mackenzie: (DS - Dominant Paradigm)
[personal profile] mackenzie
In 2004, I took a course called Radical Political Theory. It was easily the best course I took as an undergraduate and formed the basis of much of the academic work I did thereafter, including giving me the inspiration for my thesis. The class was focused on looking at hegemony, patriarchy, racism, black nationalism, and queer theory. The class was small, somewhere around ten people.

Mark, the professor, started us on a conversation about music videos and the concept of the male gaze. He showed us Britney's video for I'm a Slave 4 U and started us in on a discussion of where the power was in this video. There were a lot of negative opinions on Britney and most of the class felt that she was a tool of the patriarchy. I had always liked Britney, as an artist, even if not as a role model. What I saw in the video was a lot of reaction shots of men gazing at her, which I didn't feel was as dehumanizing as a "traditional" male gaze situation.

After our discussion, Mark assigned a chapter from John Fiske's Reading the Popular on Madonna. Before we left he said "If you feel, after reading this piece, that you can defend Madonna, ask yourself why you can't defend Britney Spears".

The Fiske piece was excellent and I still have my copy of it. One passage is highlighted and starred up and down:

Madonna knows she is putting on a performance, and the fact that this knowingness is part of the performance enables the viewer to answer a different interpretation from that proposed by the dominant ideology, and thus occupy a resisting subject position. (p. 105)

In the margin, in bright pink pen, it says "Does Britney know she's putting on a show?" In follow up discussions in class, I decided that she did. Most of the class felt that she was somehow different from Madonna, but couldn't quite put their fingers on why. I had a similar feeling, but strongly felt that I couldn't defend Madonna and not defend Britney. To do so would have given me a strong sense of cognitive dissonance.

Looking at it now, I think there are a few primary perceived differences in their early careers. In terms of fandom audiences, Britney was marketed to appeal primarily to teenage girls and has more or less stayed in that market, with some branching out to the gay market. Madonna, however, was initially marketed to teenage girls, but has entrenched herself in the gay market as well as the adult market (though she's had a lot more time to do so). Another is goals. I got the sense that Madonna wanted to be famous and Britney wanted to be successful. Lastly, and for me this is the big one, was where they challenged convention. Madonna challenged views about sex, religion, and patriarchy, both lyrically and in her videos and public appearances. I felt like Britney challenged convention by playing directly into stereotypes, primarily in her videos. Lyrically, Britney's music doesn't do much in this arena, and her public appearances were highly controlled. Madonna had interviews where she said her most erogenous zone on her body was her belly button.

So, why revisit this now? Well, I've been listening to a lot of Lady GaGa recently and got into a kick where I watched all of her videos today. I think Lady GaGa is everything I was trying to make Britney into while I was in college. There's a tongue-in-cheek knowledge of what she's doing. She's become something of a fashion icon, even if only on Go Fug Yourself and she's really playing with the ideas of fame, beauty, and disability in her videos and appearances.

While I still wouldn't call Britney a tool of the kyriarchy, I would say in terms of doing any kind of anti-oppression work, that Lady GaGa is situated more similarly to Madonna.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 12:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have not been on LJ for a long time! I really enjoyed reading this, and I really like the link to "Go Fug Yourself" - hysterical!

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 01:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Kyriarchy ? I'm not familair with that term ?
Madonna, I think, was very well aware of the way she came across. She was aware of the sexual aspect of her shows and I think planned them. while I am not anywhere near as familiar with Brittney's career as I am with Madonna's, it seemed she was much less in charge of her presentation as Madonna was and so the sexual aspects seemed less under her control and more open to an interpetation that she was a tool for others to push an image they wanted.
My view may simply be due to media narrative. For a while, the news was 'Britney is having some emotional problems' and a 'Britney is kinda crazy' and married and then broke up with Justin. Madonna's private life was not so public nor were there media doubts of her emotional state.

