Anneke Smelik (NL)'Just like Michael Jackson, Prince finds himself on a crossroads of black and white, masculine and feminine, but he is much more provocative in his racial and sexual ambiguity. He is one of the few pop stars to eroticize the male body in an explicitly sexual way. In his concert performances, he combines expressions of both extreme femininity and masculinity. Wearing excessive lace gowns, jewelry, boas and lingerie or dressed in rugged leather, he willingly turns his ass to the camera, struts around like a whore and always strips at least once. With his sex appeal, he cleverly plays to both homosexual and heterosexual audiences. 'All the men call me princess, all the women call me electric man', Prince whispers sensually while making love to a microphone during a concert. But while he maliciously takes up a classically feminine position, he never forgets his macho tricks. For example, he can slowly strip in a continuous flirtation with his audience, only to end the long, seductive scene suddenly as a macho man, brutishly pounding away. In the moment one expects Prince to blow up a sexual stereotype he creates confusion by reconfirming it.'
Back in 1992, Anneke Smelik, now a professor of visual culture in Nijmegen, wrote a long text about gender benders in pop music. She watched and analyzed videoclips by Madonna, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson and of course Prince. You will find the fragment quoted above here in the full article, which is as clear, inventive and sharpwitted now as it was then. 'If Prince wants to be a girlfriend, then what option leaves this to his girlfriend?'
(And there's a very useful bibliography, too!)
The carousel of genders
As stars, a fault of vision
as a lamp
A mock show, dew drops
or a bubble
A dream, a lightning flash
So should one view
what is conditioned
"Oh my God, I'm getting a hard-on," Madonna cries hornily in the film In Bed With Madonna, while Prince sings "If I was your girlfriend..." on his Sign Of The Times CD. And there may be little left of his original face, but Michael Jackson has at least managed to make himself look more and more like his idol, Diana Ross.
In this essay I want to look into the phenomenon of gender bending in popular culture; those pop stars of both sexes who transform their outward appearances to conform to the image of the other sex. Examples abound, especially in the androgynous years of the eighties: Annie Lennox in concert, with her short hair, classic man's suit and hat, and a red bra; the young David Bowie; or his 'soft' successor in feminine eccentric looks, Boy George; Grace Jones as a machine-man with her blockhead hairdo, muscular body and a very cool look. The androgynous images of these stars shift and blur the traditional boundaries between the sexes. Although pop music has always tended to transgress traditional sexual values, the crossing of gender boundaries is more recent.
I will focus on images of gender bending, the external blending of masculine and feminine gender stereotypes, as a type of representation inherently tied to pop culture. What representations of femininity and masculinity do gender benders give? Representations 'are more "real" than the reality they are said to represent or reflect' (Kappeler, 1986:3). In a postmodern culture, representations are no longer reflections of a reality, but structures that create new meanings. Using their bodies and outward appearances, gender benders give new meaning to the concept and representation of sexual difference.
For my cultural exploration of visualizations of femininity and masculinity in the postmodern culture of music videos, I have integrated two areas of research from the 1980s: the post-structuralist analysis of postmodern culture and feminist views on gender identity and gender ambiguity.
Gender ambiguity is not a new phenomenon in itself. Gender bending is a product of the fundamentally ambiguous culture of postmodernism, in which certainties, such as fixed meanings related to gender, are undermined. While discussing gender bending in pop culture I will therefore take a closer look at the ambiguities and paradoxes of the postmodern culture we live in. But before discussing theories on postmodernism, I will first look into feminist criticism.
The ambiguity of identity
Gender is a concept central to feminist theory. It refers to the cultural shaping of sexual identity; gender is the way in which one's apparently unambiguous biological sex is given shape and meaning within a culture. To quote Simone de Beauvoir: you may be born a woman (sex), but you are also made into a woman for the rest of your life (gender).
From a feminist perspective, the relationship between sex and gender is ideological: physical differences are used to exact a particular gender identity. This relationship is by no means a fixed one, but one that is culturally and historically determined. Anyone who has seen Orlando, Sally Potter's 1992 film version of the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel, with a sexually ambiguous character in the title role, was able to observe how radically the roles, images and meanings of masculinity and femininity change through time and across cultures.
Making a formal distinction between sex and gender enables to 'denaturalize' gender identity; that is to say, to argue that femininity is not a natural category. The supposed inferiority of women is not a biological given, but a cultural construct.
Following theorists such as Teresa de Lauretis (1987) and Judith Butler (1990), I regard the category of 'woman' as a process, as a continuous becoming, as a construct with neither beginning nor end. It is impossible to fix the meaning of femininity (or masculinity), since the category 'woman' is internally divided into other categories, such as class, age, ethnicity and sexual preference. Recent feminist theories generally stress the diversity and fundamental openness of the category 'woman' (Nicholson, 1990).
The binary opposition between masculinity and femininity may appear to be firmly grounded in Western culture, but it is, in fact, quite unstable and precarious. In their recent book about cultural representations of gender ambiguity, Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (1991) postulate that this instability points to the cultural and social interests at stake. Because gender is one of the primary organizing principles turning oppositions into a hierarchy, transgressing the boundaries of gender may destabilize the entire binary system.
The subversive potential of destabilizing gender's fixed and restrictive meanings makes it very attractive for feminist cultural critics to explore gender ambiguities and ambivalences. Gender ambiguity can be an effective tool for resisting the prevailing and repressive views on gender and sexuality.
