• Lauded of being in control of her own sexuality, Madonna takes it away from others, argues Melinda Tankard Reist. (Getty Images)
In exposing the breast of a 17-year-old fan, Madonna sets back campaigns for respect and consent, writes Melinda Tankard Reist.
By
Melinda Tankard Reist

29 Mar 2016 - 1:39 PM  UPDATED 1 Apr 2016 - 4:24 PM

There were the tired and predictable sexual props.

The pole dancing. The sexualised dancers dressed as nuns.

The on-stage spanking by her dancers, crew and band (all 19 of them) as she lay face down across the knees of one of them before her skirt was wrenched up.

The porny pantomime of bending-over for maximum genital exposure; the de rigueur playing with her crotch.

But this time – at the Australia end of her 7-month 4-continent, 82-gig, $1.31 billion-earning Rebel Heart tour – Madonna introduced a new sexual prop.

A living one. A fan, 17 years of age.

The 57 year old mega star acknowledged a star-struck Gold Coast barista and aspiring model, by pulling down her corset top and exposing her left breast to the audience – and to the world (forever).

Madonna told the audience that the young woman – two years younger than her own daughter Lourdes – was ‘the kind of girl you just want to slap on the ass and pull’. (‘Pull’ is helpfully defined in Urban Dictionary as ‘Word used to describe the successful act of attracting a person to such an extent that you would be able to snog or perhaps bone them if you so desired’).

Given Madonna’s declaring of such a fantasy toward the young woman, talk of what followed as being an ‘accident’ is barely believable.

Madonna, having essentially ‘groomed’ the teen by telling her she had the body of a Victoria Secret Model, then aggressively exposed the girl’s breast.

‘Oh s---. Oh sorry, sexual harassment. You can do the same to me, good luck,’ Madonna said flippantly.

In these few seconds the material girl gave an ‘up yours’ to global campaigns around respect, consent, bodily integrity and the right of any woman anywhere to say ‘no’.

This is the same woman who derided Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 Superbowl 'wardrobe malfunction' by saying: 'You don’t have to show your nipples to be interesting, and it doesn’t mean you’re cutting edge if you do.'

But exposing another woman’s nipples is OK and cutting edge, apparently.

This was an intrusive, non-consensual act, with all the elements of abuse present. An archetypal gesture of sexual harassment, played for entertainment.

Madonna once declared ‘Behind everything I do, there’s a tongue-in-cheek comment on myself, or a more serious message on the social level.’ (Georges-Claude Guilbert, ‘How One Star’s Self-Construction Rewrites Sex, Gender, Hollywood and the American Dream’ (2002)). The more serious message here is that my right to earn money by sexually humiliating you in public takes precedent over your integrity.

Madonna has been hailed for ‘her interpretations of feminine power, gender relations, sexuality and cultural identity. She has been described as a “threat to the status quo”.’

In the scenario on the Brisbane concert stage, the only plausible interpretation of feminine power is that Madonna holds it and a 17 year old girl does not. And a ‘threat to the status quo’? When considering the power dynamics (mega star, young fan), the age difference (40 years), the star’s massive wealth as a global pop culture icon, Madonna’s actions serve to reinforce the status quo when it comes to lauding it over women who have less power in the world.

This was an intrusive, non-consensual act, with all the elements of abuse present. An archetypal gesture of sexual harassment, played for entertainment.

This act conveys that exposing the breasts of a teen girl who only a few months ago would have been deemed a ‘minor’ is now just part of what constitutes entertainment.

It says that any young woman should enjoy uninvited sexual attention. That it comes from another woman suggests how an ascendant ‘lads culture’ is now mimicked by some women.

It allows some men to say – ‘See, women are just as bad’. They’re not of course, but it helps them justify their own behaviour.

The glib comment ‘Oh sorry, sexual harassment’ - mocks what sexual harassment means in the lived experience of women (documented in a book I just launched, Whispers from the Bush by Dr Syke Saunders, about the sexual harassment of women in rural areas). Madonna even featured convicted rapist Mike Tyson in the opening video to her shows, hardly a measure of support or empowerment to victims of sexual violence.

The young woman did not choose to expose herself on stage before an audience. Madonna chose this for her, chose to make a spectacle of the woman and of her vulnerability. 

Cue: ‘But she enjoyed it!’

The young woman said she wasn’t ashamed about the incident: ‘Why would people assume I am humiliated by my own breast, nipple or body? I didn't realise my boob was such a big deal – it was nothing to me.’

Girls are overwhelmingly socialised to put others’ feelings before their own. Girls are still taught to shrug and downplay everything as if it's no big deal.

Girls are overwhelmingly socialised to put others’ feelings before their own. Girls are still taught to shrug and downplay everything as if it's no big deal.

The young woman was launched into this very publicly. She has been rewarded with media exposure, thousands of additional Instagram followers, validation and attention for a ‘hot’ body, flights and VIP seats for her and her mum to Madonna’s final Sydney concert, being singled out again by the star (‘beautiful Josephine’), and being thrown – like a bridesmaid – a bouquet of flowers. 

How can this young woman complain now? She would look ungrateful. As a whole, Madonna’s conduct takes on the appearance of classic abuse – harm followed by a making up so that the victim feels they can't do or say anything without being disloyal and ungrateful.

This is not about whether young women should be ashamed of their bodies. Of course they shouldn’t be. This is about an act done to a woman that was uninvited and unasked for. A powerful older woman who should know better has made a decision to have this girl’s name and body exposed forever. 

There is little room here for talk of irony, paradox, reinvention, or of Madonna as transgressive. Repeating a mantra that Madonna helps women feel empowered, that she is a feminist patron saint and feminist role model does not make the grade. What we witnessed is the antithesis of empowerment for women.

Lauded of being in control of her own sexuality, Madonna takes it away from others.

Madonna has turned her back on the cause of women.

 

Melinda Tankard Reist is a writer, speaker and co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.

 

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