Almost every girl has someone whom she admires and idolizes, whether that person is a family member, a fictional character, or a celebrity. For me, that person has always been and still is Madonna. I have been fond of her ever since I can remember, after my birth and her debut, coincidently in the same year of 1982.
Madonna is someone I grew up admiring, following the changes she has made in her style throughout her career. Almost everything she did impacted and influenced me in one way or another. This included the way I dressed, from the polka-dot patterns, laced skirts, and leggings of the 1980s, to the Midwestern plaid and cowgirl-inspired clothes of a couple of years ago.
Not only did I imitate her fashion, but I also incorporated her attitude in my own persona, such as a strong belief that women should be as powerful and domineering as men and that a woman should be free to express her opinions and sexual desires as a man does, without the fear of a backlash. Ever since I can remember, I emulated her fashion trends, sang and danced along to her music-I simply wanted to be like her. It was almost as if Madonna was a saint that I worshipped.
In America, we live in a society that is surrounded by various types of media, especially the entertainment industry, which has the power to influence popular culture through the vast number of images depicted in movies, television, and even music. As a result, we often place great value on celebrities and have the tendency to idolize them.
Whether it is intentional or not, through our admiration we give the celebrities, especially the high profile entertainers, the power to form and set the various trends of mainstream American culture. A prime example of such a prominent celebrity is Madonna, who is arguably one of the most well-known women in America, if not the world. Her career as an entertainer has spanned over two decades and has continued to influence popular culture.
For almost each major fashion, cultural, and social trend that has developed over the years since her debut, Madonna has either been a step ahead of the trend or at least contributed to the growing popularity of the trend, as she has demonstrated them in music videos and other public appearances. In other words, Madonna, using her powerful status as a celebrity to build presence and visibility, uses most notably her body to influence and reflect American popular culture.
Once Madonna entered the entertainment business and became a celebrity, she became the subject of the media and has been in the public eye, as many celebrities are after gaining popularity. As a result, her actions and appearances are constantly being watched and observed, from what she is wearing to what she is doing. Although this may be troublesome in preserving her privacy, this gives Madonna the power to direct attention to what she wants to have noticed.
As Michel Foucault has theorized, bodies have the potential for exerting power and can be propelled to demonstrate this power through the institutions that are perceived by the public to be knowledgeable. This means that the society implicitly submits power and knowledge to institutions, in this case, the entertainment industry, and allows those involved in the business to inform the popular culture of their judgments (perceived by the public as knowledge) of what type of body is beautiful and what is fashionable. In other words, although there are no solid rules and definitions on what is beautiful, the entertainment industry bombards the general public with images of women who are portrayed to be beautiful through the eyes of the media and consequently influences the culture to believe that these images are the standards of beauty.
Foucault also states that “individuals inscribe power on their bodies, in effect preserving hegemonic models of the human subject”. This reflects the influence Madonna has on popular culture, as she constantly reinvents her image and consequently sets the trends and reflects various ideals of beauty. Madonna perpetuates a hegemonic culture, as she uses her body confidently to influence the American culture to believe that she has the authoritative knowledge on what the trends are and compels the society as a whole to follow these trends.
In addition to the power of influential institutions like the entertainment industry that promotes Madonna’s tremendous impact on popular culture, the power she holds within her body exerts an even greater influence in creating trends. The manner in which Madonna uses her body to wear fashion, perform sexual acts, dance, and simply take part in daily activities causes people to pay attention to her and become aware of her presence.
Elizabeth Grosz states that “the body [is] a site of social, political, cultural, and geographical inscriptions, production, or constitution” Supporting Grosz’s argument that the body is a cultural product, Madonna produces, reflects, and interprets culture through the use of her body. She uses her body to form relationships with global culture, social movements, and geographic explorations to appropriate specific corresponding trends. The resulting incorporations of these relationships in her persona allow her to produce and project different images that influence popular culture.