It can be problematic to undermine the category of 'woman', because feminists are also looking for an identity as women. The contradictory need to simultaneously reclaim and deconstruct the category of 'woman' is, of course, wellknown feminist dilemma. The tension between a politics of gender identity and a politics of gender ambiguity forces feminist critics to use caution in approaching gender-ambivalent cultural expressions.
Butler (1990) sees gender largely as a performative speech act, which has to be continuously repeated to anchor identity. Identity is a practice of assigning meaning. According to Butler subjects have the opportunity to change only through variation. In its ambiguity, gender bending is one such variation in assigning meaning to gender. Gender bending transforms the conventional relationship between sex and gender. From a historical perspective, this phenomenon seems to stem from the earlier feminist ideal of androgyny, but it now takes a postmodern form. Whereas androgyny was concerned with actualizing the true self in a spiritual unity of the masculine and the feminine, gender benders play more of a game, throwing fixed gender identity into question. Gender bending does not take place in the meditation room, but on the video screen or in plastic surgery. This suggests that gender is just a matter of style.
The gender bending trend in pop culture has very little to do with classical transvestism either. Transvestism is about acting out gender roles: transvestites put on gender masks that can be removed again in the dressing room. The audience is usually aware of the real sex of the performer. Hence the moment of revelation is an important scene in transvestite films, such as Tootsie and Victor/Victoria (Bell-Metereau 1985). Virtually without exception, transvestism confirms existing prejudices about gender. While transvestism leaves the underlying dichotomy of sexual difference intact, gender bending playfully blurs this opposition. This begs the question whether gender bending as a strategy liberates women (and men) from the harness of gender identity or subtly reconfirms this identity.
From the perspective of sexual difference, understood as an asymmetry between the sexes, I will focus on female and male gender benders in pop culture. Do their ambiguous representations of gender subvert or confirm gender identity? Does the asymmetry between the sexes produce different effects and meanings /or female and male gender benders?
When David Bowie grew a beard last year, he looked like the epitome of the new father, but he once was the predecessor of today's gender benders. Many of us will remember Bowie's persona of Ziggy Stardust with his excessive make-up and orange hair, strutting on the stage in long gowns and revealing shaven legs in hot pants. Bowie's ambiguous game with constructed self-images implied a shift in gender. To him, gender identity was nothing more than an image or several different images he utilized to problematize masculinity and femininity.
Bowie departed from the rock scene's 1960s rebellion against the fake and cheap images of consumerism. He developed a style of cool and distant glamour. This was not a search for the authentic self, but a shameless display of artificiality. Incidentally, this fits in perfectly with the pop art trend, which elevated everyday images to art in the era of mechanical reproduction. As Andy Warhol put it: 'Everybody's plastic - but I love plastic. I want to be plastic' (quoted in Dyer, 1990: 154).
Bowie's theatrical way of manipulating his image turned his androgynous looks into a spectacle. He was one of the first to transform the pop song from true communication between singer and audience into a visual event. With Bowie pop music concerts became performances, anticipating an increasingly important visual culture. As One important consequence musical performance became the domain of pure fantasy. Bowie sacrificed reality to a game of dreams and imaginative power. It was no longer just Bowie's music, but increasingly his style that dictated the communication between performer and audience. The pop star presented himself to the audience as an image. And his gender bending image questioned gender and gender identity. At the core of the image was the representation of the self, that which became the style; the Bowie style. To fans, an imitation of this style came to mean expressing their attitude towards society or their desire to belong to a particular group.
Style can be seen as a form of subcultural resistance, a point well made by the punk movement. Punks cultivate visual provocation with shocking hairdos and clothes. They make an extreme spectacle of themselves and their bodies. With their anti-social style they turn against dominant culture. As Janet Bergstrom writes: '[...] style is what subcultural groups use to mediate between irreconcilable realities' (1991: 49). Punks' aggressive style expresses ideological conflicts. According to Bergstrom, gender bending is an important element of what we call punk, because this style defies 'the natural'. Punks rebel against the 'natural' meanings of gender and question the fixed boundaries between the sexes. They combat and reject conventional images of femininity and masculinity in their creation of grotesque and provocative counter-images.
As an intense subculture, punk closely resembles the kind of carnivalesque protest against a dominant culture that Mary Russo describes, following Mikhail Bakhtin. The punk wears her or his visual extravagance as a nihilistic mask that enlarges and inverts the dominant culture's shortcomings. The punk's oppositional resistance takes shape in a 'grotesque' body; an extreme and excessive body that transgresses its own boundaries (Russo, 1986: 219) and certainly the boundaries of gender. In this way, punks' grotesque and ambivalent style subverts existing gender stereotypes.
The trend towards visualization that David Bowie had already anticipated was firmly established by the time the video clip made its debut. Obviously, this medium is the triumph of the image. The video clip creates a visual culture of recycling and artificiality; it is the postmodern medium par excellence. 'Postmodernism' is an extremely flexible and often even vague concept that can have many meanings: '[...] postmodernism means many things to many people' (Ross, 1988: vii). Even Andreas Huyssen, who painstakingly traced the history of the term and explored the different areas of postmodernism in depth, refrains from giving a definition (Huyssen, 1990). Nevertheless, for a clearer understanding of the video clip phenomenon, I would like to trace some of the writings about postmodernism in the field of cultural studies.
