“Why was she gay? Come on!”
Irked, Madonna twists her fingerless lace gloves, exposing a bejeweled skull on her ring finger. It’s a Friday night in the dead of winter, and we’re sitting in a windowless office in an anonymous skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. The drab space has been enhanced at Madonna’s request with a few cultural cues: Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless streams in an adjoining room, while Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, streams in this one, as the Queen of Pop lashes me for my ignorance regarding the Maid of Orleans. The lashing is figurative, but Madonna’s impatience is real. I’m only stating the obvious, I think, in observing that the virgin warrior must have been gay, but what this lazy assumption tells Madonna is that I have completely missed the point of Joan of Arc.
By extension, I have also missed the point of Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th studio album, the eighth track of which is “Joan of Arc,” a hauntingly beautiful mash-up of country and pop. “Joan of Arc” is one of the strongest tracks on the record, which, in its full Super Deluxe edition, comprises a staggering 25 songs, a dozen genres, scores of collaborators (ranging from rodeo raver Avicii to boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson), and nearly 100 minutes, making it the most protracted album of her career. As a manically curated compendium of contemporary beats — grasping for relevance in virtually every musical sub-niche — it could also be called her most ambitious album. All of which helps to explain why it matters to Madonna that I bring some rigor to my assessment of Saint Joan’s sexuality. Rebel Heart is not a gay-club dance album, and Joan of Arc was not a gay saint.
“OK, she dressed like a boy and she cut off her hair,” Madonna says. “That’s what the church tried to say. Also that the dauphin who supported her, that he was gay.” She bristles at the stupidity of equating a hairdo and a suit of armor with sexual orientation, and I, evidently no better than an English cardinal, sag with shame.
It is late, and I am the last in a procession of mostly gay reporter-supplicants who have lined up to interview her Madgesty, but an icon’s work is never done. Madonna now has to school me in 15th-century European history to prevent me from spreading fallacies to a credulous nation: “According to historians, the dauphin is the one who supplied her with the army, the cavalry, whatever, to take on England. Did they thank her for that? Of course not. They went, ‘Wait a minute, how could a girl do that? There must be something wrong with her.’ ”
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake while still a teenager for the crime of cross-dressing. “I can relate,” Madonna says. “Sometimes I’m getting burned at the stake metaphorically. Though not right this second.” Over the years, Madonna has been accused of innumerable heresies, including corrupting the youth, practicing witchcraft, being a disciple of a Baphomet (a goat-headed deity), and conspiring with the Illuminati, a calumny she satirically addresses on Rebel Heart with “Illuminati,” a song she co-produced with Kanye West.
In the weeks before our interview, Madonna endured criticism for circulating fan-generated promotional art for her new album that featured various historical rebels standing in for Madonna, whose face appears on the album cover wrapped in thick black wire suggestive of BDSM. When Madonna posted pictures to her Instagram of Martin Luther King, Jr., Princess Diana, and Nelson Mandela wrapped in the same wire, the Internet revolted. Madonna apologized but refused to take down the images, confirming her talent for transgressing holy boundaries, even in our allegedly permissive times.
So Madonna’s point about Joan: A strong woman, a mighty woman, a woman with a rebel’s heart should not have her heroism explained away by lesbianism or anything else. To assume that a strong woman must be gay is to assume that a straight woman can’t be strong. But the lesson isn’t over — there is more, and so Madonna continues: “I said to one of my friends who knows a lot about history and film, ‘Well, wait a minute. Why didn’t the dauphin stand up for her? He was royalty. He had a voice. He was somebody important. If he had the power to give her troops, why didn’t he have the power to protect her?’ And he said, ‘Because he was gay and nobody respected him.’ ”
A sexist cliché invades my thoughts: “Behind every great man is a great woman, and behind every great woman is a gay man.” In the circumstance Madonna describes, the cliché belies a more complex web of interaction: The dauphin behind Joan is a gay man — a gay man for whom she fights a war; a gay man who is crowned king by virtue of her efforts; a gay man who, after all she has done for him, fails to “stand up for her.” It led me to wonder, At 56, does Madonna fear being abandoned by her gay fans? Should she?
Madonna has been intimately connected to a wide community of gay men for decades, as an artistic collaborator, as a political ally, as an employer, as a friend, and as a sister. She was an early and vocal warrior in the fight against AIDS, and her commitment to AIDS activism struck many as too fervent for anyone without a personal stake in the matter. Consequently, she became gay by association, believed by a great many people — reportedly including her former husband Sean Penn — to be HIV-positive herself, despite her regular denials. “If this is what I have to deal with for my involvement in fighting this epidemic,” she said at a fundraiser for AIDS research in Los Angeles in 1991, “then so be it.”