(took break for a quick retrospective of Madonna and Britney videos, about 4 each, and a Gaga video, thanks to Youtube)

It feels odd to say this but
Madonna's videos, definitely have less skin and overt sexuality, than Britney's do.
though for the live concerts it seems the opposite.
(I feel like I should say 'now Rita Hayworth, there was a star!, HEY GET OFF MY LAWN!),
The increased skin and overt sexuality along with the different narratives may cause people to tend towards the 'male gaze' theory (though having read the wiki article , I believe it is a somewhat simplistic theory) and ascribe her as a tool of patriarchy, and while I'm not a fan of her videos, compared to Madonna's, I guess you can make a case, that she knows she was putting on a show and is in cotrol on the content.

And my gosh why the heck, did the pro-life/conservative movement not fawn and fall all over Papa Don't Preach ???, here is a sexy pop super star singing about keeping her baby, marrying the father and coming to her dad for advice. They couldn't have tailor made it better if they had produced it with an umpteen million dollar budget. Talk about missed opportunity

funny videos found.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 08:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"I would absolutely call bullshit on your claim that Madonna's "private life was not so public"."
Accepted, I was trying to make allowances that maybe Madonna wasn't always as together as she seemed.
It could be that Britney simply had a harder time, or that the media is just that much harsher on celebs today.

RE: Papa Don't Preach, I missed any push by the Right to use that song to push their agenda. I don't follow their stuff, but it certainly didn't hit mainstream to me.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I maintain that it's still all about Rita Hayworth

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 05:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Agree, agree, agree, and really liked the post, thanks.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 02:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hi, I'm old and was alive when Madonna hit the scene. :-)

I'm gonna disagree because my understanding of Madonna is that she always was promoting herself. She started as a dancer who came up through the gay club scene in New York City; her appeal to young adult girls came after she made a name for herself in the gay demographic.

The big difference is that Britney seems to be the spiritual descendent of JonBenet Ramsey and the entire pageant/stage parent culture. It's not so much she's a tool of the patriarchy (or she is as much as that culture is patriarchal), but she has never struck me as being her own artist. Madonna always seemed to be Madonna-centric in her promotional aspects; Britney has always projected the sense of being under someone else's control. On the other hand Christina Aguilera IMO has been trying to break apart from her early Mouse House background and be more of subversive performer in her own right.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-01-01 02:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Looking at this thread again, one thing I'll note is that Lady Gaga strikes me as the first artist of "this ilk" (imagine me waving my hands feebly around to indicate that I can't define "this ilk" worth a damn) that wasn't promoted to teen girls as part of her mainstream breakthrough. Madonna, Spice Girls, Britney, Christina, Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana... all of them had a big teen/tween appeal that grew to a wider demographic. I could argue that the "girl power" marketing angle is covertly targeting adult men in and of itself, but i don't know if even I'm that cynical.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-07 04:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I find it weird that you are even comparing the two of them, or see the need to analyze their power positions, when they are such wildly different people.

Madonna is a savvy businesswoman who built a musical empire. She wrote or had input into much of her music and her career. She is smart and in charge. She had her own creative vision and pursued.

Britney is a stupid tool, whose career was managed by others, songs written by others, was ruled mentally incompetent to manage her own finances, etc.

I would hire Madonna for a senior position at a big company (marketing?). I doubt I would ever hire Britney for anything more than tending bar.

I like Britney's music, and I don't think it's her fault that she has mental illness and does not have the ability and character to manage fame and fortune, but to even compare their power as women...I's like comparing Steve Jobs and..err...some random famous screwup.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-07 06:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
But they're already compared by a lot of people who think their cultural influence is similar, aren't they? And the more connected they are in other people's minds, the more it makes sense to ask ourselves what they really do or don't have in common.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-14 04:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
So, disclaimer... I'm only *sort of* familiar Britney and obviously not old enough to have seen early Madonna when she was actually early Madonna, so this could be horribly misguided, but:

I think you're missing the most important difference between their early careers. It's not that Britney was marketed to girls and Madonna has been marketed more towards adults, it's that Britney *was* a girl and Madonna *was* an adult. Madonna debuted nationally in her mid-twenties. Britney effectively debuted nationally as a musician in her late teens. (Actually, assuming I'm reading the info on Wikipedia right, "...Baby One More Time" came out a couple months before she turned 17.)

