No other singular figure in women’s history has hardly been more influential or discussed as Madonna. Just the stage name, Madonna, carries such a heavy weight within the realm of history and women, how couldn’t the individual sporting it have ulterior motives outside the realm of pop culture? Madonna has forged a quintessential identity and iconic image through the use of manipulating the system and understanding its limits as well as her own. Firstly, the name Madonna and its sacred interpretations lends her character to being incredibly subversive in nature, offending some of her audience while appealing to others. By taking the name commonly utilized by the Virgin Mary for a highly commercialized pop character, Madonna in one fell swoop materializes religion in a way that comments on society’s materialization of modern religion. Aside from her nomenclature, Madonna’s sexual and outward appearance has always been a subject of discussion, because she uses her image and sexuality as such a powerful tool and in a way that no other artist had at the time. Women throughout history, in various ways and times, been considered visual objects of beauty meant to elicit arousal, but the definitions of beauty have shifted alongside the course of history. Most recently, in the 1960s for example, having little to no womanly figure was considered ideal and attractive, yet in the 1980s cleavage was the emphasized trait that was ideal and sought after to induce sexual arousal. The purpose of the punk movement, as discussed in earlier conversations of the origins and development of punk, was to either completely ignore and disregard the conventions of arousal by downplaying sexuality and clothing, or to completely amplify it by heavily using clothing such as lingerie or wearing very little clothing at all. Madonna begins her career in 1983 completely buying into amplifying her sexuality, but through time shifts into a style of androgyny when her motives and ideologies shift. The 1980s focused heavily on the corporate artist superstar, purely meant to make large amounts of money for the struggling music industry of the time. Instead of focusing on the purity of the musical quality, the industry was singularly focused on making a profit off successful artists such as Michael Jackson, and second only to him was Madonna. MTV’s (music television) introduction in the beginning of the 1980s immensely escalated the importance of outward image with its huge popularity in the American population, the music industry using music videos to advertise their artists. Madonna is the first female artist, fitting succinctly into a space between advertising and “soft-porn” appeal, to exploit video specifically intended to manipulate her image, gain her popularity, and earn more money. Madonna’s music video leagacy begins with her video “Holiday” in 1983, a simple dance video without any underlying narrative, but the video introduces her style as an artist with bright blond hair, red lipstick, sexually themed dancing, and her characteristic inclusion of the crucifix, seen in the video with her set of earrings.
The” Lucky Star” music video, also released in 1983 along with her debut album Madonna, features Madonna in the same clothing with two backup dancers, just as in the “Holiday” music video. However, the video is even more sexual in nature, featuring Madonna lying on the ground in some instances as opposed to dancing the entire time, and doing close-up shots of her face. At the beginning of the video, she takes off her sunglasses, symbolizing her role as the “star” without a need to wear the glasses because she is the light, and thus the song isn’t about another person necessarily, but she’s singing about herself. The theme of narcissism that is implied here is particularly empowering and further enforces Madonna’s role as a feminist and powerful female figure in the music industry, using her image and art to promote herself and success. Madonna incorporates underground trends into her music and videos, as well as high brow themes that people lacking a certain knowledge would otherwise not understand, qualifying her work as an artist. For example, in her 1984 music video “Like a Virgin,” featuring a black outfit akin to the ones in “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” showcases a lion traipsing around Venice symbolizing Saint Mark. While some people may be able to make the connection between the symbol and its intended meaning, it is nevertheless the bold inclusion of more complex themes, especially in comparison with her first music videos. While Madonna existed primarily as a means for the music industry to make money, she transitions from a female sell-out to a feminist icon, completely reversing the notion of Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze” in film with her music videos “Material Girl” and “Open Your Heart.” Instead of completely abolishing “the male gaze,” Madonna embraces and emphasizes it to empower herself, her music, and thereby her female audience. “Material Girl” features Madonna being fawned over by a plethora of well-dressed men, the beginning of the video showing two male viewers of the video symbolizing voyeurs. In the video, men faint at the sight of Madonna, money is thrown towards her, she’s given luxurious items of clothing and jewelry, and is idolized by men. “Open Your Heart” takes “the male gaze” a step further by having a literal set of voyeurs to observe a dancing Madonna wearing fishnet tights.
Madonna is an essential figure within feminism and the history of women in music to discuss for her power within the music industry and ability to manipulate it to demonstrate her own success and popularity, her use of video to explain themes and create an evolving character, and her use of sexualization as defined by men to instead of diminish her role as an icon, empower herself. Madonna includes high brow culture and underground trends within her music, her clothing choices, and her personal definition, making her not only an iconic woman of music, but in my opinion one of the most iconic women of all time.