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Madonna’s ‘Bad Girl’ – Feminist Or Not?

If you didn’t grow up in the 90s, you may not have seen this video.

Indeed, you may never have experienced the phenomenon that was Madonna. Madonna was such an important reference in pop culture at the time, not necessarily because she was that talented but because of how she represented boundary-breaking of the time. Of course, she’d be a feminist icon of a sort.

I want to run this video/song through the feminist lens. I’m skipping her bigger hits like Erotica, Like A Virgin and others in favour of this one primarily because I lived through the lifetime of this song. MTV had just come to India, when this song came on air. The glossy frames, the shocking sexuality, the unusual sounds — these marked the 90s when I was growing up, discovering who I wanted to be, what I believed in and who I was going to become. I saw this song sneak into the ‘New Releases’ and then creep up the charts to hit Number 1 on the Billboard Top 20. I knew the lyrics by heart (not from an internet site because they didn’t exist in those days) but because it was played so often.

Let’s start with the title ‘Bad Girl’. You don’t see that term get used very often these days, especially to denote what it did at that time. The video and the song lyrics are a perfect illustration of what was considered a Bad Girl.

Bad girl, drunk by six
Kissing someone else’s lips
Smoked too many cigarettes today
I’m not happy when I act this way

Alcohol, sex and cigarettes — the unholy trifecta that made a woman ‘bad’. You can see this attitude in India’s reactions to ‘modern women’ today, well represented by the backlash faced by Vogue’s ‘My Choice’ video starring Deepika Padukone.

At the time, it felt like the song was trying to reclaim personhood for a girl who did these things, with pride. At least, that’s what you’d expect from the woman who told us, “Express Yourself” with the following lyrics:

Long stem roses are the way to your heart but
He needs to start with your head
Satin sheets are very romantic
What happens when you’re not in bed
You deserve the best in life
So if the time isn’t right then move on
Second best is never enough
You’ll do much better baby on your own

Don’t go for second best baby
Put your love to the test you know, you know you’ve got to
Make him express how he feels and maybe
Then you’ll know your love is real

Express yourself

But ‘Bad Girl’ showed that same girl seemingly in regret over those choices. In the video, she goes from man to man, waking up and walking through the day with a gnawing sense of emptiness and lights a cigarette, swigs some booze ending in,

“I’m not happy when I act this way.”

I never fell into addictions the way popular culture did and still predicts women like these will meet their end in. But those addictions represent a certain hollowness under the victory. And that definitely resonates.

Let’s go back to the video. Even as a teenager, I was creeped out by the strange dude watching her without her knowledge. I assumed he was a stalker (though we didn’t know the word at that time since in Bollywood, that just meant The Hero). He watched her at work, he watched her cry, he watched her drink too much, have sex with strangers, do the walk of shame, wash her panties. It seemed like he disapproved. And then after she died, she joined him on his rooftop perch. As they watched her dead body being taken away, he passed her a cigarette, which she looked to him for approval and then took. The End.

That really, really confused me. Was Madonna trying to say that she was giving up her independent thinking and succumbing to the system (patriarchy, I know that now)? Did the Man conquer her, quite literally to death while also rubbing her subversions (alcohol, cigarettes and sex) in her face?

Years later, I read that the man was supposed to be her guardian angel. Ah. That made the eerie hovering in the air, the weird dancing without music, the hanging out outside her window and watching her have sex make more sense.

It’s very possible that the story was about encountering the isolation that happens to a woman who goes against societal norms and her succumbing to it. As a woman who is struggling in a life just like that, I don’t judge this at all. There is no shame in succumbing to a system that is horribly biased against us. Any woman that has failed after trying to subvert the system, is actually dying with honour, after putting up a good fight. That’s feminist.

Watching the video in 2018 made me think the point would have been made a lot better by showing a woman as her guardian angel. Yes, that would have been dangerously close to cliche — the fairy godmother trope. But the guardian angel protects and guides. What would the guardian angel of such an independent, strong human being do to provide value? They would empathize rather than judge.

The one thing any strong woman flying solo needs and lacks is just that. It’s not money or fame or material wealth — she earns it all without needing to pander to men. It’s not self-esteem — she’s learning to manage that too. It’s not motivation, not protection — she’s self sufficient. What she lacks, what we all miss is empathy. As subversive women, the world (even those who claim they are not outright against us) withold empathy. “But you are a strong woman!” they say deeming the need for empathy to be weakness.

I know I don’t absolutely need a boyfriend or husband. I can go without sex, possibly even for the rest of my life. I have taken a stand completely alone more than once so I know I don’t need the numbers. But the crucial difference between a happy life and a well-appointed one is this — empathy from the world. I have none of it. And that is what I would expect a guardian angel, if they existed, to provide.

The man in the video shows not an iota of empathy. He embodies disapproval and judgement. The only touch of softness in his demeanor comes seconds before he knows she’s going to be killed — as he kisses her and then looks at her. With pity, not empathy. Such a male thing. I think a woman would have translated that nuance a lot better. And the whole video would have looked very different.

So that’s that — my feminist analysis of Madonna’s ‘Bad Girl’. If you liked this, drop me a comment and I’ll do more. Well, I’ll do more anyway. But if you have a specific music video or story or film or any other pop culture reference you’d like to see me put through the feminist filter, comment letting me know and I’ll give you a shoutout when I do.

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