It wasn’t hard to make the mental leap from Madonna regarding her museum-quality art collection as household icons to the manner in which many fans, including me, regarded her. In the 1970s, when Madonna moved to Manhattan, my mother, a pattern-and-decoration painter, took me on the graffiti-drenched subway each month to America’s first nonprofit cooperative women’s art gallery, A.I.R., which she helped found in SoHo in 1972. There, she and her peers introduced me to their vision of femininity — their deconstruction of the warping effect of womanhood. Some of the artists were political, like Nancy Spero with her paintings of phallic-shaped bombs and scrolls of archetypal feminine heroes, and Ana Mendieta, the performance artist whose sculptor husband, Carl Andre, was accused of pushing her to her death from their apartment in Greenwich Village (he was acquitted); today, in the #MeToo moment, young women have made her their own cult icon.
I first heard Madonna when I was 11. She was the opposite of what I had learned so far about what it was to be a woman. She was sensual and playful, and I loved the way she tied her tights in her hair to make a bow on top. She was Cyndi Lauper with sex, Duran Duran with New York grittiness. And suddenly everyone looked like her — everyone wanted to be her. My friends and I were virgins singing along to “Like a Virgin” without understanding what the word meant. At one of her 1985 concerts at Madison Square Garden, she wrapped herself in a white wedding veil and lay down on the stage, breathily whispering “it feels so good inside” into a hand-held mike, before hundreds of balloons fell from the ceiling. It was like being present at the big bang of girl-power pop stars. Girls didn’t feel the same way about Janis Joplin — they might have wanted to be her, even lusted for her, but they didn’t scream as if she were Elvis.
Madonna might not have initially wanted little girls as fans, but at first she seemed to cater to the demo just like the performers at the Billboard Awards, though she attracted a lot of criticism about corrupting little girls’ souls or encouraging teenage pregnancy with “Papa Don’t Preach.” When I told Madonna that I was at that concert, she wanted to know how old I was then and said, “Wow, that’s young.” There was a pause, so I asked how it made her feel when she heard people reminisce as I had — if she was proud or was unmoved because she had heard the same thing a million times before. “It depends on context,” she said. “I’m happy to hear I was a part of the beginning of your being woke as a female. That’s cool.” When she thought about it now, she didn’t think the concert was groundbreaking. “I mean, my belly button was showing,” she continued. “If I look back on it, I don’t see it as a scandalous concert at all.”
That was her first reaction, to diminish her impact, but she soon reversed herself. “A woman fearlessly expressing herself and saying, ‘I’m encouraging all of you to be independent, to speak your mind, to express your sexuality freely without shame, to not allow men to objectify you, to objectify yourself’ — I don’t know,” she said. “All of those things seemed like the natural way of where we should be going. And strangely, a lot of feminists criticized me for it, and I got no support from that group. They thought, Well, you can’t use your sexuality to empower yourself as a female, which I think is rubbish, because that’s part of who I am and part of me as a female and a human being, my sexuality. That’s not the only thing, that wasn’t my only weapon and that wasn’t the only thing I was talking about.”
For someone who gave liftoff to third-wave feminism and has spoken out against the patriarchy for years, Madonna hasn’t always toed the feminist party line, or stood in solidarity with women simply because they’re women. I was curious about her thoughts on the Hollywood movement Time’s Up — did she think an anti-sexual-assault movement would move into the mainstream in her lifetime? “No, that was pretty surprising,” she said. Miramax, the company Harvey Weinstein owned with his brother, distributed “Truth or Dare,” Madonna’s 1991 cinéma vérité documentary that was perceived as prurient and ickily voyeuristic at the time but prefigured the rise of reality TV (on camera, she called her boyfriend, Warren Beatty, a “pussy man” and later demonstrated oral sex on an Evian bottle).
“Harvey crossed lines and boundaries and was incredibly sexually flirtatious and forward with me when we were working together; he was married at the time, and I certainly wasn’t interested,” she said. She added: “I was aware that he did the same with a lot of other women that I knew in the business. And we were all, ‘Harvey gets to do that because he’s got so much power and he’s so successful and his movies do so well and everybody wants to work with him, so you have to put up with it.’ So that was it. So when it happened, I was really like, ‘Finally.’ I wasn’t cheering from the rafters because I’m never going to cheer for someone’s demise. I don’t think that’s good karma anyway. But it was good that somebody who had been abusing his power for so many years was called out and held accountable.”
She said it was not true that she had ever asked Donald Trump for a date, as one “John Miller,” Trump’s publicist, who Trump swears wasn’t him, told People magazine in 1991: “She called and wanted to go out with him, that I can tell you.” What she remembered was talking to him on the phone in Florida. “I did a Versace campaign with Steven Meisel at his house in Palm Beach,” she said. He kept calling to talk to her. “He kept going: ‘Hey, is everything O.K.? Finding yourself comfortable? Are the beds comfortable? Is everything good? Are you happy?’ ”
She said that Trump had a weak character but that this wasn’t a surprise for an alpha male. “They’re overcompensating for how insecure they feel — a man who is secure with himself, a human who is secure with themselves, doesn’t have to go around bullying people all the time.” What about alpha women, I asked? “It’s the same,” she said. “It’s good to be strong, but again, it’s always about, where’s that strength coming from? What are your intentions? What is the context that you’re using your strength in? Are you abusing your power? Women can also abuse their power. And if that’s also backed up by a lack of intelligence, emotional or intellectual, a lack of life experience, a lack of compassion, then it’s really a bad mixture.”