Who’s That Girl?: Madonna and the Philosophy of the Self

The most important legacy that Madonna has given to her fans and to the world at large is that of the power of the theatrical, or the art of performance. At 34, I have been a fan of the Queen of Pop since the age of 12 and can distinctly remember imitating her every move in the Blond Ambition as well as The Girlie Show tours. Of course, this marked attention to detail and performance on my part points to the inherited nature of what it means to be a homosexual in a heterosexually dominant world, and it also underscores the nature of performing and acting in the world which Madonna has cultivated into an art form.

Madonna’s exhibitionist qualities are not just for show; they point to a fundamental but all too readily forgotten truth ever-present in the real world—that of the individual constantly performing and wearing a mask in public, even in private. Madonna has proven to be quite human but also no fool; her need to perform in a theatrical manner is just as deeply rooted, psychologically speaking, as is every human being’s. This fact and how she plays a multiplicity of parts in her numerous videos and her many concert tours have been to her advantage. I say this because at any given moment we all want to be someone somewhere else, and Madonna’s videos and her theatrically imbued concerts attest to this and to the deeper truth seemingly masked by the relentless wardrobe change, both literally and metaphorically speaking. This truth is that the person being conveyed is only a façade, a temporary reality, ultimately a self that crumbles and disappears as it is being performed. Thus, the terrifying yet liberating reality-check that there is no self; there is no stable, permanent self or identity that can be demonstrated with any consistency. The value in this is that we both can be and truly are anyone we want to be at any time and in any place. Madonna’s greatness lies in her taking this notion and turning it into a brilliant artistic and moneymaking scheme for nearly three decades. Madonna has taken the Eastern philosophical doctrine of no self (Buddhism), or the illusion of a self (Hinduism), and created countless identities, countless theatrical, artistic performances out of this truth of a fluid “self” constantly under stress to perform and give new life to music as something more than just mere singing on a stage to be watched and admired.

In the video for “Material Girl,” Madonna plays an actress in a knock-off of Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The theme of Madonna’s video is that her performance as a woman who enjoys the wealth and gifts of handsome men who want her on their arm for eye candy is just that—a performance. Madonna’s character, her true “self,” prefers the simple, more natural things a man can give her to convey his romantic feelings, as depicted by Keith Carradine’s character when he gives her flowers and takes her for a ride in a brown pickup truck at the video’s end. Here, Madonna literalizes the whole notion of performance by playing an actress whose career objective is to put on and take off a self that is different from one’s own.

In “Open Your Heart,” another video dominated by the concept of performing, this time for voyeurs in booths at a peep show, Madonna dons a close-cropped black wig, which she removes at the beginning of her routine to reveal the same style hair, but platinum blond. Plainly, the wig emphasizes her part as a provocative dancer in contrast to the natural, playful young woman the viewer sees engaging with the teenage boy outside who longs for a glimpse of her mildly erotic performance inside.

In “Like A Prayer,” Madonna returns to the role of actress in a drama (which we do not know as such until the end of the video) wherein the racism that consumes America is brought to the foreground and the hope of uniting blacks and whites as one humanity is expressed in Madonna’s character’s testimony as to the black prisoner’s innocence.

In “Vogue,” the first two stanzas Madonna sings emphasize a person’s desire for true freedom of the self, to get away from the humdrum of our mundane lives and to be someone else:

Look around everywhere you turn is heartache
It’s everywhere that you go (look around)
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know (life that you know)
When all else fails and you long to be
Something better than you are today
I know a place where you can get away
It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for, so . . .

Madonna’s answer to this need is to go out onto the dance floor, where the music and the moves it inspires will enable you to use your imagination and provide you with the inspiration to truly be someone else, not just a dancer, but someone who can feel free from the burden of the “self” in the movements of the dance. The point of the song and its video is that of becoming a star, a celebrity, in your own right, in your own world and imagination, whether it’s on the dance floor of a nightclub or in the privacy of your own room. It’s about taking off the self that you live with every day and putting on another self that will allow you to feel less restrained and contained by the world.

