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

People and relationships are increasingly transferable

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea