Sarah Churchwell: Madonna, divorce, and the cost of turning into a commodity

People and relationships are increasingly transferable

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In an 1841 essay titled "Compensation", the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that "nature hates monopolies and exceptions," and will therefore always extract compensation for them. The powerful will pay a high price only "to preserve for a short time so conspicuous an appearance before the world," losing in character, happiness, or spirit what they gain materially. "For every thing you have missed, you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something."

It's a consoling philosophy, and I've been reminded of it often over the last weeks, watching the world's economy melt down and wondering where, if at all, compensation would come. But now another prominent meltdown has cast a different light on the question of compensation. I am referring, of course, to the global catastrophe that is the failure of Madonna's marriage.

Most reports have turned instantly, and predictably, to the crudest meaning of compensation: how much money will Madonna pay for her marriage? How much will Guy Ritchie earn? This aspect of the tale at least has the piquancy of gender role reversal, and these days we are even more obsessed with money than usual, but it is also difficult not to greet this story, in the current climate, with a snort of derision and dismissal. Who has time to worry about the dissolution of Madonna's marriage? One suspects that she spends enough time thinking about herself without needing our assistance; and we are all currently preoccupied by our own spectacular dramas, thank you very much.

Most will respond with sympathy or schadenfreude, depending on their nature, and move on. This should please Madonna, who has, in the time-honoured celebrity way, made a plea for us now to respect the privacy she's spent the last 30 years auctioning off.

The question of compensation, in other words, also seems raised by the ways in which celebrities today voluntarily turn themselves into commodities. Most celebrities appear at some point to regret their Faustian pact with the public, because being treated like an object – whether of art, affection, derision, or contempt ultimately doesn't make much difference – isn't consistent with any sense of self.

But self-commodification, whatever its costs, remains emblematic of our transactional view of the world, in which people and relationships come to seem increasingly transferable, and disposable. How else to understand the revolving-door of most celebrities' love lives? While the famous by no means have a monopoly on transient relationships, they certainly have a disproportionate tendency toward them. To be sure, Madonna has some way to go before she achieves the delirious rotational force of an Elizabeth Taylor, or Zsa Zsa Gabor, with their 17 marriages (and one shared husband) between them – but as people grow accustomed to commodifying themselves, selling their privacy, their life stories, their likeness, for the compensations of wealth and fame, it is not hard to imagine this fostering a sense that all people are similarly fungible. Like HR managers, stars behave as if no one is irreplaceable, and meanwhile constantly reinforce their own immanence.

I suspect this may have something to do with the unease expressed over how fast Madonna's divorce has come on the heels of the much-debated adoption of her son David. I don't, myself, accept the notion that it is any more cavalier to divorce the father of an adopted child than of a biological child. Divorce is hard on children, full stop, and our pious shibboleths about the sanctity of family life are frankly risible when judged against the way so many families actually behave.

Furthermore, I have no reason to believe that Madonna doesn't love all of her children, or is in any way a bad mother; and we should give people the benefit of the doubt. But, viewed from a sufficient distance, adoption may start to resemble the flip side of divorce: take one person up, put another person down.

Of course, it's always the mothers who are accused of irresponsibility – and in this, if in no other way, Madonna is subject to the same rules as the rest of us. It seems that we still view powerful women with suspicion, and blame divorces on bad wives.

I don't know whether Emerson is right that nature abhors monopolies and exceptions, but I'm quite sure that most people do. Madonna has been playing by special rules for a long time, and if it is ungenerous to see a reckoning in the failure of her marriage, it seems consistent with the logic of compensation that has dominated the era she helped to define.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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