Postmodernism is first and foremost a historical condition; it constitutes the complex and very contradictory reality of the post-industrial society we live in. Andrew Ross stresses the daily reality of postmodern culture:
It is important to recognize that postmodernist culture is a real medium in which we all live to some extent, no matter how unevenly its effects are lived and felt across the jagged spectrum of color, sex, class, region, and nationality.
(Ross, 1988: vii-viii)
Postmodernism then forms a condition of contemporary culture which we cannot escape, even though many people prefer to ignore this. According to Fredric Jameson (1984), denying postmodernism as a historical consequence of post-industrial capitalism causes nostalgia. He leaves no room for doubt that nostalgia is a denial of the historical condition.
If postmodernism is regarded mainly as a practice, or rather a multitude of practices, MTV, the TV channel that broadcasts a continuous stream of video clips, commercials and programs about pop music, is one of those typically postmodern practices. This medium is an important tool for assigning meaning to sexual difference. Since pop culture helps shaping the (fragmented) identity of women and men, I am intrigued by the impact of video clips, which goes far beyond that of musical and visual entertainment. Commercialism is so entwined with the medium of many postmodern practices such as MTV that the spectator thoughtlessly consumes the images. Jameson directly links the onset of postmodernism to multinational capitalism. Everything, including culture, is now subject to consumption:
In postmodernism [...] everone has learned to consume culture through television and other mass media [...]. The whole matter of how you justify to yourself the time of consuming culture disasppears: you are no longer even aware of consuming it. Everything is culture, the culture of the commodity.
(Jameson in interview with Stephanson, 1988: 26)
In the postmodern carousel of our visual culture, we consume large numbers of images every day without giving it a second thought; this continuous stream of images forms obtrusively and yet self-evidently part of our culture. There is a sort of paradox here: in the almost cannibalistic consumption of images, we wander around like visual illiterates. This prompts the need to analyze these images, as to the changing representation of femininity and masculinity, for example. Many critics maintain that the postmodern video clip defies all meaning and critical distance, rendering criticism useless. To me this smacks too much of the pessimism about mass culture found among Frankfurter school intellectuals. A postmodern critic should also have an eye for the positive potential of this new situation. I do not see why I should let myself be so fatally sidetracked by the postmodern reality I experience every day. Certainly from the perspective of sexual difference, much can be said about video clips without falling into the trap of uncritically repeating postmodern discourse.
What then are the characteristics of a postmodern practice? Hal Foster (1983) distinguishes between a postmodernism of resistance that tries to deconstruct modernism from a critical angle and a postmodernism of reaction that in rejecting modernism essentially returns to old values. E. Ann Kaplan (1988) believes that this distinction between progressive resistance and conservative reaction is in itself too modernistic. She postulates the coexistence of two very different concepts of postmodern practices: a 'utopian' form of postmodernism, originating in feminist and post-structuralist theory; and a commercial or coopted form of postmodernism, closely linked to hi-tech capitalism.
What both forms of postmodernism have in common is their transcendence of binary thought, deeply rooted in Western culture. They also share a belief in the loss of the sovereign subject and the attending end (to the myth) of individualism, a concept that in French poststructuralism is usually referred to as 'the death of the subject'. For feminist and anti-racist theorists, the utopian aspect of postmodernism is the deconstruction of oppositions (the most basic opposition being the male/female) and the deconstruction of the autonomous subject -- as exemplified by the white middle-class male (see also Braidotti, 1990).
The two notions of postmodernism that Foster and Kaplan distinguish do not necessarily preclude each other; in my opinion, they often go together in postmodern practice. Laurie Anderson, the high priestess of postmodern pop, links these ideas, for example. Just like Madonna, she is a multi-media performer, who writes her own lyrics and composes her own music, designs images, produces video clips and publishes books based on her concerts. In her performances, Anderson critically and ironically deconstructs various dichotomies, while also making use of media technology and moving within the commercial circles of pop culture. One opposition she breaks down is that of human versus machine (McClary, 1991). Anderson uses technology as an extension of her self by attaching microphones to her body and producing sound by touching herself. In 'Oh Superman' she puts a lit microphone in her mouth while standing in the dark, lighting up her body's cavities. By explicitly showing something that is a taboo and a mystery in our culture, namely the inside of the female body, Anderson subverts the dominant image of femininity as exteriority. The hi-tech manipulation of her body and voice violates the traditional split between the female as a visual object and the male as the ruler of technology. The woman and the machine both become the man's Other, and by connecting these two images, Anderson creates opportunities for new alliances.
While placing her body in the spotlight, Anderson adopted an androgynous appearance in her United States performance. Contrary to other female pop performers, Anderson bends her gender in order to relativize her sexuality. Susan McClary thinks that the balance Anderson tries to keep is a precarious one: 'She walks a very thin line -- foregrounding her body while trying not to make it the entire point' (1991: 139). Laurie Anderson's gender bending is a conscious attempt to elude the male gaze traditionally aimed at the female body. In her own words:
I wear audio masks in my work - meaning, electronically, I can be this shoe salesman, or this demented cop, or some other character. And I do that to avoid the expectations of what it means to be a woman on a stage."
