Sex Sells

Ann Cvetkovich

Sex, by Madonna, photographed by Steven Meisel, art directed by Fabien Baron, edited by Glenn O’Brien. New York: Warner Books, 1992. $49.95

Money. Commodity. Sex. Sex isn’t called Money but it might have been, especially since, under capitalism, sex and money can be two ways of saying the same thing. One of the most interesting things about Sex is not its content but its status as a commodity. There has been considerable critical hostility toward Madonna’s unabashed profit motive, but to me that only adds to the book’s power. Even if it lacked originality (and it doesn’t), Sex would still be distinctive in its mainstreaming of high art and low art as it pushes Steven Meisel’s fashion photography and Madonna’s celebrity image in contrasting directions as both respectable art and pornography. Photographers and cultural critics have some lessons to learn about visibility and marketing from the model of a $50 book that can sell in such numbers.
Which isn’t to say that the book’s content is irrelevant or uninteresting. Sex is about sex because sex sells. But what kind of sex? The jaded critics who find Sex boring on the grounds that it’s “just” pornography don’t seem to have looked at their copies very carefully or, for that matte, at pornography, which is by no means a monolithic and uninteresting genre). As more sympathetic commentators have pointed out, the gay and lesbian images in Sex shouldn’t be taken for granted, and if they are, Madonna has succeeded rather than failed.
For its queer content alone, then, Sex, deserves notice, especially since its gay and lesbian images are the fantasies of a straight girl, who thereby makes queer desire everybody’s desire. Not that that automatically makes the book radical either as politics or as art, for Madonna could easily be accused of appropriating gay and lesbian sex for its shock value, marginalizing it once again as kinky or exotic. But the fact remains that no one is buying $50 books of lesbian sex by lesbians, and as long as that’s the case, Madonna’s work ill be of interest. Sex might usefull be compared with the work of lesbian photographers such as Della Grace, Susan Stewart, and Deborah Bright, who depict lesbian sexuality and fantasy in innovative and controversial ways.1Madonna’s lesbian images, ranging from poses with “real” s/m dykes to “pseudo-lesbian” scenarios with well-known and glamorous figures such as Isabella Rossellini, aren’t necessarily original or cutting edge. On he other hand, given the marginalization of more radical work, the visibility that Madonna gives to lesbianism potentially contributes to a crucial project.
The importance of Sex and other works by Madonna in the context of feminist debates about pleasure and sexuality should not be underestimated. Although within the academy and feminist and lesbian communities, pro-sex feminism has gained a strong voice, it is still a fairly common assumption in mainstream circles that to be feminist is to be anti-pornography.2 Madonna embodies the possibilities of a feminism that can embrace sexuality, fashion, self-display, and femininity without capitulating to the patriarchy or the straight male gaze. Although many feminists have articulated more nuanced and sophisticated positions than Madonna, whose defense of s/m, well-intentioned though it might be, is highly problematic, their views rarely receive the mainstream attention she gets from a press that is all too willing to ignore or stigmatize feminism.
Lost in a too obsessive focus on Sex as a book about sex is its concern with fantasy, and the role of the photographic image in the construction of fantasy. Whether they’re her real fantasies or not, Madonna reclaims the power to represent women and sexuality that has traditionally belonged to men and makes herself the subject of her own dramas. Divided into sections in which recognizable celebrities or “characters” appear with Madonna to create a range of scenarios, the book’s individual images enable the construction of narratives, especially when juxtaposed with text or laid out in a series as they are on some of the pages. Reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series, Madonna plays with a series of sexual roles—the daddy’s girl, the dominatrix, the lesbian, the exhibitionist—that reflect her ongoing interest in female stereotypes and masquerade. But while Sherman tends to defamiliarize her images and roles, making them haunting or disturbing, Madonna, despite her potential to shock, primarily seeks to represent or produce pleasure. In both cases, though, they use the seductive appeal of the still image, which, in freezing or decontextualizing narrative, makes multiple interpretations or fantasies possible.
Fantasy is a more useful category than pornography for understanding Sex. It embraces a wider range of texts and images. Moreover, the feminist project of articulating women’s fantasies, of exploring what women want in a culture that fails to represent or precludes their desires, is crucial. As fantasy, Sex’s power does not necessarily depend on the explicitness of the images or radicalness of its sexual content, but on its ability to create a mood or desire. Some of the most successful images, such as the shot of Madonna masturbating over a mirror or the one in which she strikes a butch pose on top of a radiator, are not particularly outrageous, but that does not lessen their power.
Another significant difference between Madonna’s work and that of feminist photographers such as Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin is that she is that she is not the one behind the camera. Yet her choice of Steven Meisel, and her work with other fashion photographers such as Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, and Helmut Newton, is entirely appropriate given fashion photography’s relation to fantasy. Fashion photography creates fantasy by depicting luxury, glamour, and the power of appearance, and the photographers who have worked with Madonna have produced some of the most powerful and seductive images in contemporary culture. Often denigrated as low art in favor of realist or more overtly aesthetic photography, fashion photography has been unjustly condemned not only for its commercialism but for its content. I think Meisel’s work should be taken seriously both for its capacity to produce pleasure and its commercial value. In some ways, the packaging ofSex as an expensive book makes the photographs more precious than they should be. The usual context for Meisel’s work is a magazine in which his images stand out against a backdrop of text and less visually interesting ads. Part of the pleasure of consuming fashion images is that they provide a delicious thrill on the street or in the waiting room, during idle moments when distraction is welcome. More than that is not necessary. The cultural impact of such consumption is, however, far greater than time spent in galleries or reading books, and Madonna’s choice of this genre is a shrewd one.
Which brings me back to the question of money. The cost of Sex to the consumer is formidable, as is the amount of money required to produce it. Persuading the mass public to buy $50 books doesn’t necessarily make art more accessible for producers or consumers. On the other hand, given the competition the book industry faces from video, film, and music, it is interesting to see such a luxuriously packaged book make it big. Obviously, print and the still image are not dead. Madonna always treads the line between a democratic impulse that says anyone’s desires count and more elitist implication that only someone who has her money and power can indulge as she does. With the production values of the multi-million dollar fashion industry at her disposal, Madonna can be the subject of photographs that are beyond the reach of many alternative photographers. Ideally, I’d like to see her work pave the way for more widespread production and distribution of photography that explores women’s and gay and lesbian sexuality, work that already exists but that is marginalized. In reviewing Sex, I find it hard to look at the book itself rather than at its reception. But it’s context is equally fascinating, and defending Sex against the bad reasons for dismissing it involves he important work of discussing crucial issues about pornography, women’s pleasure, and mass culture. When I focus on my own responses rather than speculating about those of others, I find that some of Sex’s images work for me, and others leave me cold. Figuring out why is important, as is the more immediate pleasure of just looking.

