Among other casual bombshells in Lourdes Leon’s first Vanity Fair feature, one included, of all things, her reading list. For starters, it wasn’t necessarily imagined she would be “basic” enough to fuck with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. For another, bell hooks being name-dropped (specifically 2000’s All About Love: New Visions) seems, in many respects, vaguely traitorous to her own mother, who was the subject of a seminal hooks essay from 1994 entitled, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?”
And yet, Madonna is someone who raised all of her children to question, to challenge—even to take critical and philosophical thinking beyond what she ever did. Perhaps that’s part of what Leon is doing here… or perhaps she either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that her mother’s intentions were much maligned in this treatise. Not only maligned, but called out as part of a larger issue for why white supremacist patriarchy continues to thrive as a result of women in mainstream media like Madonna.
Interestingly, All About Love: New Visions is one of the few works in hooks’ oeuvre that does not address race as much as it does gender. More to the point, how gendered thinking interacts with and taints the concept of love, as a pure form of it cannot exist amid a constant power struggle (somewhat meta considering Madonna will always be the dominant one in her relationships with younger, less established men). She declares in this tome–in a way that feels applicable to her assessment of Madonna–“So many people think that it’s enough to say what they feel, even if their actions do not correspond to what they are feeling.” For hooks is also quick to note of the pop star in “Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?,” “…yes, it’s possible to hire gay people, support AIDS projects and still be biased in the direction of phallic patriarchal heterosexuality…”
In short, hooks calls out Madonna’s hypocrisy in picking and choosing her “identification” with “Blackness.” And one wonders how hooks’ perspective on that might have changed for the better or worse after 2006, when news of Madonna adopting Malawian child David Banda broke. In subsequent years, she would go on to adopt three more Malawian children. The likes of cynical Morrissey called the first adoption tantamount to another celebrity feeling obliged to get hold of the hottest “accessory,” adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she made that African boy into a coat and wore him.” Way harsh, Tai. To that end, Zadie Smith’s entire 2016 novel, Swing Time, heavily borrows from many elements of Madonna’s life and career, modeled after a pop star named Aimee who, in her post-90s era, takes to building a school in Africa and adopting a child from there via rather improper channels. But hooks was among the first, long before it became chic to deem every white person’s act an affront (which isn’t totally untrue), to call out M’s appropriative tendencies. Unlike, say, Gwen Stefani, however, Madonna has always been more “reverent” (/less bombastically offensive) with that which she grafts, toeing the fine line between appropriation and “appreciation.”
Yet hooks was never quite so sure about that—and mind you, the essay in question was released in the throes of Madonna’s dating dalliance with 2Pac, which seemed to make her believe she had every right to sport cornrows in the video for “Human Nature.”
Presented in a collection called Gender, Race and Class in Media, the essay posits that Madonna has spent her career emulating Black (at that time, it was still spelled with a lower case “b”) culture, all on the basis of envying it. Something hooks points out that Madonna has freely admitted in interviews. Yet the problem with this, hooks explains, is that, “It is a sign of white privilege to be able to ‘see’ blackness and black culture from a standpoint where only the rich culture of opposition black people have created in resistance marks and defines us. Such a perspective enables one to ignore white supremacist domination and the hurt it inflicts via oppression, exploitation and everyday wounds and pains. White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder then that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences yet leave many black folks cold…”
At the same time, hooks gives Madonna “props,” as it were, for her own bona fide “Otherness” in a society that has made her seek to go blonde for the majority of her career. To embody the ideal of the Pure version of the “feminine divine.” As hooks notes, “Like many black women who have stood outside the culture’s fascination with the blonde beauty and who have only been able to reach it through imitation and artifice, Madonna often recalls she was a working-class white girl who saw herself as ugly, as outside the mainstream beauty standard… She mocks the conventional racist-defined beauty ideal even as she rigorously strives to embody it.” Talk about dichotomy. And incidentally, it seems that Madonna imparted more of the former in her daughter, who maintains (for now) anyway her original dark-haired roots while also sporting the same armpit hair M was happy to in her pre-fame days (one wonders if too much spotlight might suddenly “cure” Leon of her armpit hair as well). For it is said that parents try to live vicariously through their children in terms of getting to do things they never could. That seems like an incongruous statement for Madonna, who has done it all, and yet, as per hooks, the one thing she could never really do was topple patriarchy while working within the system of it. Perhaps Leon (especially being non-full-tilt blanca)—or her generation—can.
At the same time, Madonna has passed down the “art of artifice” to Lola, if this “glamorpuss chola” photoshoot is any indication. Perhaps this, too, will mean a gay following for Leon. As hooks remarked of Madonna, “Given her obsession with exposing the reality that the ideal female beauty in this society can be attained by artifice and social construction, it should come as no surprise that many of her fans are gay men, and the majority of non-white men, particularly black men, are among that group…” And it is, hooks argues, Black men that Madonna most seeks to emulate. Alas, hooks finds that, ultimately, “when the chips are down, the image Madonna most exploits is that of the quintessential ‘white girl.’ To maintain that image, she must always position herself as an outsider in relation to black culture. It is that position of outsider that enables her to colonize and appropriate black experience for her own opportunistic ends even as she attempts to mask her acts of racist aggression as affirmation. And no other group sees that as clearly as black females in this society. For we have always known that the socially constructed image of innocent white womanhood relies on the continued production of the racist/sexist sexual myth that black women are not innocent and never can be.” In essence, while Madonna invokes the titillated outrage drawn by some of her most iconic works—particularly “Like A Virgin”—Black female artists must constantly “check themselves” lest they be branded some kind of diabolical Circe.