Madonna’s earliest exposure to homosexuality came during ballet class in middle school. Observing her teacher, Christopher Flynn, was the first time she “was conscious of understanding that there was such a thing as gay,” she says. “It wasn’t called that then. I just came to understand that he was attracted to men.” Flynn introduced the teenage Madonna to a global culture that reached beyond the suburban narrowness of her Michigan upbringing. “He would bring me to museums. He also brought me to the first gay disco in Detroit, Menjo’s.”
Witnessing Flynn also helped Madonna appreciate that there was something different about her younger brother, Christopher. “It wasn’t something I could articulate; it was just something instinctual that I noticed,” she recalls. “My brother always had a lot of girls around him that seemed like they were madly in love with him, but he didn’t seem like he was madly in love with them. And then I saw him interacting with my ballet teacher, and in my mind I unconsciously went, Oh, I get it. I didn’t ask my brother if he was gay. I didn’t even know there was a phrase ‘gay.’ I just understood that they were different. There was some silent, unspoken understanding that they had a connection.”
After dropping out of the University of Michigan and moving to New York City to dance with Alvin Ailey, Madonna Louise Ciccone would be surrounded by gay men, eventually including art-world figures such as the painter Keith Haring. Her immersion in the New York gay community became so complete that she began to wish that she were gay. “I felt kind of left out,” she says. “I didn’t feel like straight men understood me. They just wanted to have sex with me. Gay men understood me, and I felt comfortable around them. There was only that one problem, which is that they didn’t want to have sex with me! So…conundrum! I was like, ‘How am I ever going to get a date? Maybe if I cut my hair and I lose a lot of weight, someone will mistake me for a guy and ask me out.’ ”
Over the first decade of her career, as Madonna began her journey to superstardom, her public association with gay men grew deeper and deeper. When she vaulted onto the world stage in 1982, hell-bent on sacrilege and desecration, most of the U.S. was a wasteland of sexual repression. Pregnancy outside of marriage was taboo. Masturbation was shameful. In a number of states, oral and anal sex were criminal offenses, even if you were straight and married. Strict codes governed the content of television and comic books. Many of Madonna’s raunchy interventions have come to seem less shocking over time: Today, any 11-year-old with an Internet connection can browse an exhaustive menu of sexual options without purpose or planning and nurture a budding deviance with HD video; in the early ’90s, hours of strategizing were required to glimpse so much as a same-sex kiss. The path of least resistance — the one that provided a dusting of plausible deniability for the gay-curious — typically involved one of several Madonna-related options: springing for a VHS copy of her racy video for “Justify My Love,” which was banned by MTV; renting Truth or Dare, the astonishingly gay, astonishingly beautiful backstage documentary of Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour; or combing through Madonna’s Sex book, still the best-selling coffee-table book of all time and one of the very few places in the pre-Internet era where a person was likely to behold a woman licking a man’s ass.
In 1990, at the height of what might be called Madonna’s “gay period,” she released the video for her Harlem ballroom–inspired “Vogue” and shot the footage for Truth or Dare, which included shots of a gay Pride march, a moment of silence for those lost to AIDS, and bed-and-pajama make-out sessions between gay boys and their den mother. Until 2002, when it was displaced by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, the film was the highest-grossing documentary of all time, a fact that may bewilder future historians, since it centers on the relationship between a rich white lady and a coterie of multiracial, homosexual dancers.
Truth or Dare prefigured reality television, setting a standard for infinite transparency and mandatory exposure of intimate moments that public figures are increasingly expected to embrace. In many ways, though, the original remains unmatched. As a portrait of a mirthful, liberated band of co-conspirators on a working vacation — the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, called the tour’s backstage vibe “Fellini-esque” and described Madonna as “the matriarch in a circus” — Truth or Dare is far more revealing than its more recent imitators, which include Taylor Swift’s Journey to Fearless, Katy Perry’s Part of Me, Beyoncé’s Life Is but a Dream, and Madonna’s own woeful 2005 follow-up, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, which purports to track her Re-Invention Tour, but actually focuses on her unhappy marriage to Guy Ritchie.
