The Power of Madonna’s Vagina: Thirty Years of Relentless Thrusting
You can say what you want about Madonna, but if there’s one thing she does really well, it’s taking ownership of her body and female sexuality. So much is written about what her provocative nature did for her career, but what about what it’s done for others? How liberating is her vulgarity? It’s not only a performance for self-gain, but also a promotion of a “Fuck it” attitude that encourages others to strive for their own ambitions and sexual desires.
I’ve recently become more and more interested in Madonna — her hunger, her persona, her aggressiveness, her vulnerability — and in particular, the performance of her sexuality. As I listened to her music, from her debut album to her last, and watched her concerts, I wanted to engage with the question of both Madonna’s raw ambition and uninhibited sexuality, and how the two are intrinsically tied together.
If you boil down the controversy surrounding the alleged Queen of Pop to her sexual persona, what she is criticized for is, not surprisingly, praised in her male counterparts. Deemed from the beginning as too vulgar, Madonna has never ceased to push people’s comfort boundaries. While her provocations have been blunt acts of publicity, they also denounce the perversity of our societal sexual repression. In her song, “Human Nature,” she sings, ever so unapologetic:
“Did I say something wrong?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex”
In each of her concerts, Madonna, without fail, jams her hand in her pants and punctuates her dance moves with pelvic thrusts. When I first saw these acts, I reacted in two ways. First, I involuntarily felt shame because these sexual gestures were so public. After this knee jerk reaction, I realized that I had internalized overt sexual acts as wrong. More than that, I had internalized female expressions of sexuality as wrong. Watching Madonna interact with what she calls “her favorite instrument,” I thought of all the male figures I’ve seen grabbing at their junk in a macho display of their manhood. If they can do that without me feeling ashamed, why can’t she? Why can’t I? Why can’t everybody be as proud of their genitalia as Madonna?
Since the beginning of her career, headlines have been more concerned with Madonna’s sexuality than her singing. Her refusal to apologize for these controversies has always affirmed her right to be a sexual person, whether as a woman, a role model, or a mother. Instead of being sorry, she flaunts her sexuality. In fact, Madonna’s biggest strength is when she is performing. Her concerts are spectacles of her ambition, and her acrobatic dance routines choreograph the sexual liberation she fights for. But her ambition is often a source of criticism on her character. We’ve heard it before: a bossy woman is cold, narcissistic, self-interested, and a ‘bitch.’ In Madonna’s case, this sexist criticism is reflected in the treatment of her sexuality. Because she is a woman, her drive — whether sexual or creative — make her power-hungry in the eyes of the media. Her response?
Sits on a chair. Opens her legs. In your face: her vagina, her body, her sexuality. “Fuck it,” her performance says, “Wanna sexualize women? Watch me sexualize myself.” [cue the unforgettable masturbatory performance of Like a Virgin in the Blond Ambition World Tour (1991).]
What’s most powerful about Madonna’s sexuality is that it never stops, no matter how many candles she blows on her birthday. Her ambition, as embodied by her sexual persona, challenges ageism. Not only does she still participate in the pop culture discourse, but she also continues to be outspoken about her sexual self. In April 2015, Madonna performed a small stand-up “debut” on Jimmy Fallon dedicated to her relationships with younger men. This skit normalizes her right to have sex as an older woman by making fun of relationships the media judges her for. Because at 58, Madonna is still as invested in her career.
While critics accuse her of acting young as a desperate attempt to stay relevant, her ageless dedication to her career is inspiring. You only need to see her perform to realize she has every reason to feel like a 20-year-old. She may reject physical signs of her aging, but that’s also a testament to the entertainment culture she is a part of. As she argues, “Women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.”
“Like it or Not,” as her song title challenges, love her or hate her, Madonna is relevant because of her long-lasting influence on pop culture. While she is acclaimed for her chameleon-like ability to shift and evolve with cultural trends, Madonna has consistently stood by her rebellious message:
- “Don’t want to let the system get me down” (Where’s The Party, 1986)
- “Why can’t we learn to challenge the system” (Why’s It So Hard, 1992)
- “I’m gonna shake up the system” (Die Another Day, 2002)
- “Gotta shake up the system” (Turn Up The Radio, 2012).
Madonna has shamelessly used her sexuality to provoke, tease out, and push the norms. Her agency over her sex life has normalized sex-positivity for a mainstream audience, and particularly for women. But at the end of the day, as much as I love Madonna, and as little as I care for the controversy she is known for, she is a problematic feminist.
Despite her long career of pushing for female empowerment, her message is undermined by her lack of intersectionality. Simply put — and regrettably — Madonna is a white feminist. Her views don’t take into account the reality of people’s intersectional identities. Instead, she focuses solely on her cis-white-woman experiences, as her 2015 statements in the magazine Out show: “Women are still the most marginalized group. You’re still categorized — you’re still either a virgin or a whore. If you’re a certain age, you’re not allowed to express your sexuality, be single, or date younger men.” These are struggles Madonna unjustly faces, but to then say, “It’s moved along for the gay community, for the African-American community, but women are still just trading on their ass” minimizes the experiences of others.
Engaging in this rhetoric takes away from the reality of the different types of oppression people face, instead pitting them against each other. As Kendall states, “White feminism has argued that gender should trump race since its inception. That rhetoric not only erases the experiences of women of color, but also alienates many from a movement that claims to want equality for all.” For a person who sings, “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl,” Madonna contradicts herself (Vogue, 1990).
Her message of self-empowerment fails if it only applies to one part of the population. Although she has pushed others’ boundaries, her own have been limited to her status and privilege. Madonna’s career is not over, no matter how old entertainment culture considers her to be. Today, the dialogue surrounding her sexuality has shifted from female expression to female ageism. Tomorrow, her relentless ambition should push beyond her limits as a white feminist. In her Rebel Heart tour, she declares she wants to start a revolution. She asks her audience, “Are you with me?”
Madonna should ask herself, “Who am I with?”