when i was very young

Last night Morgan and I went a Madonna dance party and I dressed up as my favorite Madge incarnation - her pre-40s/late 90s "spiritual" Ray of Light "guru" look (minus the unfortunate Hindu references).
(pamela love necklaces, american apparel sheer mesh top)

In the late 90s, our culture was fascinated by Eastern religions - it was almost as if we'd discovered it for the first time - and fashion and art and music was dominated with references to things like Hinduism and Japanese geishas. Custo Barcelona's long-sleeves were emblazoned with images of Hindu deities. DIY henna kits could be found at grocery stores. Suddenly every celebrity was touting the benefits of yoga and the Kabbalah. During this, um, less-enlightened decade (not that ignorance is any excuse!), these things absolutely crossed the line into cultural reappropriation.

Ray of Light was released when I was 12 years old. At the time the album's ethereal and atmospheric qualities captivated me because it was so unlike anything I'd ever heard. In many ways, Ray of Light was a catalyst to my interest in romanticism and the occult. Though as a preteen I was swept up in the cultural explosion of Asian spirituality, not realizing that our zeitgeist's fascination with these things was an expression of white/WASP supremacy.

In "Nothing Really Matters", Madonna longingly sings "Now that I grown/Everything's changed". Those lyrics would come to be prophetic, because as I have grown and learned more about feminism, I have a hard time loving Ray of Light the same way I once did. Let's have a look.
Madonna wearing Olivier Theyskens the hauntingly beautiful video for "Frozen", a starkly romantic fantasy reminiscent of Steven Meisel's iconic Versace campaign from 1998. As you can see, this witchy gothic imagery is something that still inspires me today...
  ...but now, having been exposed to intersectionality, Madonna's use of traditional wedding mendhi puts a damper on this video's awesomeness. A classic case of the hegemony's tendancy to cherry-pick traditions they find to be ~unusual~ or ~mystical~.
"Nothing Really Matters" is a futuristic geisha-"inspired" cringefest.

The titular track,"Ray of Light" seems inoffensive enough, aside from its vaguely esoteric lyrics, but -wait, what's what?! -
-oh, just the red bracelet which is a token of the Kabbalah!

It's helpful to think of intersectional feminism as a pair of glasses. Without the glasses, you're like an ostrich with your head in the sane; life is fine, no worries, everything is chill, whatevs! With the glasses, suddenly details come into focus that you never would have been able to see otherwise. And after studying these details, you can't see the world properly without these glasses - you can never go back to a mindset that says "Madonna wearing a Hindi symbol of chastity while pretending to bone Lenny Kravtitz on stage is totally cool!"

How can I reconcile how hugely influential Ray of Light was for me, with my understanding that white privilege perpetuates a supremacy by exploiting other cultures? Can this be reconciled? Should it be? As feminists, it is important that we recognize that the art that we love will be problematic. Art is a reflection of the world we live in, and we live in a society that is completely problematic! Is that a reason to eschew all art and fashion and music and literature and pretty much everything that defines our tastes? Absolutely not! No one expects you to do this. Do we have a responsibility to call out instances of marginalization? That's a personal decision, and depends on things like your resources and comfort level. Feminism shouldn't be comfortable, it should challenge our deeply-rooted manifestations of sexism and white supremacy! But realistically you can't be a Perfect Feminist 100% of the time. Liking something that is problematic doesn't mean that you are personally partaking in the marginalization of others (Untitled Mag really expresses this a lot better than I can and I really recommend you read this post).

So Madonna, I know it was the 90s and maaaaaybe we didn't know any better but today we do. Ray of Light will always be hugely influential to me, but now I examine it with my glasses on and I'm more critical of what I see. I won't stop loving this album. But loving it means that pointing out its flaws comes from a desire for it to be better.


Isabel said...

Well said Meagan, especially the point about wearing a chastity symbol while pretending to bone Lenny Kravitz. Like, whut?

While the geisha look is pretty unfortunate, I have to say I have always loved mehndi. It is just so incredibly beautiful, I can't help it. As far as I am aware, mehndi is primarily decoration, and it is not necessarily negative cultural appropriation to wear it if the original purpose is aesthetic too. That said, my take is obviously informed by white privilege so I am definitely open to further conversation on this.

Jasmine Nicole said...

awesome piece...I loved it

☯ZERO STYLE☯ said...

being a feminist, and growing older, and stepping outside of our white feminist boxes makes liking basically ANYTHING eventually a bummer. everything's fucked up somehow.

Magnet said...

I agree with the above comment, when you analyse most things and think about it, basically everything on this planet created by humans is fucked up. The human race is corrupt as hell. Anyway, getting off point here. I barely even remember this stage Madonna was in. I was 7 in 1998 and my mum used to haaaaaaate Madonna so I wasn't really exposed to her very much. I agree with most of your points about the topic though. As you get older, you realise that many things you innocently enjoyed as a child are so wrong. Songs, especially.

julia aka garconniere said...

LOVE. THIS. POST. i think you really address how our feminist icons aren't infalliable, and how to reflect back on them critically. so good!

i have to say i'm a bit disheartened, though, by the other comments above. at least isabel addresses that her interpretation is fueled by her white privilege, but dude. did you guys not read the post? am i totally misreading this? is it not common knowledge that madonna is probably one of the worst examples of someone profiting off of marginalized communites by putting a white, thin, blonde female face on it? just ask the ball queens from the 1980s. ask trans folks. ask women of colour. ask bell hooks.

i can totally get behind a good madonna song on the dance floor, and respect why so many people admire her as a strong female figure, but don't kid yourself into thinking "everything's fucked, what a bummer" is the end of this discussion. your post addresses these dynamics super clearly and i feel like maybe people just feeling negative after reading this post may need to re-read it!

Cassie said...

Glad you learned something from your former colleagues at Girl Guts!