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Essay/Term paper: Mtv and the madonna phenomenon

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Social Issues

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MTV and The Madonna Phenomenon

"Madonna's intuitive grasp on the televisual world in which we live- of
the medium's possibilities for engaging spectators in diverse ways- that in part
accounts for her success. She is the supreme television heroine." (E. Ann Kaplan

"What are the main theories which we have studied so far and how have
they affected how you view television?"-This is the question which this paper
is supposed to answer. Obviously there is not enough time or space in which to
discuss every theory which we have touched on. As a compromise I decided to
write about a topic to which almost every theory that we have discussed can be
applied: MTV and the "Madonna Phenomenon".

As E. Ann Kaplan stated in her article on feminist criticism, Madonna is
truly the ultimate television heroine. A discussion on contemporary popular
culture and especially on media culture could never be complete without bringing
up Madonna. She can be discussed in terms of feminism, ideology, hegemony and
commercialism as seen in both Kaplan's as well as in John Fiske's article on
British Cultural Studies.

In order to properly explain how the "Madonna Phenomenon" has become
such an important concept in media studies, one must look first at how
influential MTV (music television) has become in the last decade. MTV addresses
the "desires, fantasies, and anxieties" of young people(Kaplan 270) who have,
like myself, grown up in a decade when all the traditional institutions and
theories that were always respected, are being questioned. It has become the
center of discussions of many young people who have grown up idolizing the
figures shown on the network. MTV is a culture in itself. With it's own news,
fashion and music programs it can easily be the considered the basis for the
formation of thought of an entire generation.

The images depicted in music videos, of androgynous stars and situations
have aided in rendering the clear line between the genders rather blurry. This
makes MTV an important aspect in the study of post-modern theories. Videos are
often quite abstract and it is hard to figure out their true meanings. Unlike
other television programming, videos are usually not made up of clear parts or
scenes which produce an easily identifiable and readable image. It is often hard
to tell, for example whether a music video is sexist or whether it is simply
making a parody of earlier, sexist, Hollywood productions. Looking at videos of
fully clothed men , singing about love while bleach-blond girls in bikinis dance
around them can be quite confusing at times. Is it possible that these videos
are actually daring to be so blatantly sexist? It is highly doubtful.

The people behind the Music Video industry have quite brilliantly built
up an entirely new television and music empire, complete with it's own stars.
They have managed to use a form much like that of television commercials to
glorify their products which are in this case the singers. There are those stars
who are now known more for their videos than for their music. At times these
video stars are not even close to being good singers but have such strong
innovative videos that they manage to become successful without the possession
of talent. These stars must be analyzed not only as people but also as
industries. Their personas have been meticulously constructed and they have been
promoted as well as a can of "Coca-Cola Classic".

This brings us to the world of Madonna Veronica Louisa Ciconne Penn, or
rather Madonna- the most powerful woman in the Music Video world. Madonna is the
perfect object of analysis, if one wishes to look inside the MTV world. She is
the subject of numerous discourses. There are both differing feminist
constructions of Madonna as well as Madonna's constructions of herself.

The main topic which will be dealt with in this essay is Madonna's place
in the world of feminism. There are four categories of feminism which are
usually considered: Liberal feminism, Radical feminism, Marxist feminism and
Post-Modern Feminism. The "Madonna Phenomenon" can be looked at in terms of both
the third and fourth categories, and is often criticized by those who follow the
radical feminist theory. Madonna herself said, in bashing her radical feminist
critics: "Tell Gloria Steinem and the gang...to lighten up, get a sense of humor.
And look at my video that goes with Material Girl. The guy who gets me in the
end is the sensitive one with no money."

The first theory which I am going to discuss in relation to Madonna is
Marxist Feminism. Marxist feminism is based on the principle of how women as a
group are manipulated by economic and political factors which are out of their
control. In terms of television viewing, Marxist feminism explores the portrayal
of women on television focusing on how they are shown in the workforce. The
theory behind Marxist feminist television analysis is that if women are needed
in the workforce at a given time than television will portray women in the
workforce. On the other hand if women are not needed in the work force than it
will be economically beneficial to portray women as housewives or holders of
mediocre or "unimportant" jobs.

One may ask how Marxist feminism relates to Madonna. In plain terms,
Madonna has defied the constraints which usually define how women are portrayed
on television. In times when many women on television and especially in music
videos are shown as mere sex symbols and rather inanimate objects of desire,
Madonna has proved herself to be a strong independent woman. One may dispute
this by pointing out that Madonna uses her body to promote herself. Indeed her
persona is based mainly on her sexuality, but Madonna is not your average sex
symbol. She is a brilliant woman who has used a patriarchal society which takes
advantage of women and manipulated it so that it works to her advantage. More
than a singer Madonna is a business woman. Madonna has not let society and
politics influence how she portrays herself or how she lives at all. Madonna
does what she wants, and perhaps if other women did the same than Marxist
feminists would not have so much to complain about when they analyzed women on
television. When it comes to money making- the key to Marxism Madonna is a

Combining the "Madonna Phenomenon" with Marxist feminism has been one of
the main ideas which has influenced my opinion of Madonna as a person. When
watching her videos I no longer see a woman dancing around in her underwear for
money. I see someone who knows well that women are easily controlled by the
patriarchal society and economy. She has obviously studied how women are shown
on television and made a mockery out of it. People are offended by her because
they know well that she is one of the few women who has been strong enough and
has had enough courage to stand up for what she thinks is right, and has been
extremely successful in doing so. Madonna could have marketed herself as many
other female stars do: as helpless victims of man, torn apart by love gone wrong.
Instead she has shown, to the advantage of her many young female fans, that
women do not have to be victims.

