Madonna and You

As female pop icons go, perhaps no one has inspired the amount of written reflection, academic and personal, as Madonna Ciccone. Still to-the-minute relevant at 53, she recently starred in her own Super Bowl halftime extravaganza and will be embarking on a world tour for her latest album. And the latest addition to the what-I-think-of-Madonna oeuvre has arrived, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, edited by Laura Barcella.

A collection of 40 smart, witty and sometimes revelatory essays, the book takes for granted the idea that Madonna has had a profound effect on all of our lives, not just those of the contributors. Madonna brought a bravery and brashness to the pop performance landscape that had not quite been seen before, and thus served as an exemplar for others, no matter what their metier. Several writers in the book thank the singer for inspiring them to be who they really wanted to be, dubbing her a “living permission slip.”

Many of the contributors give the no-holds-barred Madonna a nod for aiding their sexual liberation. Noting her 1980s rise to fame, Emily Nussbaum writes, Madonna “was our sacrificial anti-victim, jumping into the slut-pit before she could be thrown…”

Madonna’s liberatory message also reached home for Soniah Kamal, whose piece “Into the Wilderness” reveals how, as a young Pakistani girl, she began learning  what “sexy” means through Madonna songs and videos. Squished between Madonna and strict Muslim parents, Kamal had to justify the desire to be desirable.

Madonna knocked down racial barriers for some of these writers as well. As Tamara Lynch declares in “Madonna Is Down With the Swirl,” “I didn’t have to live by anyone’s rules but my own. It was time to be whoever I wanted, with whoever I wanted. I didn’t need to be black or white. I just needed to be me.”

Madonna’s early rape is mentioned (a little remembered fact about her New York City beginnings), but Nussbaum notes that the singer somehow crushed the personal violation into part of her overwhelming self-empowerment. Nussbaum also writes that while her only peer–the so-called King of Pop, Michael Jackson–maintained for many years a public persona of tenderness and vulnerability, the Queen’s image was pure strength. Never taking a victim’s stance in her songs, performances or personal life, if she was being submissive it was because she was letting you dominate. If Madonna ever doubted herself, she never showed it.

And if Madonna could reinvent herself–perpetually–then so could the young women who admired her. A surprising essay by Bee Lavender tells how the author covered her scars as a young cancer victim, revealing only what she wanted people to see. She writes: “I knew I was ugly. … The surface is indeed superficial, but it matters.” Her piece is a touching take on personal brand management,  learned from the best shape-shifter pop culture has ever known.

In possibly the most charming story of the collection, Wendy Shanker suggests that what Madonna really needs is a nice Jewish boy, so she sets up a profile for Madonna on J-Date using Madge’s real-life stats. Perhaps Madonna could find true love with an older man who will take care of her, suggests Shanker the Matchmaker, but then again Madonna can take care of herself–and then some.

Of course, not all the writers in the book are complete fans. Some characterize Madonna as the Alpha-Diva, others rag on her plastic surgery. Her acting failures, her incarnation as an English mother who writes children’s books, her contradictory whore/virgin persona, her young lovers–all are held against her.

Writes Cintra Wilson in a particularly sharp critique,

Madonna was never your friend–more like bullying older sister whose moral character you questioned and whose opinions you despised for being too cynical–but who was always right. … She still always wins, but it hurts, and it isn’t fun anymore. She has the heavyweight championship belt, the throne and an expansive kingdom with no king.

Madonna continues to push us. To be sexier? Maybe. To be stronger? Likely. Out of conventional ways of thinking? Definitely. Madonna’s story really does begin and end on a dance floor. A place where, she told us, if all else failed in life, we could get away to. And if dancing is a metaphor for the pop star’s life, Wilson sums it up well: “Her moves weren’t difficult, but there were millions of them…”

Photo is the cover of the book Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I love Madonna, always have. She is the staple of my childhood. I remember watching Like A Prayer debut on MTV, and even when I was just 4 or 5 at the time, I somehow knew she was something different and special than other singers.

  2. “The Madonna Connection,” a media studies text from the early ’90s, is also a great resource on how Madonna both reflects and shapes popular culture. And let’s not forget, Madonna is also a fabulous performer and writer of some of the catchiest pop singles in history. All Hail the Queen!

  3. I’m a contemporary of Madonna’s, and considered writing an essay for this collection called “Madonna? Meh.” Believe it or not, she was always someone I could take or leave depending on the incarnation, and I always felt her significance was exaggerated. ((Ducking now)) Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how important she’s been to younger women, and I’ll be curious to check out the book to discover whether other women my and Madonna’s age (or older) have written of a similar non-response to her.

  4. Somehow I wish the Gail Dines quote was included in this article: “When Madonna, in her feminist way, goes out, and talks about women and puts out the message that women are exactly as men thought they are (pornographic men), it’s all right for Madonna to say that, cuz’ you know what, she travels with beefy guys who protect her. It’s you and I walking in that fucking parking lot at night that have to deal with the guys who believe this. So that’s the problem when women talk about their choices- it’s that every single one of us suffers in some level.”

  5. I’m a little disappointed to see a post on this female icon who has clearly had so many influences on so many of us without any reference at all to her repeated practise of cultural apropriation which has left so many of her POC fans feeling alienated in the past. Let’s remember this is the woman who released an album with a dance hit remix OF A PRAYER. While I whole-heartedly agree it is possible to both support and citicize, and there is much of Madonna’s work to admire, I hate to see Ms Magazine of all outlets taking note of her incarnation writing children’s books as a reason for cirticism but not mentioning such a large flaw. Please remember these issues need to be front and center in all feminist discussion and not just brought up when it’s convenient to pay lip service.

  6. Madonna is human, just like the rest of us. This is why I think she’s fabulous, yet don’t feel the need to idolize her. I started dancing to her first album when I was ten, dressed up as her for Halloween after the Virgin Tour, danced on drill team to Open Your Heart, imitated her Express Yourself look in college, hit the clubs post-college (FEVER, loved it), adored watching her evolution into motherhood, and empathized with her during her divorce from Guy Ritchie. She is no one I’ll ever meet in person, who I’ve still never seen in concert, and who I admire for her courage, her innovation, and her incredible contributions to music and dance. But I’ll never judge her like some on this commentary do – she is human, she is evolving, she is imperfect, she makes us think, she is a woman who’s had great influence on history. She is trying – just like us.

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