Hooks continues, “Since we are coded always as ‘fallen’ women in the racist cultural iconography, we can never, as can Madonna, publicly ‘work’ the image of ourselves as innocent female daring to be bad.” Yet, to be “fair” (not that life is), this seems something beyond Madonna’s control. Is it her fault she was born into this system? No. Did she single-handedly create it? No. Has she actively worked her entire career to tear down the walls of prejudice and taboo? Yes. Whether she has “played” the white girl card when it suits her is at one’s discretion. But, by and large, it seems she has played it for the benefit of others (even while also ensuring it benefits herself).
Still, hooks isn’t having it as she condemns the double standard between Black and white women with the parallel, “We have only to contrast the life story of Tina Turner with that of Madonna to see the different connotations ‘wild’ sexual agency has when it is asserted by a black female. Being represented publicly as an active sexual being has only recently enabled Turner to gain control over her life and career. For years the public image of aggressive sexual agency Turner projected belied the degree to which she was sexually abused and exploited privately. She was also materially exploited. Madonna’s career could not be all that it is if there were no Tina Turner and yet… Madonna never articulates the cultural debt she owes black females.” Likewise, no pop star of the present, white or otherwise (including those who are over-the-toply spray-tanned like the blackfishing Ariana Grande), ever articulates the cultural debt they owe Madonna. Yet the latter goes on undeterred. Even if Madonna, as hooks says, owes a great deal of gratitude to Black women, she very much curated her own brand that was subsequently copied ad infinitum. To say otherwise is to discount that she does have great value as an artist. No one “created” her, and she certainly wasn’t under the thumb of any Svengali… as many women, white and Black alike, fall prey to when attempting to enter the music industry. Nonetheless, M has been accused of “stealing” for most of her career, which bears bringing up that T.S. Eliot platitude, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.”
More than stealing from Black women, however, hooks charges Madonna’s entire persona with being built on Black male machismo. She insists, “Madonna may hate the phallus, but she longs to possess its power. She is always first and foremost in competition with men to see who has the biggest penis. She longs to assert phallic power, and like every other group in this white supremacist society, she clearly sees black men as embodying a quality of maleness that eludes white men.” In other words, the mandingo stereotype. “Hence, they are often the group of men she most seeks to imitate, taunting white males with her own version of ‘black masculinity.’ When it comes to entertainment rivals, Madonna clearly perceives black male stars like Prince and Michael Jackson to be the standard against which she must measure herself and that she ultimately hopes to transcend…” No comment on the irony of Jackson himself seeking to become a white woman.
Her contempt for Madonna’s appropriation flared up after seeing 1991’s Truth or Dare. It is a film hooks sees as deliberately “choosing a cast of characters from marginalized groups—non-white folks, heterosexual and gay, and gay white folks… Madonna publicly describes them as ‘emotional cripples.’ And of course in the context of the film this description seems borne out by the way they allow her to dominate, exploit and humiliate them. Those Madonna fans who are determined to see her as politically progressive might ask themselves why it is she completely endorses those racist/sexist/classist stereotypes that almost always attempt to portray marginalized groups as ‘defective.’ Let’s face it, by doing this, Madonna is not breaking with any white supremacist, patriarchal status quo; she is endorsing and perpetuating it.”
Yet, in her personal life, she so clearly has not. For some can imagine Madonna seeking to have children who were not white (save for lone, Anglican Rocco) as a means to make up for the “experience” she could never fully embody himself. Though this, too, would be regarded as disgusting if that were some part of her motive in “breeding” (and yes, Carlos Leon was branded by the media as little more than Madonna’s “sperm donor”). Whatever the case, Leon clearly relishes her Latina background, proclaiming herself as the “Latin from Manhattan,” knowing full well that white is anything but right… not just philosophically but also as it becomes increasingly “démodé” as a skin tone (ergo the premise of Get Out).
As hooks continues to dissect how Truth or Dare is one of the apexes of M’s exploitative tendencies, she finds Madonna’s treatment of her dancers affronting on manifold levels, insisting, “This was not a display of feminist power, this was the same old phallic nonsense with white pussy at the center.” Side note: it seems Black women do love to call out blancas for specifically their white pussy. It’s almost an ultimate shaming tactic. And hooks feels Madonna has a lot to be ashamed of.
Hooks, like Leon in this Vanity Fair article asking men to “gather themselves” and look within to find if “The ‘Gram” is really the approach they want to take to get to know someone, suggests that Madonna would require “radical critical self-interrogation” in order to “have the power to create new and different cultural productions, work that will be truly transgressive—acts of resistance that transform rather than simply seduce.” Knowing Madonna, it’s entirely likely she came across this essay and decided to do just that. If her current acts of resistance are any indication. Then again, maybe both Madonna and her daughter would prefer to file the critique under: “Never Happened.” Otherwise, how else would they be able to go on reading hooks without some sense of imposter syndrome?