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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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If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

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Mr.Modern Man, Get An Identity!

There’s a strange character out on the loose. He calls himself the Modern Man. I am not sure that I like him very much. For one thing, he’s really hard to find. He pops up, in a sudden self-reference and then vanishes under questioning. Then he resurfaces during what should have been a good moment, to ruin it with a self-promoting boast. I understand that he’s still trying to find himself. While about it, here’s what I’d like to say to him. So listen up, Mr.Modern Man!

Doing a couple of household chores does not qualify you for a medal. Get to doing 50% of the housework, without being reminded, and as well as I can, and you can have the right to advocate equality of the sexes.

Not dictating what your lady wears, who she speaks to, and what she wears does NOT make you a great guy. It just means that you’re not being a control-freak.

Fail in these and your stand of ‘Independent women can take care of themselves’  just seems like a cheap attempt to shrug off even the minimal responsibility that a male chauvinist’s role carries.

What is the meaning of an identity that is defined solely by the evils that one does not practice? A weak one, that’s what. Who are you, Mr.Modern Man? Is there more to you than the fact that you’re not a rapist/control freak/jealous monster? Identity is what you are, not what you are not.

I get how difficult it can be to break free of conditioning and resist archaic social constructs. I do that all the time, myself. But it doesn’t stop there, for me. You go against the grain and you break what exists down, so you can build something new in its place. Try being more than what your erstwhile counterparts were not. Define yourself for your values rather than what you don’t do or how well you meet my expectations. Most of all, get some balls of your own. I don’t recall asking for those to be chopped off when I let go of Neanderthal Man.

You don’t get to be great by default. And if you want to be the equal counterpart to the Modern Woman, you know you’ve got a high standard to match. I’m not saying the Modern Woman is without flaws or even that she knows exactly who is she. But at least, she’s got some sense of identity beyond what you or your brethren want to make of her. And the one thing she won’t stand for is vague, empty words.

Come back to me when you’re a real person, not just a fanciful notion in pop literature. I’ll be delighted to get to know you.

*Image via Idea go on FreeDigitalPhotos.

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*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram

The ‘Modern Woman’ Is Not Another Gender Stereotype

I did write this poem. But that was years ago. Even if it is still true (and dare I think, relevant), it doesn’t end there. Let’s look at the Modern Woman again, shall we?

Is she a bitch? Is she a leader? Is she a feminist? Is she a better friend? Is she an equal in bed? Is she the hot new consumer segment? Is she the bread-winner? Is she an Earth Mother? Is she a slut? Is she the new Man? Perhaps she is all of these. Maybe she’s the opposite and more. All of those are stereotypes of gender and other things. But the Modern Woman isn’t a certain ‘type’ of woman. She is the rejection of typecasting. She’s every kind of woman that it is possible to be. She’s the freedom of being able to be whoever she wants.

The Modern Woman is a work in progress. She’s what’s here, after resisting archaic social structures. She’s the unlearning of old ways of being and formulating new responses. She’s the creation of new situations after scrubbing every old practice to retain what’s still valuable and adding some new stuff on it. That’s not confusion, that’s just evolution.

No doubt, it can seem confusing that there are as many definition of what constitutes a Modern Woman as there are women. But why not? One of the most oppressive social artefacts was that womanhood had to sit neatly in one (or more) set constructs. I should be free to define womanhood in my own way and live by that. Every woman should be able to do that.

Personally, I think being a woman is just a matter of body plumbing. And, okay, a Modern Woman is being able to be a real person, despite the social pressure to fit oppressive stereotypes. To me, that translates to  not needing to hide my intelligence, ambition, ruthlessness and practicality. Equally, it’s also not having to hide my vulnerability, my softness and my emotions. Being a Modern Woman, for me, is so much about being honest and not ashamed of it. But that’s my definition and it need not, should not have to, apply to any other woman on the planet, unless she chooses.

After all, what makes a real man? There are still some who’d think that has to do with controlling women. And there are those who think it’s the exact opposite. And there are yet others who believe it’s got nothing to do with either. I want the freedom to make that choice about my gender, too.

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Here’s welcoming XX Factor‘s second guest-contributor. He’s as smart as the next man but he’s still perplexed by the complicated world of women. He brings his brand of wry musings, politically (in)correct observations and gender role confusion to this blog as the ‘Armchair Philosopher‘. Over to the chair.

– IdeaSmith

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Hello everybody. The unicorn’s here. The phoenix, the Bermuda triangle, the Loch Ness monster. The modern equivalent of a mythical creature no one has seen but everyone seems to talk about- “the Modern Man“.

So who is this creature? What does he look like? Is he human? Or has he been sent to Planet Earth by alien feminists? Is it his mission to spread his subversive propaganda about how a man ought to be, in order to ruin it for male chauvinist pigs all over the world?

Can a Modern Man be comfortable with a dominant woman, a woman who has her own life and friends and does not fit any of the gender roles he has been raised to accept as gospel truths? Can he really? Or does he just train himself to make all the appropriate responses? Or worse still, is the only way he can be modern, by assuming indifference?

The Modern Man is a myth because of the sheer relativity of his existence. A Modern Man has no real features of his own. A Modern Man is simply a man who can complement a Modern Woman . His modernity is defined by his responses to the modernity of the Modern Woman.

And therein lies the greatest problem of all. The Modern Man does not know who he is because the very reference point of his existence, the bedrock of his existentialism is the Modern Woman herself. But the Modern Woman does not know who she is either!

Stuck between Superwoman complexes and conflicted between her instincts and her principles, the Modern Woman is a mess. The Modern Man grows up with the naive principle that we are all equal. But when he lives with the Modern Woman, he realizes there is nothing equal about how she is treated. Landlords and electricians address him but ignore her. Waiters at restaurants offer you the bill even when she pays. And let’s not even get started on the great Indian family.

So what do you do when you see that the equality of gender you took for granted was a lie? What do you feel? Guilt and shame for being a man in a world that beats down someone for having a vagina? But when you believe something your whole life, it is never easy to accept it as a lie. So you try and convince the Modern Woman of the ‘equality’ she is blind to. Convince her it’s all in her head. And we all know how well that goes.

This post might seem like a rant of questions but that is the life of a Modern Man. So many questions. And anyone who says they have all the answers is lying. Till then, we shall all chase that elusive unicorn. And till I figure it out, I’ll still open the door for her. I will still carry her bags and buy her chocolates. Because I like how she smiles.  That is the only thing I can really be certain about. Everything else is just questions.

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