Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Supplemental Post #3: Madonna, Stardom and What It Means to be American

Watching Madonna's Truth or Dare (1991), my understanding of the relationship between stardom and American nationalism finally came together. When I now revisit the stardom of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Arnold, Marilyn, I see common themes come up. The single most memorable moment from the film is when Madonna refuses to compromise her artistic integrity and freedom with the Canadian police when they threaten to arrest her after her show due to the explicit sexual references in her performance. In a weird way, this reminds me of the moment when the police threaten to (and actually do) arrest the members of N.W.A at their performance due to the profanity ("Fuck the Police") in their song, as portrayed in Straight Outta Compton (2015). Although largely different in historical, social and racial contexts, these two moments both exemplify artists' attempts at exercising the freedom of expression and speech, an especially American concept.

The embracing and expressing of American values are crucial to the star image. Another important American quality of Madonna is the narrative of her upbringing. Her parents were immigrants from Italy, and she's proudly announced that she is Italian American in the film, when she spoke to the press about her insistence on preserving her artistic integrity in the concert in Canada. When she was growing up, Madonna was a hardworking and straight-A student in high school. The most impressive chapter of her 'American' journey began when she, according to a CNN article by Paula Zahn, bravely dropped out of University of Michigan (where she had received a scholarship from) and moved to New York with $35 in her pocket to pursue her passion in dancing. Starting out, she worked at Dunkin' Donuts as she was taking dance classes to pay the bills. She eventually became who we know her to be today, but it is important to highlight that her journey contains a rags-to-rich, self-made and hardworking narrative, all very fundamentally American values. It also does not hurt that she is a young, white, straight, talented and attractive girl.

In the film, Madonna also demonstrates the element of Christianity as a core American value. Before every concert in the film, she would get her dancers together in a huddle and say a prayer. It seems like an insignificant and simple act, but the repetition of this image in the film conveys the message that no matter how authentic it might be, the act of praying is important to Madonna's work and identity as a star. Ultimately, praying acknowledges the higher power of God, on top of the hard work that they have already put in to their performance. To me, this evokes the 'American' phrase "In God We Trust."

Being American doesn't necessarily mean being wholly good or perfect, and the film certainly makes it clear that Madonna is the furthest thing from perfect. Truth or Dare shows us who Madonna is in a seemingly honest way, especially when it uncompromisingly displays her flaws in personality. We see Madonna display her diva personality when she swears furiously about technical issues that happen in concerts, demanding that her staff fixes the issue without really trying to understand what it is; we see her being insecure about whether her boyfriend loves her or not when she's peeling off flowers petals in her "he loves me, he loves me not" game; we even see her perform extremely inappropriate acts like emulating oral sex with a beer bottle in front of the camera. The film gives us a picture of Madonna as not only a less than perfect star, but also a controversial and perhaps problematic one. However, what is important is that Madonna is aware of her flaws, owns her imperfect story and displays confidence and love to people around her. 

Madonna's insistence on artistic integrity, journey to fame, and uncompromising confidence shine a light on John Wayne's aura of invincibility and fearlessness, Arnold's immigrant and self-made success mythology, Marilyn's mixture of innocence and bold sexiness, N.W.A's exercise of the freedom of speech -- these stars embrace core American values and embody them to the fullest degree, creating a powerful and coherent persona of the ideal American, one that everyone should aspire to becoming but can never actually become. 


  1. Supplemental Post #4: Response to Matthew Leung’s Supplemental Post #3

    This is a great post, Matthew. I really enjoyed the comparison of Madonna's experience to that of N.W.A's, and you're right, though "different in historical, social and racial contexts, these two moments both exemplify artists' attempts at exercising the freedom of expression and speech, an especially American concept."

    I think it is important to note that an artist’s ability to exercise their freedom of speech is not only a fundamental right, but is a way to push the boundaries of society. I also think it is interesting that there seem to be two kinds of celebrities that actually do that — singers/artists and politicians. I mean, aside from Sean Penn making friends with El Chapo, and Angelina Jolie adopting children from other countries, there aren't too many notable people in the tabloids that make a splash in any way. Sure JJ Watt may be dating Kate Hudson and Ciara is getting sued by Future, but what about all that nitty gritty stuff like Lady Gaga wearing meat and saying weird stuff on stage and Madonna making out with random people?

    Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that our world has turned into a society of political correctness, therefore we haven’t had too many celebrities really push the boundaries like Madonna did back in the eighties and nineties. But hey, if we are talking politicians, I think Trump may qualify in that area. Thoughts?

  2. Supplemental Post #4: Response to Alegra's Post!

    Thank you so much for responding. I like your point about artists exercising their freedom of speech as a way to push the boundaries of society. I agree with it so much but never found a way to articulate it.

    In fact, this reminds me of the #Oscarsowhite controversy earlier this year, when celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee spoke out about the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations. Despite the controversy they knew they were going to generate, they exercised their freedom of speech in an attempt to push the boundaries of society. In many ways, they have succeeded in doing so, considering the fact that Academy president Cheryl Boone-Isaacs announced the diversification of the academy's voting population in the future as a response to the widespread protest.

    However, this is largely different from the way Madonna pushed boundaries, because these celebrities were mostly politically correct. A pro-diversity mindset is simply the preferred mindset in 2016 in this country (maybe not so much in, say, 1800). This issue is also at the forefront of the liberal progress in America, especially since Obama became president and policies like Affirmative Action. Therefore, it is fair to say that these celebrities were simply riding along the general political sentiment of the country when they exercised their freedom of speech.

    Donald trump is an interesting case because of his image of political incorrectness. Many people are appealed by his direct, simple and strong rhetoric. They think that he truly speaks his mind and is not a politician. However, if we examine the way he has contradicted himself throughout his business and political careers in issues like abortion, endorsement of Hillary Clinton and gun control, we will see that he is actually a lot more than what he seems. He changes his stances on issues in order to move people and get votes, which is actually one of the most common criticisms and sources of skepticism for politicians. I would argue he is an artful manipulator of language and the media when it comes to campaigning; he is no less a politician than, say, Hillary Clinton. Therefore, I don't think he pushes the boundaries of society. I don't think he should be compared to Madonna on the issue as well, since he really does not speak his mind, and he is not committed to personal expression like Madonna was; if anything, he is most committed to personal success.


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