(Anderson quoted in McClary, 1991: 139)
Anderson's technological manipulation of her body and voice makes every naturalness, even her gender, look naive. As a female performer, Anderson shows how technology enables her to transgress all kinds of boundaries, of her body and voice, of her gender and even her human-ness. With a sense of selfconscious humour she aestheticizes the loss of inalterable identities: 'Somebody came up to me in the street and said, "Hey, you look like one of those Laurie Anderson clones", and I replied "Just look at me, look at me, look at me" (from United States)'.
One of the oppositions postmodernism nullifies is that of high versus low art. This accounts for the interest academics are showing in the various expressions of pop culture, even though this sort of cultural critical analysis started relatively recently (see Polan, 1988 and Grossberg, 1988). According to Lawrence Grossberg, pop culture is one of the main areas in which postmodern practices are taking shape. To give an impression of current ideas about postmodernism in practice, I will provide a quotation of Grossberg's in which he sums up postmodern characteristics:
In various combinations postmodern practices are described - negatively - as denying totality, coherence, closure, expression, origin, representation, meaning, teleology, freedom, creativity and hierarchy: and - positively - as celebrating discontinuity, fragmentation, rupture, surfaces, diversity, chance, contextuality, egalitarianism, pastiche, heterogeneity, quotations, and parodies.
(Grossberg in Ross, 1988: 172)
This staggering list of characteristics can easily be recognized when watching just one hour of MTV. For the inexperienced spectator, it is often difficult to distinguish between commercials, video clips and other programs in the disjointed stream of fragmented images. Many of these postmodern features can also be found in most video clips. In contrast to the more traditional video story, the postmodern clip is characterized by a sequence of images hardly related to the lyrics or the reality outside the song. Images refer to images, which in turn refer to other images in an infinite series. Video clips abound in recycled images from films, commercials, fashion photography and other clips. The most famous example of the selfreferentiality of video clips is undoubtedly Madonna's 'Material Girl', a pastiche of Marilyn Monroe's rendition of 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But in other videos, Madonna also quotes lavishly: her 'Express Yourself' clip uses science fiction imagery from the film classic Metropolis; in her 'Vogue' video, Madonna strikes poses from fashion photography and imitates old Hollywood stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow and Rita Hayworth. As the song goes: 'Strike a pose, there's nothing to it'. Dana Polan goes so far as to say that pop culture refers to nothing but itself: '[...] mass culture is a fully secular, non-symbolic form, which self-referentially signs nothing but its own mass-culturedness' (Polan, 1988: 47).
With its selfconscious exploitation of pretence, outward appearances and surface, the video clip is the commercial counterpart of the 1960s' pop art. Thanks to electronic technology the clip is fully artificial. Every boundary can be crossed with a little help from the computer: the performer can disappear in fire or smoke, can become a machine, fall apart, transform into an animal or change gender. Obviously, in videoclips it is no longer a matter of individual expression or an original artistic creation. The stable identity of the self no longer plays any role in pop culture. Neither does the real woman or man; truth and authenticity have been disposed of in the postmodern video clip, leaving the performer no fixed gender identity to represent. The pop star can quote or parody meanings regarding gender. This leaves room for all kinds of ambivalences and ambiguities, resulting in the game of gender bending.
Appearing, not being is the video clip's motto. Reducing gender to outward appearances leaves nothing but an entirely visual game of the look. The relentless speed of the video clip and the continuous stream of clips on MTV force the pop star to assume different looks faster than the TV spectator can zap. Every image (of a woman) hides another image (of a woman). A sign or image of femininity and masculinity only refers to another sign or image, and no longer to any meaning of gender.
Grace Jones' videos very well illustrate this effect of artificial images; she is the ultimate hi-tech product. Sensation supplants all emotions; in many of her videos her image is one of an almost cruel, inhuman robot. Jones presents self-images with quotations from the world of advertising and fashion photography. Her 'Slave To The Rhythm' clip is a good example of the artificiality of gender bending; in a short flash, it shows Grace Jones in the nude, while her mirror image is reflected as a man, also naked and with a clearly visible penis. Masculinity has become visually and technologically reproducible. Jones' masculine image is incorporated as an equal image in the multitude of images that have lost their value and meaning other than their inter-referentiality.
Representation in the videos of Grace Jones is an excellent example of what Jean Baudrillard (1988) called the 'ecstasy of communication'. Both Jones and Anderson freely circulate images in a postmodern era in which the image no longer contains any illusions, but is transparent and visible: '[...] that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible' (1988: 22). Grace Jones' penis and the inside of Anderson's mouth are indeed all too visible. They are not real, but 'hyper-real' (Baudrillard, 1983).
In postmodern culture, old forms of representation have been superseded and supplanted by simulation. Baudrillard sees successive stages of the image (1983: 11), which I will describe here in reference to images of women. First, the image reflects reality; the image of a woman refers to a real woman. Then, the image masks reality; the female image is a distorted image of real women. Next, the image hides the absence of reality; the cultural overproduction of images of women signifies an absence of real women in social reality. And finally, the image no longer bears any relation to reality; it has become its own simulacrum. An image is an image is an image without ever referring to a woman.
Masquerade or the void behind the mask
Madonna uses this postmodern feature of the video clip to her fullest advantage. She 'plays at being an appearance' (Baudrillard, 1983: 12). With her, the difference between representation and reality disappears. She is neither woman nor does she play at being one; she simulates femininity. You might say that Madonna (just like her idol Mae West) is like a woman imitating a man imitating a woman.
