Photo by Patty Michels
In Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, bloggers, journalists, essayists and fiction writers share formative Madonna experiences and rhapsodize about or deride Madonna’s influence.
My first Madonna memory is of watching clips from Truth or Dare on Entertainment Tonight. Though not a Madonna fan, I’d recorded the snippets the first time the episode aired and felt somehow compelled to screen them now, with my father’s parents visiting.
I was uncomfortable, I remember that, but also proud to boast an interest in subject matter so worldly. Watching, my grandmother emitted a high-pitched clucking: chicken meets car alarm.
My dad shifted his gaze from the television to my grandmother to me. “I’ll take you to the movie if you want,” he said.
Madonna: intergenerational tool of rebellion.
Back to the anthology. Kate Harding, whose essay, "Conversations I Will Never Have with Madonna" appears in the collection, spoke with Our Town about her oddly neutral response to the polarizing pop star.
Our Town You write “my dirty little secret is, I just don’t have strong feelings about Madonna.” How is that possible?
Kate Harding Maybe that she's been there in the background of my life for so long, I learned to tune her out.
OT Do you think feminists are obligated to have specific thoughts on influential female figures?
KH I don't think feminists are obligated to have specific thoughts on very many things. (Equal baseline respect for all human beings? Equal pay for equal work? Equal right to privacy and bodily autonomy? Done.) But those of us who publicly identify as feminist are called upon to express clearly defined opinions on powerful women all the time, so when you don't really have strong feelings, you can start to feel like you're doing something wrong.
OT Why do others react so strongly to Madonna?
KH Well, sure--sex, power, beauty, pop music, religion, reinvention, motherhood, money, and fame. For starters. There's a lot to react to! And as I say in the essay, she has a real knack for angering people on either side of a contentious issue: "she infuriated Christians with her blasphemy and atheists with her woo; conservatives with her out-of-wedlock firstborn and progressives with her sketchy transnational adoptions; homophobes with her embrace of the gay community and the gay community with her embrace of reportedly homophobic Guy Ritchie." (Yes, I just quoted myself.) That's a great way to make sure everyone's always thinking and talking about you.
OT You talk about how Lady Gaga is often seen as ripping off Madonna but then posit that perhaps it’s Madonna who is derivative.
KH I don't know enough about music to say Madonna is derivative of any specific artist or tradition, but between my age and her output, a lot of her songs sort of run together in my mind—she's derivative of herself, if you will. So I say that "Born This Way" sounds like a Madonna song, for sure—but I just don't think it sounds overwhelmingly like any specific Madonna song. It's more like the platonic ideal of one.
OT You write that one must either want to be, bed or destroy mega celebrities, that in fact, these reactions are what put the ‘mega’ in mega celebrities. Why do you suppose that is?
KH Quite simply, those are the things that evoke strong emotion—love, desire, hatred and/or fear. Outside of those, you've just got various shades of indifference, and that's what will kill a career in entertainment. I mean, I would say I'm fond of Madonna—I like many of her songs, and I admire her ambition, work ethic, and support of emerging artists, among other things—but I have no idea when her last album came out, or what she's working on now. I don't think I've bought any of her music since The Immaculate Collection. If people only felt the way I do about her, she'd have been out of business long ago.
OT You describe yourself as a feminist author. Why do you feel it’s important to broadcast your feminism?
KH I don't see it as "broadcasting my feminism"—like it's a calculated marketing move—so much as being honest about who I am and where I'm coming from. First of all, I can't really compartmentalize it; my entire worldview is informed by feminism. But also, I think the appearance of objectivity is overrated. All writing has some amount of spin, so I'd rather just say up front that I'm a feminist and a flaming liberal, and let those who are alienated by that walk away with no hard feelings. Pretending I have no political opinions, or that they're not important to me all the time, would be totally disingenuous.
OT You’ve written a lot in the field of fat acceptance. During the time you’ve been writing, how have things changed for women in terms of society’s view of women’s bodies?
KH My career as a writer that some people actually read is only a few years old, but I can tell you this: My first published piece was an article on eating disorders for Peace and Freedom Magazine where I was an intern in 1993. I wrote about how EDs affect women disproportionately; how the best known treatments aren't effective for many; and how binge eating (without purging) gets overlooked because we so strongly associate "eating disorder" with "very thin." I honestly can't remember if I talked about the media's effect on young women's body image, but I know the editor titled it "Fashionably Thin." Nineteen years later, I could write a depressingly similar variation on the same themes. And although the fat acceptance movement has gained a lot of visibility in the last few years, shaming fat people and fretting about The Obesity Crisis are still two of our favorite national pastimes.
OT I would imagine it takes courage to advocate for fat acceptance. Did you have a come to Jesus moment which jump started your writing on the topic?
KH Not exactly. I started tentatively writing about it on my personal blog in early 2007 and was surprised to find that my friends were supportive. (I imagined they'd be like, "Eww, you've given up on getting thin?" but to a person, they were like, "Hallelujah! You've given up on hating yourself!" Which, you know, duh. They're my friends.) Then, when I decided to blog in a more professional and focused way, I wanted to choose a primary subject I was passionate enough to cover daily, and that wasn't already done to death by feminist blogs. It seemed like the obvious choice.
OT What are you working on now?
KH A memoir about getting all the way through an English degree—barely—with undiagnosed learning disabilities, told as a series of essays on books I blew off when they were assigned. I sure hope I'll be able to sell it, so reading all that classic literature over the last year won't go to waste. (I kid, I kid. It's been a really fun project.)
Catch Kate Harding at the Book Cellar May 16 at 7 p.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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