In her music video "Express Yourself" Madonna actually plays with the
idea that in the career world men are the bosses and women their workers. Based
on early German expressionistic films the video shows Madonna as the performer,
but also as the director and narrator. She is the female heroine of the video
but also presides over the text before it begins, heralding it as dedicated to
women in retaliation to the male address in the German films. The video empowers
women and influences them to take control of their lives.

The Post-Modernist feminist view is almost always discussed in relation
to Madonna. E. Ann Kaplan writes about Madonna in relation to post-modernist
feminism in bringing up another one of her more famous videos, "Justify my Love".
This video perhaps took Madonna's post-modernist daring to it's furthest. It was
banned by MTV as obscene yet it sticks out as one of Madonna's most brilliant
works and career steps to date. American viewers (who are probably not used to
anything more artistic than "Tool Time") misunderstood Madonna's fantastical
depiction of 1920's Germany. It is a ornate, stylized vision. This video forces
the viewer to look past the images that they may see as obscene in order to
question the confines of "gender constructs and the cultural constraints on
sexual themes and sexual fantasies" (Kaplan 275). Madonna has explored female
fantasy and in this respect, she is to be regarded as someone who tries the
limits of social codes, in a time when the dominant culture is revolting against
the challenges of the 1960s. She reacts against American sexual mores and
explores women's sexual alternatives from lesbianism to sadomasochism. Madonna
as a feminist has proved herself to be a useful, rebellious role model for young
women who have the need to look up to someone who is powerful and self-promoting.
She enables girls to see that female sexuality can be used to their advantage,
and that their subjectivities do not have to be totally determined by the
dominant patriarchy.

British Cultural studies also provide an opening for a discussion on the
"Madonna Phenomenon'. Her success has been due in great part to television and
music videos, and many critics will dispute her musical talent but will concede
to the fact that Madonna has one of the most powerful "looks" in history. These
critics might say the Madonna has made her fortune by using her sexuality to
manipulate young girls. As Fiske writes, however, this theory could only be true
if one thought of all Madonna fans as so-called "cultural dupes" (Fiske 304).
There is a great deal of evidence to support this theory. Madonna may be seen as
just another female star who aims to show herself as the embodiment of male
sexual desires, this would propose that she is attempting to teach young female
fans that they are simply "feminine subjects within patriarchy and as such is an
agent of patriarchal hegemony" (Fiske 305). I choose to believe as Fiske does
that this is not the case.

The young girls choose to imitate and in fact idolize Madonna rather
than anyone else because she goes against ideological control and allows her
fans to construct meanings that relate with their personal social experiences.
The girls do not see her as someone who has conformed to the dominant ideology
of women but rather as someone who has offered opportunities to resist it. "Her
image becomes, then, not an ideological role model for patriarchy, but a
site of semiotic struggle between the forces of patriarchal control and
feminine resistance...".

Madonna attempts to instill in girls the ability to keep their care-free
feelings towards exhibitionism and self-expression that society tries to take
away from them when they reach womanhood. She recognizes the significance of
sexual identity in determining our social relations and experiences. In working
various meanings into her texts she points out their role in male hegemony. She
shows that women may be either "worshipped and adored by man or used and
despised by him."

Madonna is a woman who has greatly influenced the thoughts of many
contemporary women. Some may hate her and some may love her but all must admit
that the packaging and industry that is "Madonna" is monumental. In answering
the question "how have these theories affected the way you view television?" I
can sum up everything which I have just written about. Were it not for my
studying of the "Madonna Phenomenon" I would look at the women on television
(and in particular those in music videos) quite differently. I would see them,,
as I had in the past as victims of the dominant ideology and the patriarchal
society which we live in. Madonna proves that women can fight against the
regulations which are forced onto women: that if they are sexual beings than
they are nothing more than sex symbols, and that society determines how women
are portrayed on television.

If I could go as far as to describe Madonna in one word it would be "
strong". I not only enjoy her work but admire her ability to do what she feels
like doing, even if she completely disregards society's definitions of decency.
She is one of the few women in history who has never asked others to accept or
like what she does. To conclude I would like to quote Madonna herself in order
to demonstrate her atypical way of thinking which has brought her such
undeniable success:
"Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another"
-Madonna "Justify my Love"


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