Daytime TV host Wendy Williams got herself all worked up over Madonna's flashing of her bare breast two weeks ago during a concert in Istanbul, asking, "Okay old lady how desperate can we get?" The women on "The View" also weren't having it, and neither were Star Jones and ad man Donny Deutsch on the "Today" show. But I think they're all missing the point, and definitely not getting the context.
Yes, Madonna is striking out at the ageist critics who say woman of her age should act a certain way. In that sense she's doing what she's always done, pushing buttons about how women are supposed to behave. Now it's simply about how 50-something-year-old women are to behave. And yes, she has great breasts, on a par with those of many 30-year-olds, so why shouldn't she flaunt them?
But more significant is context, lost on the critics entirely. Madonna didn't show her nipple in New York or Los Angeles or Miami. She did it in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country where many women do not show much of their bodies in public, and where women's rights are under attack by a conservative government, sending many marching into the streets in recent weeks.
Back in the 1980s, when Madonna burst on the scene, the U.S. was in a scary place on the issue of homosexuality. For a generation of gay men, Madonna was our antidote. As our friends died around us during the callous Reagan era, as conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. called for putting tattoos on people with AIDS, as Senator Jesse Helms was writing laws against us, Madonna was pushing back culturally. She struck at the Catholic church. She flaunted sexuality. She crashed through stereotypes about gender. She did in those very oppressive years what Lady Gaga does for gays more overtly in this much more gay-accepting time.
So, by assertively flashing her nipple in Istanbul, Madonna was, in the cultural realm, doing something similar for the women of Turkey, perhaps helping to liberate them just a little bit. And what would she follow that up with? A few days later, last week in Rome, she flashed her butt to the crowd. I happened to be in Rome, and I got a chuckle when some in the Italian media actually took note that Madonna's ass was facing the Vatican. Was she mooning the Pope?
Last night I appeared with PR guru Howard Bragman on Joy Behar's new show on Current TV, and Howard made the point that Wendy Williams scored simply by having her name in the same headline with Madonna's.That may be true. But Madonna always scores bigger in these battles, and with her, so do we all.