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Madonna as Postmodern Myth: How One Star's Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream
Georges-Claude Guilbert
Jefferson & London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
$32.00, 256 pages, ISBN 0-7864-1408-1.

Nicolas Magenham

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 it—as 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 pedagogical—in 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 well-done.

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 her—which 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.

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