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The Mask, Madonna & Postmodernism

By Jock McGregor.

For the last decade, one woman has dominated the entertainment media across the world. What is the philosophy behind Madonna's constantly changing image and her outrageous antics?

You have probably seen his bright green face grinning at you from a poster. This is Stanley Ipkiss, hero of the late summer comedy hit The Mask. A feel-good film, featuring some wonderful state-of-the-art animation and a laugh-a-minute, it follows a simple nice-guy-makes-good story in a cartoon-like style.

The Mask in question is that of the Norse God Loki and has the effect of transforming Stanley from awkward loser to debonair winner. Assisted by his scene-stealing dog and the cartoon powers of the mask, Stanley manages to exact revenge on his enemies, outwit the police, defeat the bad guys and win the girl. Through it all, however, Stanley realises that he had it in himself all along and that he does not really need the mask. The film ends with our hero, girl on arm, throwing the mask into the river - and another satisfied audience leaves the theatre.


The Mask and Reality

This film succeeds, very simply, because we can all identify with Stanley. We have all been tempted to hide our weaknesses behind a mask of social acceptability, we have longed to be more like the image of our heroes and we have all fantasised about adopting a different, more glamorous persona. But equally, we all recognise the folly of such thoughts. Like Stanley we want to be ourselves, changed for the better - yes, but still ourselves. We want to be loved for who we are not who we pretend to be. We want to have the courage to throw away the mask. So we identify with Stanley and we feel good when he chooses to be himself. We feel good when true love wins out over fake love and when the cartoon world of the mask is put aside in favour of reality. Indeed were Stanley to have kept the mask, we would have felt somewhat cheated. It would have been a short-sighted succumbing to temptation, a moral lapse, a pitiable weakness - and it would have turned a warm-hearted comedy into a cynical tragedy. Which brings me to Madonna.


Madonna and Image

Madonna has perfected the use of the mask. Her adept use of images and clever manipulation of the media have made her fabulously successful, wealthy and powerful and, to quote The Times, the 'biggest star on the planet'. She has had seven number one albums and 26 top five hits. She has sold over 85 million albums worldwide, more than any other female singer in history. Her personal fortune is well over $70 million (she was paid $5 million for a single advert by Pepsi), and she currently has a $60 million contract with Time-Warner. What is more she has become something of a cultural icon: a sexual revolutionary, a feminist idol, a perpetual adolescent, a post-modern person. Sadly, despite her extremism, she is a significant and representative child of her times.

Martin Amis said of her use of Image: 'She is the self-sufficient postmodern phenomenon... A masterpiece of controlled illusion'. Madonna lives out the cliche that the medium is the message. Because of her success and because of her hard work, she has total control over her shows. She writes the songs, produces the music, choreographing and dancing herself, designs the stage sets and even does her own make-up and costume design. She is obsessively controlling all aspects of her show. And not just her shows, but all the things she does. Her films, her public appearances, even her private life - all reflect a calculated image. Richard Morrison, of The Times, says this about her: 'The likes of Madonna and Jackson aim to offer what can only be called the total egocentric experience; they control every aspect of their acts, and are willing to dissolve the line where art ends and reality begins. Their acts incorporate their private lives and vice versa'. Madonna's whole life revolves around the presentation of her image.


Off Camera

A clip from her tour documentary In Bed With Madonna shows her going to a doctor to get her voice checked. The movie camera is there with her the whole time, documenting every aspect of what is going on. Warren Beatty, her boyfriend at the time, comments with real insight on the situation. When the doctor asks 'Do you want to talk at all off camera?' and she declines, Beatty says, 'Why would you want to say anything off camera? She does not want to say anything off camera; she does not want to live off camera.'


Image and Reality Blurred

In many ways Madonna is a victim of her own image. She lives totally within the artificially constructed reality of the image. She has become one with her mask. And she is not alone in that. This is central, not just to Madonna, but also to our culture. Think of the tremendous developments of our technological age and the impact of the media that has come with it; image is dominating more and more of our lives. And increasingly we see the blurring of image and reality, the fusing of the public and private persona, the dissolving of the differences, so that everything becomes image and reality disappears.

In politics, style replaces substance; in commerce, packaging and promotion replace quality; in society how you look replaces who you are, form replaces content, the outer presentation replaces the inner reality. So many people live out their lives vicariously, through TV, through soap operas, through following sport. Many join various subcultural units where they take on the image of that group. Gangs are perceived as an extreme, but there are other kinds of subcultural units where the individual is submerged in the collective image. The things that you say and do are all external, but the real you is lost. Like Madonna, you just live in the image. Like Madonna the mask has become a permanent feature.


Two-year New Look

But there is another important aspect to Madonna's use of image and that is the constant change. She is always changing her image, whether it is from the good girl gone bad to the virgin in white; from Marilyn Monroe to the 1920s gangster moll; from androgynous, cold robot to naked sex symbol. Her ability to change images every couple of years has fascinated the world, and has been vital to her success. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, has this to say: 'She is always evolving; she never stands still. Every two years she comes up with a new look, a new way of presenting herself, a new attitude, a new act, a new design. And every time it is successful. There is this constant genesis'. And of course this again reflects our culture. We are always looking for the new, always moving from one image to the next, swapping one mask for another, changing to meet the pragmatic needs of the moment or discarding the old when it becomes boring, demanding or problematic.