The world-famous Madonna relishes having it all -- and selling it too; after all, she has always been honest about being a 'material girl'. She may not have been the first to catch on to the fact that, these days, the image is not everything, but it is all that counts, but, she has, more than anyone else, managed to capitalize on her image. Or rather, her images. Madonna's repertoire of hyper-feminine images is quite extensive: from porn star to sultry vamp; from Carmen to Marilyn Monroe, to name just a few of her many feminine poses. Yet she also appears as a naughty little boy or a he-man. Madonna uses stereotypical images that have imprisoned women for a long time, turns them inside out and employs these images for her own benefit. As soon as she has completely exhausted a particular image she picks up the next one.
This incessant transformation is remarkably similar to the strategy of mimesis as advocated by the philosopher Luce Irigaray. In a mimetic process, Irigaray tries to strip the meanings our culture has attached to 'woman' of their power. This strategy requires women to deliberately assume a mimetic role. For women, mimesis means going back to all the images, words and definitions of 'woman', and then processing and appropriating them. As Irigaray puts it:
Jouer de la mimésis, c'est donc, pour une femme, tenter de retrouver le lieu de son exploitation par le discours, sans s'y laisser simplement réduire. C'est se resoumettre [...] à des 'idées', notamment d'elle, élaborées dans/par une logique masculine, mais pour faire 'apparaître', par un effet de répétition ludique, ce qui devait rester occulté: le recouvrement d'une possible opération du féminin dans le langage. (Irigaray, 1977: 74)
Madonna is very good at playing this mimetic game without risking repetition of men's image of 'das ewig weibliche'. There are two reasons for Madonna's success in bringing down traditional images of women. In the first place, Madonna is a successful businesswoman, who manages her own billion dollar companies. Quantitatively speaking, she is the biggest female star ever in show business. She confesses to love the game of money and power: 'It's a great feeling to be powerful, I've been striving for it all my life' (Sunday Times Magazine, April 1990).
In the second place, Madonna definitely expands and transforms rampant clichés. Her shameless exaggeration of stereotypical images of women is a rebellion against the status quo. She refuses to be pinned down with the age-old madonna - whore opposition, but plays both roles with equal ironic verve. She is 'like a virgin', but looks like a whore. This is Madonna's way of poking fun at her holy namesake, to the great annoyance of the Vatican. Madonna definitively puts the idea 'father knows best' behind her. No father, not even the pope, can stop her.
Madonna is not just innovative and provocative in her representation, but also in her music. Susan McClary concludes her excellent analysis of Madonna's music as follows:
In a world in which the safe options for women musicians seem to be either denying gender difference or else restricting the expression of feminine pleasure to all-women contexts, Madonna's counternarratives of female heterosexual desire are remarkable. The intelligence with which she zeroes in on the fundamental gender tension in culture and the courage with which she takes them on deserve much greater credit than she usually is given.
(McClary, 1991: 165)
The selfconscious exploitation of appearances, form and pretence in postmodern video clips gives rise to a paradox for the female pop star. Femininity has always been seen as a masquerade. The medium forces women to accept what is, for them, a classic position: the masquerade.
The concept of masquerade derives from the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere and refers to the mask of femininity that women assume as compensation when in a male position of authority. However, Riviere quickly draws the conclusion that there is no difference between 'true femininity' and the 'masquerade': 'they are the same thing' (1986; 38). Jacques Lacan (1985) too sees the masquerade as an essential part of femininity. As Butler rightly remarks, in lacanian psychoanalysis 'being' and 'appearing' are mixed up. If femininity is essentially a masquerade, is there another essential femininity behind the mask? Butler concludes from this unclear status of femininity that gender is no more than a representation, a 'play of appearances' (1990: 47). This brings us back to the postmodern concept of representation. In fact, femininity seems to have always been a postmodern condition.
The Madonna phenomenon shows that for female pop stars the masquerade strategy can be a liberating game. The feminine mystique used to lie in a search for the essential femininity supposedly hidden behind the mask. Madonna uncovers the void behind the mask. To her, femininity is made up of a series of masquerades. Gender is a style, a disguise. The parodic effect results from the fact that nothing is being masked or concealed, because the masquerade of femininity is not based on any original gender identity. The masquerade is a gender parody, revealing that 'the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin' (Butler, 1990: 138).
By simulating prevailing images of women Madonna can wear femininity like a mask, or a weapon. As Ethel Portnoy states, Madonna's pointed bra is '[not an] invitation -- on the contrary, this is Brunhilde's bra, both shield and weapon' (1992: 21). The spectator can never confuse this mask with her 'real' feminine identity, because the mask is always put aside and replaced by another. She and other female artists, such as Annie Lennox, shamelessly exploit conventional images of women. In this way, they avoid being turned into images by the dominant culture. Instead they choose to create those images themselves. By eroding traditional images of women from the inside out, female pop singers strip them of all meaning and are able to free themselves from them. They no longer coincide at all with the image they project.
bell hooks points out that Madonna primarily dismantles the white beauty ideal in Western culture and may therefore be attractive to some black women:
And indeed what some of us like about her is the way she deconstructs the myth of 'natural' white girl beauty by exposing the extent to which it can be and is ususally artificially constructed and maintained. She mocks the conventional racist defined beauty ideal even as she rigorously strives to embody it. (hooks, 1992: 159).]
