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Madonna Interview : Harper’s Bazaar

“I think my behavior and my lifestyle threaten a lot of social norms, like the movie does,” she observes. “I think there are a lot of parallels and connections.” For her star, Andrea Riseborough, it was liberating to work with such a powerful woman on a female-centric film. “I was interested in the strong, interesting person apart from the public persona, and I was not disappointed,” she says of Madonna. “I found it hugely fulfilling.”

Madonna’s work is always strongest when she reaches into archetypes, and this film places the emergence of a woman from victim status (actually, of two women; Wallis Simpson also was abused in her first marriage) to mistress of her own destiny at the heart of the storytelling. That focus on a woman’s journey is very rare in major feature films. The role of men in the film is also radically unusual: They are presented allegorically — the villain, the sex object/nurturer — in a way that women characters are usually portrayed in relation to the male hero’s journey.

Some of the critical hostility Madonna faces with this film, I am sure, is a reflex — our culture’s resistance to women having power; directing a feature film is a powerful role, and women are central to this movie. I work with young women, I am the mother of a daughter, and I wanted to know, how did Madonna’s sense of self emerge so intact? “I don’t really know how,” she replies. “I think it’s just that as a creative person, in all the different things that I’ve done or ways that I’ve found to express myself, I’ve consistently come up against resistance in certain areas. I think that the world is not comfortable with female sexuality. It’s always coming from a male point of view, and a woman is being objectified by a man — and even women are comfortable with that. But when a woman does it, ironically, women are uncomfortable with it. I think a lot of that has to do with conditioning.”

I press further, wondering how exactly she escaped that conditioning. “The fact that I didn’t have a mother helped me in some respect, and that I didn’t have a female role model. I was always very aware of sexual politics, growing up in a Catholic-Italian family in the Midwest, seeing that my brothers could do what they wanted but the girls were always told that they needed to dress a certain way, act a certain way. We were told to wear our skirts to our knees, turtlenecks, cover ourselves and not wear makeup, and not do anything that would draw attention. One of my father’s famous quotes — and I love him dearly, but he’s very, very old-fashioned—was ‘If there were more virgins, the world would be a better place.'”

Madonna - Harper's Bazaar / December 2011

“Wow, Papa,” I say, laughing. “I’m sure he wouldn’t say that now,” she says. “He’s probably cringing. Obviously, that was when I was young. And then, going to high school, I saw how popular girls had to behave to get the boys. I knew I couldn’t fit into that. So I decided to do the opposite. I refused to wear makeup, to have a hairstyle. I refused to shave. I had hairy armpits.”

The young Madonna was “tortured.” “The boys in my school would make fun of me,” she continues. “‘Hairy monster.’ You know, things like that.” It wasn’t until her teenage years, when she began hanging out at gay clubs, that Madonna started to find herself. “Straight men did not find me attractive,” she says. “I think they were scared of me because I was different. I’ve always asked, ‘Why? Why do I have to do that? Why do I have to look this way? Why do I have to dress this way? Why do I have to behave this way?'”

The nature of some of Madonna’s questions has changed, especially as she now has four children: Lourdes, 15; Rocco, 11; and David, 6, and Mercy, 5, who were both adopted from Malawi. I ask about her mothering philosophy. “Well, I say to Lourdes, schoolwork always comes first, so anything that gets in the way of that falls by the wayside. We put our energy in education.” So how does Lourdes manage her schoolwork and a clothing line (Material Girl, which launched last year)? “She loves fashion and style. She helps design the collection. I just stand in the background and watch. I proofread her blogs and edit them and give her a hard time when I think she’s being a lazy writer.”

She adds, “I also encourage all of my children to ask questions and investigate. I never want my children to come to me and say they want to do something because everyone else is doing it. That doesn’t interest me at all. You need to tell me your personal reasons about why it will benefit you, what you’re going to get out of it, what it means to you. Otherwise, you’re just a robot. You’re not thinking for yourself. Where would you go with your life with this kind of attitude?”

Madonna is frank about the impact her celebrity has on her kids: “The other day, I was out on the street with Lourdes. She wasn’t feeling well and had a fever,” she says. “She was wearing her tracksuit bottoms and her T-shirt, and she turned around and was like, ‘Ugh, there’s a paparazzi, and I look like shit!’ I felt for her because, you know, I thought, this is an extra layer. It’s already a challenge to have a teenager, then to have a teenager in New York City, and on top of that, she’s the daughter of someone famous. It’s a lot. I’m aware of it, and I constantly find myself apologizing for it. But it also provokes many discussions with us about what’s real and what isn’t real.”