For almost each trend that bombarded mainstream America from the 1980s, Madonna has been involved in one way or another, either starting the trend or attracting attention to the existing trend to increase its popularity. Through music videos and performances, she has displayed her body in ways that cultivated the various trends that a large majority of the people follow. She also has played an important role in reflecting the changing definitions of beauty through the constant reinventions of her image.
For example, Madonna emphasized her curvaceous and voluptuous body earlier in her career in the early 1980s, which was a time when the dominant perception of a beautiful body was curvy and full. There was also an emergence of the notion of materialism that dominated society during that time. Madonna perpetuated these ideologies and dominant hegemonic values of the time by emulating Marilyn Monroe in the music video “Material Girl,” in which she wore a form-fitting dress that accentuated her curvy body and surrounded herself with extravagant jewelry, like diamond bracelets and necklaces.
She also expressed the dominant views of women at the time and referred to the state of the culture during the decade in her lyrics, singing “…’cause the boys with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right…’cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Because of Madonna’s presence as a celebrity, she had the power to bring many people to admire her glamorous portrayal and influenced them to want to look and act like her to feel as if they were part of the rich and famous lifestyle.
The fact that “Material Girl” was popular and was replayed constantly contributed to the impact that her image made on the culture and provoked many people to desire these attributes of glamour and style that defined beauty as depicted in the song’s music video and lyrics. As a result, this music video further perpetuated a hegemonic culture where society agreed on the definition of beauty and what constituted the ideal woman.
In the early 1990s, Madonna constructed a new hegemonic ideal of a woman by reinventing herself and her body, creating an image that illustrated a dominant and independent woman. Madonna’s body became more toned, portraying a more masculine, strong, and powerful woman, as seen in her music video “Express Yourself,” in which she wore men’s suits. This video not only represented a new fashion trend of less glamorous and more sophisticated and masculine clothes, but they also captured the shift in portrayals of women to a more dominant position.
With these images, she promoted equality between men and women and reinforced the idea that women can perform the same roles as men with equal effectiveness. Furthermore, Madonna used her body in her music video to exert power and control over men, not simply to seduce men as was the conventional thought of the practice and use of women’s bodies.
In “Express Yourself,” she demonstrated her power as she oversaw a factory full of shirtless, muscular male workers and made them perform various deeds that fulfilled her needs, such as crawling and begging on their knees for attention, singing “You’ve got to make him express himself…to lift you to your higher ground, make you feel like the queen on a throne…” This means that a woman should settle for no less than a man who respects her and that she should leave him if he does not fulfill her desires, since women “deserve the best in life.”
Also revealing the movement for women’s empowerment during the time is the music video “Vogue,” in which she also wore a masculine suit. Madonna appeared to have men under her supervision, controlling when her male dancers dance and when they stop. In several scenes, she would nudge or authoritatively glance at the men to signal when to dance. This, again, showed her dominating over men. In addition, she sang, “beauty’s where you find it,” implying that there is no standard for beauty, but what the individual finds beautiful, whether feminine or masculine.
This reflected the idea that women should not feel restricted or forced to conform to the traditional standards of beauty set by men, but be themselves and do what makes them feel beautiful. She mentioned the names of famous celebrities like Greta Garbo and Betty Davis to illustrate the idea that ideals of beauty changes and that individual “style…grace…and attitude” are what make women beautiful. This new image of a dominant woman in control, as performed by Madonna, corresponded with the trend of an increase of women in power in America.
Illustrating this trend, popular television programs at the time included “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown,” where the lead female characters did not conform to the stereotypical role as a passive woman, but in contrast were strong and independent. Roseanne was an aggressive and vulgar working-class woman who was not concerned with fitting in with the image of a feminine woman, having a heavy frame and constantly wearing t-shirts and jeans.