Everything With a Wink

Madonna's use of image is complicated in a further way, because while she lives in her images, she refuses to fully identify with them. She says 'I do everything with a wink'. This playfulness comes through in all that she does - the self-parody in her films and the double entendres in her lyrics, the different levels of meaning and ironies that she uses again and again. Whenever people accuse her of something she responds: 'Well you don't understand, it's all ironic... don't take it too seriously.' On the other hand, however, she wants us to believe that the image is real - she says, 'What you see is what you get, I'm not hiding anything.' So she makes the video In Bed With Madonna, a reveal-all documentary. The attitude is: 'Let the camera roll, I don't have anything to hide'.


Only Subjectivity

Once again, this playfulness, this playing with images, on the one hand almost living in an image world, but on the other hand never quite committing to it, is very reflective of our present culture. It is particularly so of what has been come to be called postmodern society: where we have lost faith in objective truth and absolutes. We have lost our belief that there is any overarching story about life, any overarching meaning to life, which is true absolutely for all time, for all people. Instead everything is just a matter of subjective perspective, depending on where you stand. Everything revolves around the world we create for ourselves. There is no objective reality, there are only images, different images. Now if there is no objective reality and there is no absolute, then we are in a sense trapped in this situation of only being able to live an image. We can only live from wherever we stand; we can never know anything outside. We can only see the world from where we stand, from that context, that sub-culture, that language-game, that constructed reality, that image, that mask.


Dilemma of Postmodernity

And so Madonna stands in one place, one image, but she can never commit to that place, since she realises that with time she will be standing in another place. So there is no commitment. And why commit to something you know is not real? But on the other hand she cannot ever escape the image because there is no objective reality. This is her dilemma and this is the dilemma of postmodernity. The dilemma is that there is no on place we can all stand and say this is real, this is who I am. Because you are always trapped in your subjectivity, you are always trapped in the images and because they are only images it would be foolish to commit to them. Why commit to something that is going to change, that is not absolute? So you have this ambivalence - on the one hand never being able to escape the image, but on the other hand never committing yourself to it.

Graham Cray has said perceptively: 'Madonna is perhaps the most visible example of what is called "post-modernism".'

This term, much used but rarely defined, relates to a loss of trust of the modern and of future progress, and a resulting search of the past and of other cultures for the basis of a new set of values and a pattern of life.

One commentator on Madonna has said that post-modernism should better be called 'shopping' - 'The world and all history is a vast supermarket, and you can pick out the ingredients you like, and assemble them into your own version of something.'


Nihilism With a Smile

Since there is no overarching truth, no single narrative, we are just people trapped in separate subcultures, behind different masks and anyone can simply come along and plunder them, pick out what they want and create their own. Cray continues: 'This is precisely what Madonna has done and, of course, Christian imagery was high on her shopping list. The Madonna phenomenon can be understood only as a logical development in a society which has lost one set of values and has as yet not found another.' Having abandoned absolute truth, a sense of one narrative that gives meaning to all life, we have become lost in what someone has described as 'playful indeterminacy'. It is indeterminate in the sense that no one really knows Truth, each is resigned to living in his or her own image sub-culture, but it remains nonetheless playful. But what a desperate, despairing sort of playfulness, what a laughing in the face of emptiness. Someone has rightly called it 'Nihilism with a smile'. This is the tragedy of Madonna and this is the tragedy of our Postmodern culture.


Trapped in the Mask

We can all laugh at the antics of Stanley Ipkiss and his mask. Indeed there is nothing wrong with images in themselves and we can all enjoy the fun of make-believe, whether in film or theatre or even in charades. But Madonna is no laughing matter, for unlike Stanley she cannot throw her mask away and return to reality. The noble choice that Stanley made to be himself, to be real, is not open to her or to those of her generation. And it is not as if deep down they do not hunger for reality or long to be free from the image trap. Even Madonna has admitted: 'I'm a very tormented person. I have a lot of demons I am wrestling with, but I want to be happy. I am working towards knowing myself and I am assuming that will bring me happiness.' But our postmodern culture has nothing to offer this lost generation. Nothing but a grinning mask to cover hollow lives.


Not Image But Reality

In contrast, we do have something to offer. In Christianity we have truth that sets a framework that is absolute, that does not change. It is not about image, it is about reality and that is something we can become real people in. We must proclaim this reality: the reality that is bedded in the truth of the existence of God, his Word to us, the Person of Christ... these things can root us and give us reality in this life. Our culture is adrift in a sea of images. We must point it to the Rock.


Jock MacGregor is British Director of l'Abri Fellowship in Hampshire.

This article which is reprinted by kind permission, first appeared in 'Evangelicals Now'.

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You are reading The Mask, Madonna and Postmodernism by Jock McGregor, part of Issue 4 of Ministry Today, published in June 1995.

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