Truth or Dare may have been too far ahead of its time. Months after the film’s release, three of the dancers, unnerved by the exposure of their intimate lives to the world, sued Madonna for invasion of privacy and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
The suit was settled in 1994 for an undisclosed amount, and suggests the extent to which Madonna’s relationship with the gay community has often seesawed between intense mutual admiration and uneasy suspicion. Unlike Joan of Arc, who, in Madonna’s telling, made a mistake in entrusting her life to a gay man who failed to protect her, Madonna has long been sensitive to the possibility of gay betrayal. “I wouldn’t hire fags that hate women,” she announced in Truth or Dare. “I kill fags that hate women. In fact, I kill anybody who hates women.” Madonna’s declaration is 24 years old, but it was only a few months ago that Rose McGowan was burned at the virtual stake for calling out gay misogyny. True, McGowan did not help her cause with the taunting assertion that gays had “fought for the right to stand on top of a float wearing an orange Speedo and take Molly,” but then, neither did she threaten anyone’s life, in jest or otherwise.
It’s hard to think of any celebrity who has done more than Madonna to promote public awareness of gay culture — especially minority gay culture — but even as she has sprinkled stardust in neglected corners, she has also been accused of getting rich on the appropriation and mining of gay subcultures. Of course, censuring Madonna for ransacking gay subcultures could be viewed as just another variation on the time-honored practice of devaluing the accomplishments of female recording artists by attributing them to male collaborators. This impulse, which is sinister precisely because it is typically reflexive and unthinking, has been in the news of late: In January, Pitchfork published an interview with the singer Björk in which the avant-star expressed frustration with journalists for misreporting that her new album, Vulnicura, had been produced by 24-year-old musician Arca, a.k.a. Alejandro Ghersi, when in fact Björk herself had co-produced every track. “I’ve done music for, what, 30 years?” Björk vented to the music site. “I’ve been in the studio since I was 11; Alejandro had never done an album when I worked with him.”
When I quote Björk’s words to Madonna, she sympathizes. “People are always saying, ‘So he’s the producer,’ or ‘Who produced it?’ and I have to say, ‘I did. I co-produced that with Diplo. I co-produced that with Kanye.’ Whatever — everything is a co-production. I’m the one who stays in the studio throughout, from beginning to end — all of these people come and go.”
One week later, during a follow-up conversation after our late-night rendezvous, Madonna declares, “Gay rights are way more advanced than women’s rights. People are a lot more open-minded to the gay community than they are to women, period.” For women, she feels, the situation has hardly improved since 1983. “It’s moved along for the gay community, for the African-American community, but women are still just trading on their ass. To me, the last great frontier is women.”
Coming from Madonna, the analysis seems significant. I ask her to elaborate. “Women are still the most marginalized group,” she says. “They’re still the group that people won’t let change.” To be a successful woman, she asserts, “you must fit into this box: You must behave this way, dress this way.” Immediately after our first interview, Madonna was snapped by a paparazzo upon exiting the building and endured criticism from The Daily Mail for wearing a “sheer corset, which left little to the imagination.” This seems to be Madonna’s point: Thirty-three years after she became, by her own reckoning, the first female pop star to make use of subcultures and to express herself “with an overt sexuality through her work” (“Before me, if it was anyone,” she says, “maybe Debbie Harry, but she was less overt”), Madonna’s costume changes are still attracting harassment from tabloid moralists.
She continues: “You’re still categorized — you’re still either a virgin or a whore. If you’re a certain age, you’re not allowed to express your sexuality, be single, or date younger men.” Now in her 50s, Madonna has become a cougar virtuoso, cycling through three male-model boyfriends under the age of 30 in less than four years. This is behavior, Madonna points out, for which “a man would never be questioned or criticized.” Madonna seems to be thinking primarily of straight men: Grand old queens with a taste for youth, like Liberace — or Stephen Fry — might empathize with Madonna’s predicament.
With Rebel Heart, Madonna enters a new period, and the Madonna era enters its fourth decade. Over the years, we’ve seen many “new Madonnas” come and go, but the new Madonna is still always Madonna herself. Or as Madonna jokes, “I’m the new old Madonna.” Joan of Arc, the most famous woman of her day, died a martyr at age 19, betrayed. Madonna, 56 years young, has made it clear that she will countenance neither martyrdom, nor marginalization, nor relegation to the status of “national treasure.” She will not retire quietly into Cher-like fag-haggery or into Paula Abdul–ish irrelevance. If the kids are using Snapchat, she’ll use Snapchat to release her video. If her hardcore fans are on Grindr, she’ll live-chat on Grindr. Madonna will follow pop culture wherever it goes—over a cliff and into the sea, if need be. Her new album is many things. Above all, it is not her last.