BOOK REVIEW / Kids, I tasted the honey: 'Sex' - Madonna: Secker, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT STARTS out black and white, S & M, down and dirty. In various urban crypts and dungeons, we see Madonna bound up by multi-pierced lesbians (they point knives at her throat and crotch); Madonna biting at a male arsehole; Madonna whipping a large PVC-clad woman. There is Madonna as Weimar-style decadent, cavorting with gay strippers, and as cutie schoolgirl, being raped by skinheads in a school gym. You get the picture.

As Sex proceeds, colour photography is introduced - a washed-out, Fifties sort of pastel - and Madonna emerges from subterranea to expose herself on roadsides and in pizza parlours. Interspersed throughout are scraps of Madonna-think: a tribute to her vagina ('It smells like a baby to me, fresh and full of life'), a horrifyingly cutesy account of masturbating for the first time ('honey poured from my 14-year-old gash and I wept'). You get the prose.

It is important to point out that, in the majority of the pictures, Madonna looks very beautiful indeed. Nothing, in all the great hoo-ha surrounding Sex, has been more laughable than the stampede of male commentators attesting to her 'ugliness'. (Imagine what havoc these revelations have caused in the Ciccone household - what gnashings of teeth and feverish reassessments of game plan were occasioned when Madonna first heard the dread news: 'John Junor and Auberon Waugh say they don't fancy you.') One hesitates to reach for the standard feminist psychology, but it's hard not to detect a certain fearfulness lurking behind these men's protestations. Aggressively expressed sexual indifference has always been the last refuge of an intimidated scoundrel - the classic male rejoinder to scary women and uppity girls: 'You may think you're hot, baby, but you do nothing for me.' Very unconvincing it is too.

The other popular response to Sex has been a generalised, furrowed-brow sort of concern about its putative 'bad influence' on the young. This has been voiced by women as well as men. Indeed, it is the women who once saw Madonna as a witty feminist role model who have been most alarmist about her latest pornographic incarnation. Previously, they say, Madonna played with traditional images of feminine sexuality in a subversive, 'empowering' way. But now, with sado-masochism and rape fantasies, she has Gone Too Far.

This strikes me as wrong on every count. Madonna was never an appropriate feminist role model (if, indeed, role models are really what feminism requires). What useful lessons did these women think their daughers were learning when Madonna writhed about on a Venetian barge singing 'Like a Virgin'? Or when she flounced in diamonds to 'Material Girl'? True, her career has offered a graphic, self-conscious illustration of how women can use sex to acquire power and money. But this is no more than many femmes fatales from Mae West to Marlene Dietrich have done before her. Sexual power has always been the female domain: the point of feminism, surely, is to lay claim to other kinds of power - ones that aren't predicated on drop-dead looks.

In this regard Sex makes no advances on Madonna's past work. It explores a wider repertoire of sexual power-play and does it rather more explicitly - but given the elaborate distinctions the text makes between consensual acts and abuse, there doesn't seem anything particularly objectionable about that. And insofar as the book makes fantasies about sexual servility and dominance overt, its influence on the sexually immature is surely less insidious than the imagery of her songs and videos.

What is really objectionable in the book is a nasty sort of aesthetic fascism that renders physical beauty the repository of all dignity and power. For all its much-vaunted polymorphous perversity and PC variety of ethnic type, the book remains uncompromisingly banal in its strictures about what constitutes 'sexy'. Fat, Madonna confesses 'is a big problem for me'. Porno movies don't interest her because everyone in them is 'ugly'. One of her sexual nightmares is discovering that her boyfriend has had sex with the chubby singer Cyndi Lauper. Oh, gross] This is high-school mean-mindedness. Worst of all for Madonna, who so badly wants to be 'classy' and hip, it is desperately, irrevocably uncool.

Madonna's graphic erotica is nothing new, apart from the hype: Heinrich Lossow's 'Leda and the Swan' is one of the few reprintable images in the 2,000 years spanned by An Illustrated Anthology of Erotica: Sexual Art and Literature from around the World (Little, Brown pounds 17.50).

(Photograph omitted)

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