Ann Cvetkovich is an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (new Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992).

1. See, for example, Kiss and Tell Collective, Drawing the Line: Lesbian Sexual Politics on the Wall(Vancouver: Press Gang, 1991); Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser, eds., Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs (London: Pandora Press, 1984); Della Grace, Love Bites (London, GMP, 1991).
2. For discussions of the 1980s feminist sex wars, and pro-sex feminism, see eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson and ed. Carole S. Vance, Pleasure and Danger (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Pau, 1983).

Madonna in the Movies
A group of people sit in a restaurant having a critical discussion about Madonna. It happens in real life because of he recent hubbub over her book Sex, but it also occurs in scene in two recently released independent films. InResevoir Dogs (written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, distributed by Miramax), a group of professional thieves has been brought together to pull off a diamond heist. The film opens with the men sitting in a diner after eating while one of them gives his theory on Madonna’s oeuvre. He believes that all of her music is autobiographical. His main example is that “Like a Virgin” is about Madonna’s sexual experience with porn star John Holmes, whose size made it feel like her first time. You can’t listen to her music without seeing her life story, he believes.
Simple Men (written and directed by Hal Hartley, distrubuted by Fineline Features) concerns two brothers (one a thief and the other a philosophy student) searching for their father who has been in hiding for 25 years for suspicion of terrorism. Their search takes them to a small New England town where they meet the owner of a diner, who is an ex-wife of an ex-con, and their father’s girlfriend. One evening, the four of them and a local fisherman sit around one of the diner tables discussing whether it is any different for a woman, who has taken control of her life to exploit herself than for a man to exploit a women. The general consensus is that Madonna is in complete control and it is her decision to exploit her sexuality and therefore acceptable. Although both scenes bring up interesting topics, what is most compelling is that the scenes exist at all. In creating these characters, with their links to the criminal (either implicit or explicit), the filmmakers needed to tie them to a mainstream segment of the population in order to help instill compassion in the audience for the characters. Madonna was that link. The Madonna phenomenon is so prevalent in popular culture that everyone is exposed to it and therefore talks about it. She has become an example of typical table conversation. – Michael G. DeVoll