It is no wonder that the artificial reproduction of femininity is a popular theme in clips by women. Pop stars literally represent the emptiness of the masquerade by denouncing the compulsory white beauty ideal for women. In 'I Am Not Perfect, But I Am Perfect For You', Grace Jones shows the tortures of plucking eyebrows, waxing legs and removing other body hair, as well as other ways of seeking feminine perfection. In 'Why', we first see Annie Lennox applying lots of make-up, then we see her assuming various feminine poses, only to have our desiring gaze cut off when she suddenly looks straight into the camera.
Orchestrating and directing images of femininity creates a distance between reality and representation for the female pop star. In the space thus created images interplay in a postmodern vacuum of truth. Whereas earlier (for instance in classical Hollywoodfilms) the image appeared to be directly linked to corporeal women, the video clip only refers to images of representations. Madonna does not coincide with any of her images and, as a result, transcends them. Unlike Monroe, she will never be imprisoned in an image of herself that others have constructed. Madonna does not need a prince on a white horse to rescue her from any image of woman whatsoever.
For the spectator, the illusion has been broken down. Although we were once able to dream of Monroe, we can no longer have any illusions about Madonna. In Madonna's case, identification with 'Madonna' is impossible, because she obviously presents the audience with a constructed image.
Madonna's intriguing game of reality and illusion also plays a role in her relationship with the audience in In Bed With Madonna, touted as the film in which she bares her true self. This is nonsense, of course. As a prima donna, Madonna does not have a 'true self' and even if she had one, we would not get to see it. Off screen, Madonna simply does not exist. Therefore, the film is surprisingly fake in its supposed authenticity. Not that it matters; after all, that is what Madonna does so well after all: creating images.
Her image appeals to young female fans because it resists male control of female sexuality and representation (Fiske, 1987). Whereas Monroe was mainly an object of male desire, Madonna is often considered threatening by men. The images and fantasies Madonna embodies elicit uneasy reactions and even attacks from some men. Apparently, Madonna does not successfully function as a male fantasy (McClary, 1991: 149). Harriet Hawkins points out the ambiguous significance of attraction and danger attached to the prima donna. The female star's economic success and sexual independence are simultaneously attractive and threatening. Her glamour makes her both sexually dangerous and seductive (Hawkins, 1990: 58).
Madonna is also regarded as morally dangerous, as is evident from her regular clashes with conservative powers and censors. Her 'Justify My Love' video was not aired by American MTV because of its homosexual love scenes and sadomasochistic tendencies (it was not censored on MTV Europe). Anyone who has read the many articles about Madonna in gossip magazines will fully agree with Hawkins' observation about the prima donna's character:
Indeed, the more successful and brilliant and ambitious and glamorous and famous she is in her own right, and the more she enjoys her success, the more she must be morally anathematised as a femme fatale, a vampire, an unnatural monster, a superbitch. (Hawkins, 1990: 55; original emphasis)
Madonna is always one step ahead of her critics: in the film In Bed With Madonna, she shamelessly portrays herself as a superbitch, while in her recent of photographs celebrating her erotic fantasies entitled Sex, she displays herself as an unnatural monster in the persona of Dita Parlo. Madonna claims the right to control her own representation, and to use her sexuality as part of her public image.
In repeating and especially fragmenting traditional images of women, female pop stars decolonize such clichés. They strip femininity of its deceptive naturalness and expose all of its artificiality. With the advent of the video clip, fixed identity has been lost forever. Gender has always acted as one of the anchors of identity. The loss of identity puts the immutable relationship between sex and gender in motion. In postmodern visuals, gender identity is shaken loose and gender is portrayed as a visual spectacle. This clears the way for an ambiguous representation of gender.
Many female pop stars present not only a whole range of feminine images in their videos, but also images of themselves as men. After revealing the artificiality of femininity, they can don masculinity just as 'naturally' as femininity. After all, both representations are equally inauthentic to the female gender bender. In 'I'm Your Baby Tonight', Whitney Houston appears for a moment as Marlene Dietrich dressed in a tuxedo. Annie Lennox can be admired as a dominant manager or as a sleazy pimp wearing sunglasses, while the female rappers Salt 'n Pepa present themselves as guerillas and construction workers as well as vamps that like to pinch men's asses. On her Blond Ambition tour, Madonna had male dancers perform as mermen and in bras: 'I like mermen. I like the idea of men with tails on. I like the idea of men being the objects of desire, the sirens that entrap women instead of the other way round' (Interview, June 1990). Madonna herself regularly wears boy's clothes or men's suits, while crudely grabbing her crotch (like in 'Express Yourself").
The postmodern video clip gives women the freedom to create new representations of femininity and masculinity. Together they smash the one-dimensional image of women to bits. With panache, female gender benders blow up the 'eternal feminine'; they simulate images of both virgin and whore, machine and man. Paradoxically, the postmodern condition enables the female pop star to appear to be more of a woman -- and man -- than ever before.
This makes one wonder about male gender benders. If video technology demands visualization and the body is turned into a spectacle, does this also apply to male pop stars? Indeed, the male body is also presented to the spectator's gaze; it is just as much subject to the masquerade as the female body. Because the male performer too is so publicly exhibited, he finds himself in a feminine position. You could say that femininity is the ideal of contemporary pop culture.
