Marxist critics view society as a complex network of groups who are divided by the struggle for hegemony. Such divisions are fostered by economic factors, gender, race, ethnic or national origin, and political ideals.
Social experience is one of struggle, as each groups tries to achieve dominance through control of cultural systems, including communication media. The Marxist ideological model views mass media as the most important subject for critical analysis, because mass media is the principal means of social control in contemporary society.
Marxist criticism has as its goal the identification of those rhetorical acts that legitimize the hegemonic views of the dominant social groups. Marxist critics employ critical questions that examine the hegemonic orientation of a rhetorical act:
- In what social, political, or economic context does a rhetorical act exist?
- How does a given rhetorical act articulate, reflect, or legitimize the ideology of the dominant social group?
- How do the visual and verbal symbols provide evidence of the subjugation or exploitation of subordinate groups?
- How does a given rhetorical act attempt to incorporate subordinate classes or groups in the hegemonic ideology of the dominant social group?
- How does the rhetorical act perpetuate the hegemonic ideology of the dominant group?
Madonna, "Material Girl"
Madonna's rise from merely being a popular act in dance clubs to super-star female power in the recording industry is a case study of sexual hegemony in American society.
Madonna's attempted metamorphosis into the embodiment of female power and the message that attempt sends to her fans can be best understood through a Marxist interpretation of "Material Girl." The video offers a narrative with several intertextual levels.
First, there is Madonna's creation of herself in the image of A Star is Born. "Material Girl" is a story about star-making in Hollywood, and Goodwin (1992) interprets the video as a "star-text" for her."The Material Girl in the visual narrative (and additional dialogue) is the character played by the character whom Madonna portrays. The persona taken on by Madonna in this clip is that of an actress who sings the song "Material Girl,:" but who is, in fact, not one herself . . . It is Madonna's star identity that has been constructed as that of Material Girl, and this clip was precisely designed to help establish it . . . it served the function of shifting Madonna's image from that of disco-bimbo to "authentic" star." (p. 100)
Second, there is the intertextuality of "Material Girl" as a parody of Marilyn Monroe's performance of the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The intertextual image is not necessarily of Monroe, but of the Hollywood archetype of the sexy blonde who uses her looks to get what she wants. As John Fisk (1987) notes:
"The meanings of Material Girl depend upon its allusion to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and upon its intertextuality with all texts that contribute to and draw upon the meaning of "the blonde" in our culture. Intertextual knowledge preorients the reader to exploit television's polysemy by activating the text in certain ways, that is, by making some meanings rather than others." (p. 108)
Finally, there is the intertextuality of Madonna's works taken as a whole. "Madonna's popular history as an assertive, talented woman in the male-dominated music industry contributes to how we watch and experience her music videos. She is exercising her control over the image she projects musically and visually" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 125). Madonna has created a female persona that dominates rather than is dominated by the male hierarchy. The sexuality of the blond icon is her capital for purchasing dominance over the male hierarchy. "Sex sells in the mainstream and Madonna's sexual self-presentation may be a constant feature particularly amenable to dominant patriarchal discourses" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 129).
Do these three elements add up to an image of Madonna triumphant over the hegemony of male-sexual-dominance that seems to permeate American culture and its popular culture productions? A Marxist reading of "Material Girl" reveals that Madonna may not be the triumphant sexual capitalist she portrays herself to be, but she is at least the equal of any man.
"Material Girl" has separate messages in its visual and verbal symbology that exist in tension with each other. At first the verbal and visual align as the video's narrative structure unfolds. We see the Hollywood scene of the mogul who wants the girl. A Hollywood toady and the mogul have this exchange:
Mogul: She's fantastic, I think she could be a star.
Toady: She could be, she could be great, she could be a major star.
Mogul: She is a star.
Toady: The biggest star in the universe right now as we speak. Those were the sets, the director's got all kinds of thing, director's hot, he's hip, he's here,he's going to be doing all kinds of things. He's going to change the color of her set, got a great idea for a blue one.
Mogul: Don't touch anything.
Toady: He touches one things he's gone, I swear, he's history.
Mogul: I want to meet her.
Toady: You got it, any time, name the place, name any where in any state you got it.
This is followed by a scene in which the "actress" is talking on the phone:
Madonna: Yeah, he's still after me. Just gave me a necklace. I don't know, I think it's real diamonds. Yeah, he thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts. It's nice though, you want it?
We see the mogul lurking outside her door with another lavishly wrapped, small package in his hand. As the actress rejects the idea that diamonds will impress her, he throws the package in a waste can.
The video then shifts to a sound stage where a musical number is being filmed in which Madonna protrays a "material girl." She is given diamonds, furs, reaches into men's pockets for their cash. The lyrics reflect the theme that she is more concerned with a man's bottom line than his bottom.
"Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they're OK.
"If they don't give me proper credit I just walk away.
"They can beg and they can plead, but they can't see the light, that's right.
"Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.
"Cause we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.
"You know that we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.
"Some boys roam and some boys slow dance that's allright with me. If they can't raise my interest then I have to let them be.
" Some boys die and some boys lie but I don't let them play, no way. Only boys that save their pennies make my rainy day. "
As the narrative shifts from the song-and-dance number to the boy-seeks-girl love story, the mogul offers the actress a ragged bunch of daisies--the gift of the proletarian man to his sweetheart, the most common flower than can be picked in any field rather than an expensive spray of hothouse roses. The actress acknowledges his gift with a smile and mogul-gets-girl. Cut to the song-and-dance number, and as it concludes we see the mogul proffering a wad of bills to a farmer for his old, beat-up truck. The sale is concluded before the actress appears on the scene. As the love story concludes, the mogul, posing as a man of modest means, and the actress embrace.
What is the dialectic tension of the visual and verbal elements in terms of the Madonna-as-sexual-capitalist image? If Madonna's goal is to reverse male-dominated hegemony in the entertainment industry, this video may be sending a mixed message. Since the actress in "Material Girl" is secure enough about her own prospects and personal capital to love the man she chooses rather than the one she needs to advance, she does not use her sexuality to dominate the moguls of Hollywood and she is deceived by the false front her mogul-suitor presents. At the same time, it could be argued that because she is such an exciting woman the mogul changes his typical courtship ritual.
In many ways he is like her, secure enough financially to be able to buy the trappings of poverty, while a man of truely modest means could not afford to buy the trappings of wealth or even rent them. If either of them thought they were not part of the power elite, they would not have made the choices they made. Thus, the video reinforces the notion that those that have, get. In this case they get each other, sending the message that consciously or unconsciously, almost as if it were instinct or a law of nature, people pair up with those of their own social class. Madonna is not the champion of the feminine underclass in the entertainment world or the world of sexual politics at large that she would like us to believe. She is however a pretty strong advocate for Madonna.
The visual elements of "Material Girl" provide her with star-text framing, but the tension between the visual and verbal elements negates Madonna's image as a sexual capitalist who triumphs over the male-dominated Hollywood hierarchy to the benefit of all women. The visual narrative reveals that she is seduced by the very ability to purchase affection and sex that she attempts to turn to her advantage. She is no more savvy about the male-dominated culture than any other woman, but she is personally powerful enough that her ignorance of men matters no more to her than most men's ignorance of women matters to them. She may not be one of the boys, but she is no second-class citizen.
Karyn Charles Rybacki and Donald Jay Rybacki Northern Michigan University
Transcultural Music Review#4 (1999) ISSN:1697-0101