With early Britney there are issues of consent and (teen) exploitation that I don't think are really there with early Madonna. I'm not sure those issues are quite as immediately accessible to those of us who are Britney's age or younger who, growing up, saw her sexuality in the context of our own. Thinking in the context of my teenage self looking at her album sitting on the desk of one of my 16 year old friends, I can see her as someone deftly using and playing with stereotypes. Sitting here as a 26 year old watching her early videos I keep having this fear that the police are going to show up and arrest me for watching child pornography.

I guess that's a kind of power, but... I really feel like younger Britney understands she's putting on a show but it's not the same, fully mature *adult* understanding that Madonna has. There may be an interesting dialogue going on between her and teenage girls and whoever else can sort of ignore the Lolita angle, but it sort of overshadows things for rest of us. Even once you're starting to get to her early 20s and the specific video you were referencing, I think that legacy still sort of hangs over her (in fact, she specifically plays up being young in that video). Maybe she's managed to break out of that, but I kinda get the impression that the whole shotgun marriage / emotional breakdown thing has left the public with an image of her as a sort of "broken (wo)manchild" place and until she is able to display a mature, adult control over her sexuality I think it'll be hard for her to be able to make any useful statements about anything. (Maybe she's done this in the last couple years... I'm not exactly paying close attention or anything...)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-14 05:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Okay, I don't know why I'm still thinking about this (I actually started thinking about it earlier this week but was sick and not up to writing much of anything) but... I think there are some interesting differences in the sexual power dynamics between Britney/Madonna and the standard male viewer. I'm going to sort of project what few shreds of heterosexuality I have and give this a shot:

I think Madonna and Britney both lay themselves out there as sexual objects to be looked at. Both are doing so intentionally to arouse and attract attention, but I think the nature of that attention is a little different. I think Madonna is hot because she's in control of her sexuality and has the looks and performing skill to demonstrate that. The viewer is willing to cede control of the discourse to her because she's going to take them somewhere hot, even if it is shocking and subversive at the same time. In fact, a lot of her sexual power comes from being subversive.

I think Britney is hot because she plays up the stereotypes... the problem is, anything her work has to say about them is sort of lost on the guys who are just enjoying having their stereotypes played to. Maybe that would be okay if she *had* a strong coded message, some ironic twist that maybe the dumb boys don't get but that's okay those of us who have to deal with these stereotypes get it, but I don't really think there's that much coming through. (Of course, I'm a dumb [gay] boy, maybe it's there and women really understand.) I think part of the problem with her being able to break stereotypes is that I think Britney's only hot in so far as she fits the stereotypes... when she tries to step out of them I think she just comes across confused and awkward.

Specifically, I don't think Britney really has any sexual power. Yes, there are guys in her videos that are sort of entranced by her, but I really feel like that just makes her a better "catch" for the male viewer... "her sexuality can control all these guys, so that proves what hot shit I am when I tame and nail her". I don't think anyone actually believes they can tame and "nail" Madonna. Um. I think.

Okay, and now that I've talked about taming and nailing Britney Spears, I think perhaps I need a drink. A really faggy one. With an umbrella.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-14 05:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
...I think perhaps I need a drink. A really faggy one. With an umbrella.

Or maybe I should go listen to some Madonna. ;)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-15 03:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was thinking about this and it struck me- could it be almost as simple as pseudonym vs. real name? Both Madonna and Lady GaGa have larger than life personas which in some way aren't the "real them," while Britney uses her real name and is not really a character in the same way the other two are.


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