as Postmodern Myth: How One Star's Self-Construction Rewrites Sex,
Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream
Jefferson & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
$32.00, 256 pages, ISBN 0-7864-1408-1.
Madonna as Postmodern Myth is divided into five parts: "Definitions",
"Desperately Seeking Stardom", "The Fundamental Contradiction",
"Drag", and "America's Mirror". In the first part,
Guilbert does indeed define myth and "the postmodern" (as
he chooses to spell and call itas opposed to "postmodernism"
or other possibilities). He also defines stardom and even addresses
the overuse of the word "superstar". This part is very informed
and "airtight", as if he wished to make sure that no stone
was left unturned and no one could claim he had forgotten this or
that aspect or neglected this or that theorist. He certainly does
not seem to have overlooked anyone, as the colossal bibliography,
notes and index show (he has also read every single Madonna book in
print, needless to say, whether they be collections of academic essays
or muckraking pseudo-biographies, not to mention thousands of press
articles). The pages where he defines the postmodern may be copied
and used in courses as such, and I trust more than one professor will
yield to the temptation. It is very pedagogicalin the non derogatory
sense (anyone who has attended pedagogy seminars will know what I
mean). To conclude, he offers his own definition ("Yet Another
Definition"), which is rather convincing and at any rate suits
the points he intends to make about Madonna.
In the second part, which was given a somewhat facile title, "Desperately
Seeking Stardom", Guilbert analyzes the way Madonna methodically
(re)constructed herself; he throws in a few biographical elements,
but no more than strictly necessary. Indeed you get the feeling that
he was terrified anyone would "accuse" him of being a biographer.
This is a scholarly book, and the reader had better not forget it.
He illustrates the devouring ambition of the diva, and the way she
rewrites her past and plans her future. He states and demonstrates
that Madonna's principal weapons are visual (photos and videos)indeed
he very rarely talks about the music, although he does closely examine
the lyrics. Then he moves on to the constant interaction between gay
culture and Madonna's work, establishing striking rapprochements,
notably with Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz. The third part
looks at the way Madonna plays with clichéd categories, such
as femme fatale, vamp, whore, mother, virgin, etc. It features a hilarious
passage about the birth of Lourdes, Madonna's first child.
The fourth part, entitled "Drag", is my favorite, for three
reasons. First, I believe it is the strongest of the five; second,
it is the part most concerned with cinema, my own field of research;
and third, it deals with the similarities between Madonna and drag
queens in a fascinating way. Obviously this is the part Guilbert took
the most pleasure in writing, you can feel his enjoyment as you read
on. I am quite aware of the fact that this might not necessarily be
seen as a compliment. You can also feel his admiration for larger-than-life
figures such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, who have
all inspired Madonna. The fifth part, "America's Mirror",
is very sociological. It allows the author to examine the excesses
and contradictions of the US, pointing out the way Madonna reflects
them all in her work. The passage on the American Dream is particularly
The whole book is totally steeped in feminism, or to be more precise,
in constructionist feminism. Guilbert is obviously a Michel Foucault
and Judith Butler aficionado, though he also likes and uses people
like Camille Paglia. "Gender" is probably the most recurrent
word in the book, I suppose to the point of being annoying for readers
not so versed in the subject. He writes somewhere that Madonna is
to pop what Butler is to academe, that they both demonstrate throughout
their work that gender is a pure social construct, and he certainly
strives to prove it. Admittedly, I can't be really objective here:
having taken his Gender Studies course and done my MA dissertation
under his supervision, I was "traumatized" early on, and
can never look at a woman in the street, let alone on MTV, without
wondering how much of her "femininity" (whatever that means,
Guilbert would say) is constructed, by her socio-cultural environment
or by herself.
The whole book is also totally steeped in the postmodern, and might
fail to win over its adversaries (an issue Guilbert addresses). Indeed
it is a postmodern book, just as its subject is postmodern. Academics
who think Jean Baudrillard is a clown might remain unimpressed. Moreover,
the author never tries to conceal his admiration for Madonna; "[
I do not intend to hide my attraction to [this book's] subject",
he confesses in the Preface. He also writes: "I myself am convinced
of Madonna's superior intelligence." This might be seen as a
flaw in an academic book, but his catching enthusiasm remains within
acceptable bounds, and you certainly can't accuse him of hypocrisy.
Amazingly, he manages to steer almost totally clear of jargon, which
is unexpected in a postmodern theory book. But this again may very
well be seen as a serious flaw.
The back-cover blurb is not complemented by the usual indications
of fields or domains of interest, so I'll suggest my own. Madonna
as Postmodern Myth may be gainfully read and enjoyed by anyone
interested in the following (even if, like me, they are no particular
admirers of Madonna): Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Music, Film
Studies, Feminism, Gender Studies, and Queer Theory. It may also be
read by literature students and professors who are keen on postmodern
novels, as Guilbert shows the mechanisms are exactly the same. Of
course, this book will undoubtedly be bought by thousands of English-speaking
Madonna fans too, who are bound to be delighted, as it tells them
it is quite acceptable to worship the icon, and details why.
To conclude on a negative note, I wish to remark that Guilbert is
often a bit excessive. He is positively vindictive when he answers
the political criticism of some left-wing commentators who see Madonna
as a monstrous backer of capitalism. Some of his parallels with Marlene
Dietrich are slightly over the top; they occasionally make you feel
that he is preparing a book on herwhich he is not, to
my knowledge. And he is not particularly subtle when he takes on the
US religious right. A little more restraint might have been welcome.
I was not surprised, however, since as it happens he writes very much
the way he teaches.