Madonna Turns 50: Wither Feminism?

09/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

During the first decade of her megastarhood, Madonna perfected not only the arts of pop music, bothering feminists, arousing boys (and girls), and wearing her underwear on the outside, but -- maybe uniquely -- the ability to use feminism to generate controversy and promote herself commercially. On the occasion of her 50th birthday this August 16, this stands as one of her signature achievements.

In 1989 she was paid $5 million by Pepsi for a commercial using her video for "Like a Prayer," which the company then canceled. Apparently they didn't realize that praying wasn't the only thing she did on her knees to "take you there."

But the most masterful media turn might have been the next year, when she perfectly balanced outrage and opportunism, producing a video for "Justify My Love" that the music channel MTV (remember that? It's where you used to go to watch "music videos") refused to broadcast - only to see it aired in its entirety on the real news program "Nightline," December 3, 1990. The video featured a grainy nipple image, some bisexual group sex, and a lot of heavy breathing.

After listening to her complain about MTV's censorship, "Nightline" host Forrest Sawyer, almost as if he didn't realize the game she was playing on Nightline, allowed his solemn tone to turn slightly exasperated: "But in the end you're going to wind up making even more money than you would have."

Madonna smiled a little and said, "Yeah, so lucky me."

Sawyer also brought up the feminist irritation with Madonna: "You've taken some heat . . . from some women who feel that maybe you're not expressing the values that they want feminism to express . . . [all the way back to] when you wore the belt buckle that said 'boy toy' for the 'Material Girl' video, which they feel reflects old values of women."

"Well, I would like to point out that they're missing a couple of things," she replied. "Because, you know, I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I'm in charge. You know. I'm in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and . . . people don't think of me as a person who's not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn't that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren't I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?"

In that and many other examples, direct and indirect, verbal and aesthetic, Madonna's striking of this chord reverberated profoundly. In today's version of this argument, some high-profile and professional women have replanted the proverbial feminist flag in the reclamation of women's once-nonvoluntary subordinate status: opting to stay home with their kids. (This small group of women doesn't account for much of women's recently-declining employment rates, but it is nevertheless a real phenomenon.)

If you weren't in college in a culture studies program in 1989, it's understandable if you don't appreciate the fervor with which these issues were once debated. (And you're not necessarily worse off for it.) And if you weren't willing to forgive a little nostalgia on my part you probably wouldn't have read this far. But I get a little misty-eyed when I go back to passages like this one, by Carla Freccero from the journal boundary in 1992, 20 pages into a radical "reading" of Madonna's work: "These texts [videos] may suggest strategies for the empowerment of the subordinated, marginal, and de-centered in advanced capitalist culture, strategies that are not anachronistic but born of the medium of advanced capital and the gaps that are produced within it."

Madonna really was lucky - in the right place at the right time - but she was also brilliant. It wasn't exactly original for popular culture to promote the image of women embracing bimboism, or putting themselves in chains and claiming to love it. What made her different was that she was the one writing the material, and reaping the millions (billions, eventually) of dollars it attracted. That she was using a Pepsi commercial scandal not to sell Pepsi but to sell her own image, like she played the producers of "Nightline."

Madonna's Material Girl feminism didn't represent the death of the movement - or its revival as a girls-just-want-to-have-fun party. She was more incidental than that. What she did reverberated because it represented the opportunity for some women to claim gains that were only possible because of America's wealth and power in the world - and the access women had won to those rewards - the opportunity to get a piece of what was theirs. To her credit, Madonna has forwarded some of what was hers to the cause of supporting orphans in Malawi.