“Justify My Love” and “Erotica” move us directly into the realm of gender, sex, and sexuality, exploiting and confronting each of these and their subtle differences in videos that were too hot to handle for MTV and the public in the early nineties. Sex is the expressive act of desire and attraction between people, while gender and sexuality are played out in the public and private spheres, as they are social constructs that Madonna has toyed with since early in her career. The gender lines of masculinity and femininity are blurred in the black-and-white video for “Justify My Love,” where Madonna switches from intimate moments with a man and then a woman who is almost boyish in her appearance. “Erotica” features Madonna in the role of the dominatrix Dita, donning a black mask and brandishing a whip, among other sexual unmentionables. With this video that could only be shown after midnight on MTV and the album of the same name, Madonna openly expressed the natural desires and fantasies of human nature, exploding the confines of modernity’s repressed sexuality. Madonna brashly exposed a sexual self that modern society and culture is always at pains to hide and suppress. Both of these songs show modern culture that a human being is more than just a public face; there is a multiplicity of selves in the human psyche, the most powerful of which is the sexual.¹

In her next incarnation, Madonna returned to the theme of acting in the lyrics of the power ballad “Take A Bow.” The title itself hints at a dramatic actor’s final curtain call at the end of a rousing performance on the stage. Though the video focuses on the bullfighter Emilio Muñoz, the theme is the same—the young woman desires the love of a man whose career is more important to him than love. The song begins:

Take a bow, the night is over
This masquerade is getting older,
Lights are low, the curtains down
There’s no one here
Say your lines but do you feel them
Do you mean what you say when there’s no one around

…and its last stanza² begins, “All the world is a stage / and everyone has their part . . .” The song is about the nature of acting and the self, the fact that all human beings are always acting and wearing masks, on stage and off. Thus, there is no one true self because we are all actors in the drama of our lives, and in the instance of the song, not even love can redeem the actor who is more caught up in the artificial world of performing for the fleeting cheers and applause of the crowds.

In “Bedtime Story,” Madonna invites the viewers to explore the terrain of the unconscious in the dream state of an induced sleep. She depicts a narrative of the inner, dreaming self that is only experienced in a sleeping state, where repressed ideas and anxieties coalesce and come to the fore in symbols and metaphors whose meaning modern psychology attempts to determine and clarify. It is a fascinating video and song in which “Word are useless, especially sentences / They don’t stand for anything / How could they explain how I feel.” This is the most terrifying of questions, because with no stable self or identity, words become meaningless, and how can they express how one feels, when how one thinks and feels is as fluid and malleable as water and silver and words are not concrete.

A final intriguing expression of the question of the self appears in the video and lyrics for “Die Another Day,” in which Madonna does battle with her doppelgänger. In the video a white-suited Madonna fences with her black-suited double and fights her to the death—literally, in which she shoots an arrow into her double’s chest. It is an aggressively acted video in which she sings:

I’m gonna break the cycle
I’m gonna shake up the system
I’m gonna destroy my ego
I’m gonna close my body now

Here she expresses her desire to stop the functioning of the body and a direct desire to annihilate the self, which can only be done by breaking the cycle, an allusion, for those versed in Eastern philosophy, to the cycle of samsara in Buddhism in which we are all bound to the wheel of human existence until we reach enlightenment. The only way to transcend is through an annihilation of the ego/self (in Hindu or Buddhist terms), which is the revelation that the self is an illusion; something nonexistent that clouds us from experiencing our true spiritual nature.

From this cursory review of her music video catalogue, one can see Madonna’s artistry goes beyond mere performance and even theatricality, for that matter. Madonna’s songs and videos call into question the very concept and meaning of the self and its plasticity in the face of modern culture’s mass production of the “lasting image” and the iconic “self” behind that image. Madonna’s lyrics and videos engage her audience as to the nature of the actor, and the notion of a private versus a public self. Madonna’s music moves its listeners out of themselves and into a place where the human bondage of the self to the everyday is broken, and the spirit is set free. In the end, Madonna’s music and videos are offered as creations to be engaged in and explored as something more than frivolous acts of escapism.

¹ In 1993’s Girlie Show, Madonna’s stage version of “Justify My Love” overtly juxtaposed the song’s lyrics and sounds with the confining costumes she and her troupe wore—suits and dresses in the style of the film classic My Fair Lady, the screen adaptation of G. B. Shaw’s late nineteenth-century drama, Pygmalion. The play explores the Victorian theme of raising the unrefined into the cultured, assuring acceptance in polite society. The Victorian period was notorious for its sexual repression and its aggressive belief in public morality and manners.

² These verses paraphrase the first two lines of the famous “Seven ages of man” speech by Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Sc. vii), which begin, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”