Madonna and the Fading Politics of Diva-dom

The loaded word “bitch” seems to be coming up a lot in relation to Madonna lately. Mostly by Madonna herself: On her Instagram—a platform she came to late but with relish, often posting multiple times a day—her favorite hashtag is #unapologeticbitch, and her latest song and video, yet another manic effort to appear completely up-to-the-minute as she approaches her 57th birthday next month, is called “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” You can almost hear her saying that at the gates of the afterlife when the bouncer, briefly confused, looks up from his clipboard and asks, "Are you on the list?”


Madonna arriving at Rihanna’s Met Ball afterparty in May 2015. Photo: Getty Images

And she probably used either catchphrase—at least in her head—after recent mini scandals on Instagram in which she affectionately called her son, Rocco, the N-word (she took that post down after a huge uproar) and posted a pic of her adopted African kids, David and Mercy, rubbing her feet.

But as a gay fortysomething lifelong Madonna fan/critic, I had to admit I was slightly shocked when someone else called her a bitch recently: Jonathan Groff, the young gay actor now currently starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a new Broadway hip-hop musical so hot that only rich and/or famous folk like Madonna have been able to snag tickets. According to Groff, Madonna attended a recent performance and texted through the entire show. He later told the press: “That bitch was on her phone. You couldn’t miss it from the stage. It was a black void of the audience in front of us and her face there perfectly lit by the light of her iPhone through three-quarters of the show.” (Madonna denied this via her publicist.)

It’s not the first time Madonna’s been called out for texting during high-profile performances; two years ago, she allegedly texted through a premiere screening of the film 12 Years a Slave. And even though she’s clearly not the only person in the world so addicted to her phone she can’t put it down through a show anymore, the fact that someone so scrutinized can’t seem to stop herself from offending fellow performers while they work brings new depths of meaning to the term #unapologetic.

But what really struck me was Groff’s response. I’m not a fan of anyone calling anyone a bitch, let alone a man calling a woman one, but I was both impressed and a bit shocked that he had no problem berating The Great Diva for her appalling behavior the way he’d berate anyone else. I sensed a sea change: Whereas my generation of gay men were thrilled by Madonna’s ill conduct, egging her on to ever greater heights of insouciant narcissism, millennial gay Groff was having none of it.

All of which got me thinking about the kind of celebrity Madonna has long represented and why it seems she’s come in for so much contempt in recent years. Most of that contempt, as expressed in a recent New York Times article, seems to revolve around her “desperate” efforts to stay young and relevant and to project a kind of enduring libido and sexual wildness. There’s the whole aggressive, rape-y kissing of Drake at Coachella, the flashing her butt on the Grammys red carpet, and the endless succession of boy-toy boyfriends half her age.


Drake post Madonna kiss at Coachella in April, 2015. Photo: Getty Images

Frankly, none of those aspects of Madonna’s recent behavior rub me the wrong way; I love bawdy older women, I detest our culture’s putting a shelf-life on the appropriateness of showing your sexual side, and I hope Madonna goes on flaunting it all until the day she dies.

But what’s been bugging me about Madonna lately isn’t her middle age sexuality but her defensive diva-dom, or the #unapologeticbitch factor, if you will. For gay men, queer people and many women my age, Madonna thrilled us in the eighties and nineties because she flipped the bird to the pervasive misogyny, sexism, homophobia, AIDS-phobia and overall sexual puritanism of the times. It’s hard for millennials to understand just how profoundly Madonna’s in-your-face sexuality enraged a conservative, Reagan-era society. Remember, this was the decade in which Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, was dethroned when naked homoerotic pictures of her surfaced and when right-wing monsters like Sen. Jesse Helms talked of quarantining gays with AIDS.


Madonna on Playboy’s September 1985 cover, photographed by Steve Kagan. Photo: Getty Images

Amid all this, along comes Madonna who, when nude pics of her surfaced in Penthouse and Playboy in 1985, had the nerve to say she wasn’t ashamed. In fact, she seemed to gleefully dig in her heels against the puritanical haters, putting out a book, Sex, whose nudity, S&M and homoerotic themes have become the banal stuff of today’s ho-hum fashion spread but, when they were published in 1992, appeared to many to be the height of dark depravity, as though Madonna had finally gone off the deep end.

