – A Meeting With Madonna: The Last Pop Giant On Earth’, Arena, January/February, 38-46.

This essay was writen in January 2000, whenReena Mistry was a Level Three student on the moduleCommunications Theory at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.


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