Also breaking the popular notions of the feminine and dependent manner in which a woman should behave, Murphy Brown was a career-oriented middle-class woman whose ambitions led her to focus on her profession and pay less attention to conforming to the socially constructed roles of a typical woman. With Madonna’s ability to influence popular culture through images of her body, she propelled a trend that empowered women by making the characteristics of power and dominance in a woman to be sexy and a more masculine body (compared to the previous prevailing notion of femininity) to be beautiful.
Another set of trends that Madonna began were the images of the overt sexuality of a woman’s body, in addition to sex in general, that were dominant in the mid 1990s. Although her body was still thin, she emphasized her curves through sexual actions and poses, subjugating a woman’s body to sex, which was in contrast to the masculine body and actions of Madonna in the early 1990s. Her music videos of this time included “Justify My Love” and “Erotica,” which depicted Madonna performing sexual acts as a sexual object, wearing lingerie and other revealing clothes that brought attention to her feminine body, most notably her breasts.
In both songs, she sang about being a woman who has the desire to be a man’s sexual object and yearn for his love, “wanting, needing, waiting for you to justify my love,” and “erotic, erotic, put your hands all over my body,” in “Justify My Love” and “Erotica,” respectively. At around the same time, American culture seemed to be fixated with sex and the sensuality of a woman’s body.
Television programs like “Baywatch” and primetime soap operas like “Melrose Place,” as well as other sources of the media such as the “Victoria Secret’s Catalog” that emphasized sex and women’s curves, while depicting women as sexual objects, became increasingly popular. Likewise, there was a sudden growth in the number of women who underwent cosmetic surgery, particularly breast implants, to look like the women whom America found attractive during that time. Mainstream American culture’s fondness of celebrities and the power of knowledge that society gives to the entertainment industry allowed Madonna to set a trend that influenced people to take interest in the sexuality of women’s bodies.
In the late 1990s, Madonna began to appropriate Asian cultures, reflecting the increasing trend of Asian influences in the American popular culture. It is obvious that the album she released in 1998, “Ray of Light,” was inspired by Eastern cultures, as her music videos and her private life reflected their styles and interests. What might have started as Madonna’s personal interests led to a public following and hence hegemonic ideals. In the video “Frozen,” Madonna covered her body with henna and incorporated Hindu hand movements in her choreography, as she sang in a location that appeared to be a desert in the Middle East.
In another music video from the same album, “Nothing Really Matters,” she wore a kimono and danced with ninjas and geishas, inspired by the Japanese culture. This coupled with Madonna revealing the fact that she practices yoga in her private time, contributed to America’s growing fascination with Eastern cultures. Many people began to emulate her style, wearing henna and clothes with Asian prints.
Also, Madonna represented the shift of dominant perceptions of beauty toward the muscular and toned bodies. America was not only convinced of the benefits of yoga physically, but spiritually as well, which Madonna popularized. Once again, she used the publicity she receives from being a celebrity to start the trend of a new style, or make a statement about a new lifestyle, and created a following that even included other celebrities who practice yoga to attain a thin muscular body and a level of spirituality of which Madonna spoke favorably.
These relationships between Madonna and the cultural and social trends of specific periods throughout her career exemplify the idea that the body is a cultural product that has the potential to represent and reflect social trends. Madonna uses her body confidently, presenting herself with different types of clothes, changing her body’s physique, and making various gestures and movements, to model and influence the popular culture into forming a standard and definition of what is beautiful, stylish, and trendy, concerning fashion and behavior.
Because of her position in the entertainment industry combined with America’s tendency to admire celebrities, the general public often assumes that people like Madonna have more knowledge concerning what is beautiful than other people. Hence, celebrities have the power to impact culture by setting new trends and forming the perspectives of the images of the standards of an ideal body, with which popular culture uniformly agrees.
Consequently, the resulting hegemonic culture determines what is attractive and enforces the idea that the body is a cultural product that exemplifies the trends of the time – ultimately forcing us to conform to the popular ideals of beauty to feel beautiful.