And, in some ways, she had. Madonna became the target of so much hatred toward powerful and ambitious women that it was almost inevitable her natural exhibitionist bravado would gird itself into a kind of #unapologeticbitch defensive posture–one in which she might not see the difference between approbation that was undeserved (such as for displays of sexuality) versus deserved (such as throwing around the N-word or rudely texting during someone else’s live performance). Around the turn of the millennium, it seemed that motherhood, yoga, and Kabbalah partially reoriented Madonna from provocative to the spiritual. But now, in the Instagram era—in which technology has finally caught up to her insatiable exhibitionism—she seems back to her relentless diva swagger.

Which is a good and bad thing. I love to see her celebrating her indisputably well-earned pop-culture legacy. (Nobody loves quoting old Madonna lyrics more than Madonna.) But I also can’t escape the feeling that, largely because of walls Madonna helped tear down, a certain age of the big brazen pop diva—and of worship thereof—has passed. Try as hard as she might with Rebel Heart, her new (and commercially underwhelming) album packed with cutting-edge producers and sounds, Madonna’s out of sync with a zeitgeist in which it appears finally okay for talented women like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer to show off multiple sides of themselves and call themselves feminists. (In 2003, Madonna, disavowing the term like so many prominent women of her generation, said, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist.”)

Moreover, the new zeitgeist allows for these women to (at least publicly) cheerlead one another, to sidestep those icky cat fights that my and older generations of gay men thrived on, to acknowledge that the real enemy is not that other talented woman but a system that historically has been run by men and made too little room for a wide diversity of female talent. Today, the “Bitch, I’m Madonna” stance, nurtured by decades of justifiable defensiveness (including against ageism), doesn’t play well to an era where fronting and swagger is breaking down—even in hip-hop, long a redoubt of bling-plated bravado. Now it’s an arena where the year’s most acclaimed performer, Kendrick Lamar, raps with infinite depth and subtlety about depression, self-doubt and shame.

And as tiring as it is for mere mortals such as I to tell celebrities how they should be in the world, I—and I think countless others—would be so thrilled to see a different fiftysomething Madonna—namely, one who doesn’t feel the numbing need to project nothing but an iron-plate diva swagger. Where is the Madonna who always challenged the culture with new images and ideas, whether it was by turning women into sexual warriors and men into sex objects in the Fritz Lang-influenced ”Express Yourself,” fusing Hollywood’s golden era and gay black underground dance culture in ”Vogue” or experimenting with the first computer-generated visuals in ”Frozen?” She seemed to genuinely care then about showing us something we’d never seen before. By the time I finished watching the joylessly manic, party-up-in-the-club antics of “Bitch, I’m Madonna" video, I needed an ibuprofen.


Madonna on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in April. Photo: Getty Images courtesy of NBC

Recently, I listened to Madonna’s March interview with Howard Stern to promote Rebel Heart. Stern caught her on a day when she had a cold, shortly after that brutal fall she took while performing onstage at the Brit Awards. She’s extremely subdued in the interview.

What emerges in those 90 minutes—sometimes between the lines of her (admirably?) circumspect replies to Stern’s predictably brash inquiries into her romantic and sexual history—is a tantalizing glimpse of the real Madonna circa 2015: Someone with more than her share of sadness over failed relationships. Someone who dearly loves her children and has found solace and meaning in them amid the often hollow pressures of show business. Someone who’s been collecting art for 30 years and has deeply considered feelings for it, and for artists. Someone who has a (somewhat solipsistic) sense of having been persecuted and marginalized from an early age. But above all, someone who, by now, has performance in her bones—who seems incapable at this point of being truly comfortable doing anything but working. That’s both admirable  but also a bit poignant.

This Madonna—with three decades of accomplishments and disappointments behind her, with varying shades of pride and regret, with a huge mental archive of art, culture and experience—seems so much more interesting than the bling-plated #unapologeticbitch she’s reduced herself to as of late. If only she could relax a little into the genuine complexities of middle-age and not fear showing that in her work, she might surprise us one more time with something truly meaningful.

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