Naomi Wolf on Madonna: we apologize

Naomi Wolf writes on why Madonna receives such vehement criticism for her work. Having admitted that Madonna’s film W.E. was ‘far from perfect’, Wolf goes on to suggest the reasons why the singer and director attracts such hostility:

The reliable media theme of “Hating Madonna”, whenever she steps out of her pretty-girl-pop-music bandwidth, is so consistent that it deserves scrutiny in its own right.

Why can the press just not wait to hate Madonna at these moments?

Because she must be punished, for the same reason that every woman who steps out of line must be punished. Madonna is infuriating to the mainstream commentariat when she dares to extend her range because she is acting in the same way a serious, important male artist acts. (And seizing the director’s chair, that icon of phallic assertiveness, is provocative as hell.) She is taking for granted that she is allowed to stretch. This is intolerable, because Madonna has not done the sorts of things that allow women of immense talent to get “permission” or “to be liked”.

What is so maddening? She does what every serious male artists does. That is: she doesn’t apologize for her talent or for her influence. What comes across quite profoundly when one interviews her is that she is preoccupied with her work and her gifts – just as serious male artists are, who often seem self-absorbed. She has the egoless honesty of the serious artist that reads like ego, especially in women.

Madonna is that forbidden thing, the Nietzschean creative woman.

I’m not sure this is true of everyone and I know it’s not true of me. I think we need to look at something like Everything Bad is Good for You to recognise how far audiences have grown in sophistication. As such, audiences are easily able to separate when necessary the superstar status, the riches, the incredibly successful pop career when assessing a new film. I’ve seen some of Madonna’s films and they are not very good; similarly, I didn’t like her former husband Guy Richie’s films (to mark a convenient point of comparison) either.

It’s difficult to prove a precise ‘external’ influence when assessing a work’s reception. Even when we look at a director’s or writer’s ‘psychology’ we need to be careful when over-ascribing its effect on the work. Similarly, it’s difficult to link the pervasive inequality faced by women to encompass an attitude by an entire industry, or wider still, the entire audience. It may be true; but the kind of bald assertion we find here (necessarily, given its a newspaper piece) serves to undermine those who think they deal even-handedly with the things they see, read and listen to – which is everyone.

One way of tackling Wolf’s assertion is that there are examples of powerful women who are adored (as Madonna was for so much of her career and still is) and think of how men who have been equally successful have been reviled. This kind of necessary and sufficient conditional analysis (as it’s known in philosophy) soon reveals examples that appear to counter Wolf’s cursory reading.

I think we need to trust the audience, ourselves, more and at the same time be suspicious, as Wolf is, of the critical biases and attitudes that critics betray. Little is pure or innocent, few of us are immune from prejudices. Certainly there’s some sparkling commentary on this article of Wolf’s and so I’ll leave you with one from GregUS, who captures that odd sense of feeling one should apologise for something someone else may or may not have done:

I can’t remember ever hating Madonna, so I can’t apologize for hating her, and I’m very sorry for that. I apologize wholeheartedly for being a man who isn’t apologizing. I firmly resolve to do something for which I should apologize, since a good pro-feminist new man should always apologize for something.

I will plow my car through a mailbox, in front of a patrol car, when I know a female officer is on duty. I will apologize profusely to her and to you.

Now do you like me? I apologize if you don’t.

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