Say what you want about Madonna, at least she’s consistent. She is always pushing the envelope, always striving to keep herself in the news.
Where consistency does not exist is in the way the media handles her and her work. MTV and VH-1 have censored her newest video, “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” In fact, they censored it so severely that they were only willing to air it once, and even in that case, preceded and followed it with defensive comments made by the VJs.
The print media paid remarkably little attention to this latest act of censorship, and when they covered it at all, they mostly whined about how boring they found the video, and failed to address the underlying hypocrisy. One notable exception was Ben Wener who wrote in The Orange County Register: “[O]n MTV it was sandwiched between an episode of the almost-racy series ‘Undressed’ and an hour of ‘Spring Break Uncensored’ which, as every straight guy knows, is code for ‘busty babes in bikinis.'” (3/26/01)
When Madonna, whose lyrics are almost virtuous in that they do not promote gang rape, murder, and hatred, puts out a decidedly PG-13 type video, and it’s banned, why is it that hardly anyone says a thing about it? Didn’t just about every news media outlet and everyone in the entertainment industry go all out in defense of the pro-wife-beating, pro-gang-rape, hate mongering lyrics and performances of Eminem (who at this moment awaits sentencing in Oakland County, Michigan on felony charges of carrying a concealed weapon, and misdemeanor charges for brandishing a firearm in public)? If Eminem’s apologists are correct in their vehement insistence that violence in music and videos does not promote actual violence, why censor Madonna? In fact, run her video everywhere and all the time, and no one need fear anything. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that they do think there is a connection between what we see/hear and what we do. The media establishment and entertainment industry obsessively promotes male violence and female terror, but they refuse to show anything that hints at female retaliation. Male violence against anybody and anything is more than tolerated — it’s celebrated. Female violence — or more specifically, righteous violence as a reaction to endless abuse and oppression — is to be censored, condemned, belittled, and silenced. Maybe it’s okay for Xena, as long as she’s wearing little more than a corset, and it’s okay for the other semi-clad women warriors of network TV, whose violence appears more magical than realistic, and is never waged at men as a class in response to sex-based oppression. On the warrior shows, it’s mainly a matter of male titillation, although the unforeseen fringe benefit of empowering a whole mess of young women to think of themselves as warriors certainly does exist. By contrast, Madonna’s just not sexy in this video, pout pout. In fact, she’s dressed like a guy! In fact, she’s downright hostile to guys! How can we show that on MTV?!
Perhaps you are wondering, what if Madonna’s video is just so extreme, so much worse than the violent and degrading scenarios that Eminem could possibly come up with, that it really does defy the boundaries of what’s acceptable? Fair question. So, I got a hold of the video — and that wasn’t easy, either; it’s just because my neighbor works at a bar that shows dance videos, and the DJ there happened to have taped Madonna’s video the one and only time it was shown on VH-1, that I was so lucky.
And what’s the big fuss about? Well to me, the video is hardly the threat to Western civilization that others claim it is. Here’s how it goes:
It starts out with Madonna sitting on the end of a bed in what looks like a hotel room. She finishes dressing in dark blue slacks and jacket — a uniform, almost. She closes her packed suitcase, goes outside, and hotwires a yellow sports car with front license plate that reads “pussy;” rear plate “cat.”
Off she roars, stops in front of a nursing home, fetches an elderly woman, buckles her in, and peels out. They pull up at a stop light. Next to them is a car with three gangbangers, who all leer at Madonna. She looks back, gives them a long slow wink. Suddenly she pulls out, turns, and drives straight into the other car. Grandma’s glasses have slipped down her nose; Madonna slides them back up, and takes off.
Next target: a guy getting money from an ATM. She takes out her stun gun, walks toward the guy. Then we see her walking back to the car with a fistful of cash. Next stop (pay attention here!): a drive-in restaurant. A waitress brings them their food; Madonna shoves the money into her apron pocket.
In the meantime, two policemen stand there eating. Looking straight at them, Madonna drives up to and alongside their car, scraping the side as she goes. They look into the passenger window; she pulls out a gun and shoots them both — with water. They run for their car, she backs up into it; their airbags inflate; she tears off into the night.
Next victims: men playing street hockey. Madonna drives through the group, hits one guy, scatters the group a second time, then drives off.
Flashback to the hotel room: we see Madonna getting dressed; on one arm is a tattoo of a smoking gun; on the other, a cross, with the words “No surrender.”
Back on the road, the women pull into a gas station behind a red Firebird, whose driver is filling its tank. The two women get into his car, then pull out, as the pump spews gasoline behind them. The guy gets in front of his car, and he’s tossed up onto the hood. Madonna lights a cigarette lighter, tosses it out the window. We see an orange flash.
Flashback again: Madonna dressing. We see a large red welt on the side of her torso as she closes a vest over it, wincing as she does. She packs and leaves. Grandma in the nursing home is watching a car spin out on a road on TV; we see her left hand clench the arm of the chair she’s sitting in, and then she straps what looks like a shin guard onto her right leg. Back to the live action: the car crashes into a streetlight, and in silence and slow motion we see it wrap around the pole and gently blow apart. That’s it.
All this is accompanied by the dance beat mix of “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” The chorus is repeated over and over: “Do you know/what it feels like/for a girl?/Do you know/what it feels like/in this world/for a girl?” Also included [In a voice over] are these spoken lyrics: “Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots. It’s okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl.”
On VH-1, after the video is aired, Madonna is quoted as saying that the video “shows my character acting out a fantasy and doing things that girls are not allowed to do. This is an angry song and I wanted a matching visual with an edgy dance mix.” As Ben Wener points out, “Guys have death metal and misogynistic rap; women get this.” Except we don’t get it, because the media outlets won’t show it!
Madonna was more right than she may have realized when she said that girls are not allowed to do these things. They aren’t even allowed to have fantasies about them. If they make videos depicting the “wrong” fantasy, the videos aren’t aired.
But a song like Eminem’s anthem about choking Mommy to death in front of baby daughter and then throwing her in the lake, all while telling the “bitch” that it’s what she had coming to her, is, of course, allowed, glorified, and awarded with Grammys. That isn’t violence: it’s rebellious, it’s about breaking taboos, it’s honest art about working class rage. It’s Eminem’s pain, the poor lad. And, of course, unlike Madonna’s scenarios, Eminem’s depictions aren’t just fantasy. They are daily and epidemic. Eminem himself got arrested for it.
Since most of you won’t be able to see the video and decide for yourselves, I hope the above description will give you an idea of what all the brouhaha is about. It’s clear to me that this isn’t about violence. It’s about women’s anger. And it’s also about the latest attempt to harass a woman when she refuses to be molded and controlled by the male machinery.
The attempt by MTV and VH-1 to silence this statement of female rage is pathetic. The print media’s unwillingness to fulfill their obligation to expose the free speech charlatans for what they are is dangerous. Maybe we all need to go out and buy the video to show our support for a woman who thought that freedom of speech wasn’t for men only. I’ll see you in the video store; I’ll be the one singing: “Strong inside but you don’t know it/Good little girls they never show it/When you open up your mouth to speak/Could you be a little weak?”