By Reena Mistry
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.
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.
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).
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).
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 Love, Truth 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.
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,
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).
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).
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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