Is sexism behind Madonna video flap?


November 30, 1990|By Jean Marbella

You can understand the Catholic Church, Pepsi-Cola or other tradition-bound institutions finding Madonna just too hot to handle. But MTV? That hip music video channel that often plays like a Fredericks-of-Hollywood catalog set to music?

In the wake of MTV's deciding not to air a new Madonna video -- reportedly because of its steamy scenes of bisexuality, voyeurism and mild sadomasochism -- some observers are crying sexism. The music channel, they say, is reacting against the messenger -- read: a woman -- rather than the message.

"You get all kinds of outrageous stuff on MTV. But on the rare occasions when a woman is in charge and plays around with these same subjects, it gets suppressed," said Karen Durbin, arts editor of Mirabella magazine. "It certainly is absurd of them to come out as sensitive over sadomasochism, when sadomasochism is all that the heavy metal [videos] are any way. I think the problem is that it's generated by a woman."

"Women musicians have always been scrutinized more closely for the types of images they put out," said Lisa Lewis, author of "Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference." "MTV is overwhelmingly addressed to male adolescents. MTV is sexist in that it has a his-p9,1l,4p12,2l tory of promoting male musicians and male points of view."

Madonna's video, "Justify My Love," was to premiere on MTV on Saturday, but executives who saw it Monday nixed its airing. "This one is not for us," MTV said in a prepared statement. (Calls to MTV for further information yesterday were not returned.) Warner Brothers plans to sell the video single in about two weeks.

But CNN aired part of the video at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, with the anchor

noting that it had been "altered to avoid offending some viewers."

The black-and-white video appears to be standard MTV fare, Madonna garbed in black lace lingerie and tumbling in bed with her real-life boyfriend as she breathily recites lyrics like, "I don't want to be your mother. I don't want to be your sister either. I just want to be your lover."

At one point, you see a second man watching the couple. In another scene, two men caress and in a third, a bare-breasted woman kisses a man strapped to a chair.

This is not Madonna's first video controversy; last year, her "Like a Prayer" video -- in which she kisses a black statue that comes to life -- irked religious leaders, who then successfully pressured Pepsi not to use the singer in its advertising.

"I think a lot of what she does is take the culture's image of sex and female sexuality and puts this sly, in-your-face spin on it," Ms. Durbin said. "It makes people crazy. Pepsi and MTV say, 'Oh no!' "

Some speculate that the bisexual aspect of the video is what prompted the MTV ban.

"It's perfectly all right for MTV to broadcast sadomasochistic couplings and events as long as the images don't violate a certain heterosexual norm," said Mark Crispin Miller, a Johns Hopkins University professor of popular culture. "Madonna must have crossed the boundary line by showing homosexuality."

Karen Stoddard, chairman of the communication arts department at Notre Dame College, agreed. "It seems to be the last sexual taboo. There is this deep-seated homophobia in the culture," she said. "Homosexuality, for some reason, is so threatening to the whole male image of sexuality. Men have such rigid notions as to what defines sexuality. And women's sexuality is something men think they have control over."

Ms. Durbin said she finds it interesting that even when the subject is bisexuality, MTV seems to have no problem if the star of the video is a man. "There's always been an acceptable level of bisexuality in rock and roll -- Boy George, Mick Jagger, David Bowie," she said. "MTV just invariably turns prudish when it's a woman doing the work."

Several experts said they believe the MTV ban is part of the same anti-obscenity movement that has sought to stifle homoerotic works by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

"It's just like the Mapplethorpe issue," said Judith Butler, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of humanities and author of the book, "Gender Trouble." "One of the reasons [homosexuality] has become so threatening is because it's becoming linked up with AIDS. It's a bad climate for sexual experimentation and representations of non-traditional sexuality."

The controversy highlights what many believe is Madonna's "gender problem:" She's seen as threatening by men, but not by women.

"I teach at a women's college and my students like Madonna," said Ms. Stoddard. "They say it's because you can dance to her, but I think they also like the image. Women are not threatened by her. She's not seen as someone to compete with, but someone to emulate.

"But I have three nephews and a brother," Ms. Stoddard added, "and they all hate her."

"Madonna represents this aggressive female sexuality," said Ms. Butler, who calls herself "a big Madonna fan.

"And that's frightening to the American public."

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