Madonna at 60: A lesbian icon
Happy 60th birthday to the one and only Madonna!
MADONNA, ROTTERDAM. 1987.
Where do I begin to praise a lifetime of hard work and incredible music? And how does one write about an icon without it becoming a cringe-worthy piece of teen fan fiction?
I discovered Madonna a lot later than everybody else, partly because I didn’t grow up in the eighties. But during secondary school Britney and Madonna’s collaborative hit Me Against the Music opened up my lesbian world.
Sat in skinny jeans and plastic bracelets, I flitted between music channels to watch the music video on a loop. Britney wore a PVC collar and tie while Madge worked a white suit and cane, which to this day I wish I’d worn as my wedding outfit.
At the time I couldn’t quite work out why this ridiculous video thrilled me; that I forced my best friend to play Britney’s role as we danced about my bedframe should’ve offered some perspective.
It’s not so much that Madonna has always reinvented herself, but decided what should take centre-stage next. Regardless of her influence on fashion and what we now experience from a world tour, she’s made a platform for her personal and political beliefs.
She took what wasn’t cool and made it cool – women in suits, men kissing men and women kissing women. Her world tours force us to look at corruption, oppression, poverty and global inequalities.
She’s also not afraid to be silly, unfeminine, repulsive even. Her work doesn’t set out to entice straight men, that’s clear from the ageist misogyny she receives on a daily basis. In 2005 Madonna’s skimpy leotard was a spectacular ‘fuck you’ to patriarchy’s insistence she must cover herself up.
But by no means is Madonna the ultimate feminist icon. They way she presents and promotes herself has been up for debate since Madonna-time began, but there’s no denying her powerful influence on women and LGBT people across the world. She championed women’s and LGBT rights back when doing so could’ve damaged her career.
Madonna was at the forefront of self-determination and self-expressionism; her unique performances gave women the confidence they needed to own their existence, and change it for the better.
People started coming out of the closet in droves, mixing up gender norms and challenging the status quo. There was lesbianism in music videos and gay men were flamboyant backing dancers. We had gone from being unseen or branded as AIDS carriers to leading the rebellious and fun world of pop culture.
Unsurprisingly, Madonna’s suspiciously close relationships with women were picked up and scrutinised by the media. She hung out with the likes of Sandra Bernhard, Ingrid Casares and Jenny Shimizu, visibly queer women made more famous by their closeness with the Queen of Pop.
Regardless of whether or not these romances held any truth, Madonna wasn’t making publicity for it’s own sake, she can do that any which way. But a carefree attitude to lesbian rumours made her all the more iconic to her female fans – she wasn’t just busy being a gay man’s dream, but supporting relationships, in whatever form, between women. She helped bring lesbianism out of invisibility.
In her 2016 Billboard speech Madonna thanked her fans for “acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse”. It’s a powerful sermon, delivered in Madonna’s blunt and truthful manner.
As is her way, Madonna has remained relevant or ahead of the times. Her last album, Rebel Heart (2015), dealt with much of today’s headlines: Me Too, the rise of fascism and intolerance and that overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and dread.
Madonna was the first major pop figure to popularise androgyny, female independence, queer culture and controversy. As a lesbian I know how important, exciting and dangerous these things are.
I look forward to another decade of Madonna’s reinventions, confessions and frustrations.
Only reading DIVA online? You're missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It's pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.