In that last statement several discourses coincide. A historical discourse, with an inherited nineteenth-century suspicion against mass culture, which was disparagingly labelled 'feminine'. The exclusion of women from the practice of high art and from the practice of mass culture in the twentieth century has formed a safeguard against unwanted feminization. Andreas Huyssen (1986) argues that the postmodern destruction of the difference between high and low art and the increasing participation of women in culture have rendered the old gender-specific rhetoric about pop culture hollow and superfluous. However, this does not alter the fact that pop culture still bears negative connotations of 'femininity'.
This mythical significance is in fact superseded by the visual reality of the video clip in which male performers cannot escape the postmodern interest in outward appearances, looks and representation. The visualizing discourse of postmodern pop culture breaks down the taboo on objectifying and fragmenting the male body, such as it existed in the classical Hollywoodfilm. The increasingly eroticized representation of men is also apparent from the ever more frequent appearance of nude men in advertisements (often with babies in their arms). Undoubtedly, the man as an object of desire is partly a product of feminism and the gay movement.
As we have seen before, psychoanalytical discourse considers the masquerade an essential part of femininity. Lacan also inverts this significance: every form of masquerade, even in men, is inherently feminine: 'The fact that femininity takes refuge in this mask [...] has the strange consequence that, in the human being, virile display itself appears as feminine' (1985: 85). Therefore, the male pop star finds himself in a structurally feminine position. These three discourses, cultural history, postmodern pop culture and psychoanalysis, all add something to the feminization of the male performer. It appears male pop stars have two different reactions to this: they either explore femininity through androgynous gender bending, or they assume exaggerated poses of virility, like rappers and heavy metal performers.
Michael Jackson is the personification of the postmodern preoccupation with creating images, with pretence and looks. He is neither woman nor man, but a perfect cosmetic beauty shaped by plastic surgery. He has shaped the mutation of his body and face in his own image. Both mysterious and plastic, he is his own Frankenstein; he is both a star (Moonwalker) and a monster (Thriller) and as a hybrid figure he is the perfect man-machine. Jackson does not wear a mask, but is a mask -- whose nose is collapsing, but never mind. One might even doubt whether this can still be labelled postmodern, precisely because he is unable to preserve an ironic distance from his own masquerade.
The persona of Michael Jackson shows us the problems that the male performer has to face in contemporary pop culture. His case illustrates how visibility and visualization create and maintain the masquerade. He is only too visible and yet inaccessible. That is the attraction of visual culture: we want to find out what is behind the image and we get hungry for more. Jackson may be an erotic spectacle, but however much admired and desired he may be, he himself remains sexless. His eroticism is the innocent disguise of genital sexuality. Let's be honest: he is the erotic hero of ten to twelve-year-olds. Jackson is a good boy singing 'I'm bad!'. He is a whitewashed black singer who pleases a white audience. Michael Jackson coalesces with whatever image you expect of him.
Michael Jackson, 'a little black boy dancing his way to global multiracial and androgynous interpretations' (Wallace, 1990: 81), radiates racial and gender ambiguity. Black critics such as Michele Wallace and Kobena Mercer see Michael Jackson's ambiguity as a postmodern strategy for criticizing racism and sexism in his video clips. For example, in his Thriller and Bad videos, Jackson does a dance of reconciliation with a multiracial team of men, his visual style expressing the utopia of a third sex and 'a third race'. The camera lingers on:
[...] the full splendor of his plastic surgery, his processed hair, his skin peelings to lighten his complexion, all of which can be seen as Jackson's attempts to alter his racial characteristics towards this 'third race'.
(Wallace, 1990: 87)
In Thriller, Jackson's gender bending parodies the traditional images of aggressive male sexuality when he transforms into a werewolf and a zombie. Even more so than Bad, Thriller draws attention to the artificial construction of Jackson's image. According to Mercer, the transformation can be seen as 'a metaphor for the aesthetic reconstruction of Michael Jackson's face' (1991: 313). Jackson's face functions as a masquerade, the aesthetic surface onto which a culture projects its preoccupation with race and gender. Michael Jackson's masquerade undermines the stereotypes of black male sexuality:
If we regard his face, not as the manifestation of personality traits but as a surface of artistic and social inscription, the ambiguities of Jackson's image call into question received ideas about what black male artists in popular music should look like.
(Mercer, 1991: 314)
According to Mercer, Jackson's postmodern style has its roots in the camp tradition of black soul music; that is to say, a preference for the unnatural, for artificiality and exaggeration, and all of that long before white pop musicians started to use similar shock effects.
One gender bender bent on shocking with his looks is Boy George. His extravagant appearance can be traced to the gay tradition of camp. Despite his provocative appearance, his soft, somewhat sweet and docile charisma gives an impression of innocence. He is full of incomprehension about a world that misunderstands and disapproves of his looks and homosexuality: 'Do you really want to hurt me?'
Whereas Boy George bends gender in an aura of innocence, Prince certainly does not. Just like Michael Jackson, Prince finds himself on a crossroads of black and white, masculine and feminine, but he is much more provocative in his racial and sexual ambiguity. He is one of the few pop stars to eroticize the male body in an explicitly sexual way. In his concert performances, he combines expressions of both extreme femininity and masculinity. Wearing excessive lace gowns, jewelry, boas and lingerie or dressed in rugged leather, he willingly turns his ass to the camera, struts around like a whore and always strips at least once. With his sex appeal, he cleverly plays to both homosexual and heterosexual audiences. 'All the men call me princess, all the women call me electric man', Prince whispers sensually while making love to a microphone during a concert. But while he maliciously takes up a classically feminine position, he never forgets his macho tricks. For example, he can slowly strip in a continuous flirtation with his audience, only to end the long, seductive scene suddenly as a macho man, brutishly pounding away. In the moment one expects Prince to blow up a sexual stereotype he creates confusion by reconfirming it.
After this exploration of female and male gender benders in postmodern pop culture I can return to the questions I asked at the beginning. What reflections on gender and gender identity does the phenomenon of gender bending invite, from the perspective of sexual difference? Are the Au Pairs right when they sing: 'You are equal, but different; it is so obvious'? ('It's obvious', from the CD Playing with a Different Sex, Human Records, 1981).
Gender benders question the conventional, immovable ideas on masculinity and femininity. We have already seen that gender as a style and a masquerade is nothing new to women. But while not so long ago this mask could be confused with the woman behind it, the postmodern emphasis on pretence and appearance now allows women pop stars to reveal every image of woman as empty. For women, the potential liberation from the gender harness is closely connected to the postmodern condition. Their gender bending result from it, without their masculine image changing or adding anything essential. Masculinity has always been a possible, and sometimes even necessary, masquerade for women (Dekker en van de Pol, 1989).
One might expect it to be much more radical for men to adopt a gender bending style, but feminist critics have detected a snag here. Male subjectivity is apparently in a general crisis, that much is clear from Robert Bly's men's movement, for instance. But despite the fact that postmodern aesthetics favours a 'feminine' position and that male subjectivity is under erasure, Tania Modleski warns that we should look critically at the way in which male power re-emerges from this crisis. A solution threatens 'whereby men ultimately deal with the threat of female power by incorporating it' (Modleski, 1991: 7). Ann Kaplan also fears for male pop stars' co-option of the feminine:
This form of masquerade, often accompanying the parade of virility [...] seeks to control the feared feminine, the feared difference, by possessing it, incorporating it within the self.
(Kaplan, 1987: 93)
These divergent interpretations of female and male gender benders result from the different positions women and men occupy vis-à-vis sexual difference. The male gender bender explores the feminine as the other; as his difference. In postmodern culture in general, there is a strong desire to transgress boundaries out of a fascination with the Other. This not only concerns gender, but also the boundaries of humanity. Many of the performers mentioned in this paper have a remarkable interest in vampires, werewolves, robots and aliens. Suzanne Moore (1988) contends that gender bending is really gender travel; a sort of postmodern form of sex tourism. The male pop star travels to the world of femininity, only to return to the supposedly safe haven of his identity as a man. However, modern technology enables us not only to visit the Other, but also to become the Other, even if only temporarily. Is it not remarkable that at the point in history when Others -- women, blacks, gays -- are demanding subjectivity, man is becoming the Other as it were? Why does he not just become himself? 'Becoming-a-man' is not exactly a picnic in postmodern culture. For male pop stars, it would be a much more radical strategy to explore the meanings of masculinity -- and that is something entirely different from barricading oneself inside the trenches of machismo, as rappers and heavy metal musicians do.
As Suzanne Moore acutely points out, if Prince wants to be a girlfriend, then what option leaves this to his girlfriend? The asymmetrical relationship between the sexes makes simply trading places impossible. For men, gender bending and exploring femininity avails them of a whole new set of images of the Other, while women start off in the position of embodying the Other. As a result they must first reappropriate femininity. Therefore, it strikes me as cynical that in gender bending men 'become women' and that the category of gender is declared superfluous, while women are still in the process of their becoming women. Masculinity is not a liberating solution for women. It might be much more productive for them to overcome the sexist clichés and prejudices contained in the representations of femininity as to actively gain control of their self-image. For female gender benders, masculinity is only one of the many options of representation, as a strategic part of a mimetic dance of meanings relating to gender. Masculinity is nothing more than a masquerade for female pop stars and definitely not an ideal, as is evident from a recent interview with Madonna: 'I think I have a dick in my brain. I don't need to have one between my legs. It would be like having a third leg' (Vanity Fair, October 1992).
Donna Haraway (1990) uses the metaphor of 'incorporation' for her analysis of postmodernism. We have already seen that postmodern pop culture displays a certain cannibalistic consumption of representations of femininity. From the perspective of sexual difference, understood as the lack of symmetry between the sexes, there is a masculine postmodern representation in which men admit and incorporate images of femininity. Parallel to this, there is a feminine postmodern representation, parodying and mocking images of femininity and masculinity in mimesis and the masquerade. According to Haraway, the irony used by female gender benders is the postmodern political style par excellence.
Gender bending in pop culture is not exactly an unambiguous phenomenon. Some performers' gender games illustrate the postmodern void in which gender bending reaches no further than the texture and surface of outward appearances; gender remains imprisoned in the dots on the TV screen. However, other gender benders creatively consume deeply rooted gender images. They use the freedom postmodern pop culture gives them to search for the limits of femininity and masculinity. Once these boundaries have been transgressed, an innocent return to fixed meanings of sex and gender is impossible. Nostalgia for a stable identity or denial of postmodern life are hopelessly apolitical reactions to the contemporary practice of gender bending. A feminist politics and pleasure can be found in the utopian view that gender benders offer: a world driven by the carousel of genders.
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(Door Anneke Smelik)
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