Tuning In: Glee's "The Power of Madonna"
In all candor, I wasn't impressed with tonight's episode. Some of my dissatisfaction with "Power" may have to do with lofty expectations. Also, though I like Madonna, I find her contributions to feminism and womankind to be overpraised. Like many pop stars, Madonna has always been relied on producers, songwriters, music video directors, journalists, publicists, stylists, and many others to help her create "Madonna", which challenges just how singular a presence she really is.
Furthermore, while the Material Girl has a robust catalog of pop anthems, I would've been happier to see the cast pay tribute to the work of another empowered female pop star who ruled the 80s: Janet, Ms. Jackson if you're nasty. Jackson's politicized contributions to pop music are often ignored. "Control" is Jackson's salute to her own burgeoning sense of autonomy. "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" is a woman's demand that her partner treat her with the respect she deserves. "The Pleasure Principle" celebrated female desire and sexual agency several years before janet. was released. "Rhythm Nation" urges for a peaceful end to racism. "New Agenda" encourages black women to reclaim their worth after centuries of oppression. "Free Xone" speaks out against homophobia. "What About" interrogates intimate partner abuse. "Together Again" eulogizes a friend of Jackson's who died of AIDS. Ms. Jackson's first name is most certainly not "baby."
Despite Will Schuester using Madonna as a teaching tool because of Sue Sylvester's influence, I found the episode and the incorporation of Madonna's oeuvre to be disappointing. Madonna's role in empowering members of New Directions, the Cheerios, and virginal guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury enforced staid gender stereotyping and pretty conventional attitudes toward sexuality. Most of the girls took Madonna's message to mean self-empowerment through "owning" their sexuality, culminating in a performance of "Like a Virgin." Yet Pillsbury and Rachel Berry remain virgins. I found this unsatisfying, primarily because Finn Hudson does have sex for the first time, but as it's with Cheerio Santana Lopez, who he doesn't care about, he regrets that it "wasn't special."
These exchanges prompt Schuester and Hudson, along with New Directions member Artie Abrams, to recognize that they've been mistreating the ladies in their lives. The guys in New Directions express this musically by rehearsing "What It Feels Like For a Girl." The song choice indicates they've matured in their views toward women and girls through Madonna, as they originally felt uncomfortable performing her songs. They also read the spoken introduction together, which is actually a sampled monologue delivered by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film The Cement Garden. However, some of their actions are misguided acts of chivalry. While Schuester realizes he put too much pressure on Pillsbury, he also persuades her into counseling. As Reihani noted, it would've been nice if she made that call for herself.
I also found it disconcerting that Madonna is upheld as a role model for young girls without any mention of more contemporary female artists. If Fox isn't down with Beth Ditto, Karen O, or M.I.A., what about Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, or Lady Gaga? None of these public figures are perfect, but to have Pillsbury suggest that it's either Madonna or Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or Ann Coulter is outdated and insensitive.
Frankly, the show seemed like 50-minute advertisement for Madonna's Celebration retrospective. Thus, I was also disconcerted by Sylvester's unchecked hero(ine) worship. While I like the connections Sylvester drew between Madonna's and her own commanding presence, I didn't appreciate that she was perhaps the worst perpetrator of the Madonna = sex = power rhetoric the show was espousing. She made the Cheerios date middle school boys, took away their last names, and pumped Madonna songs through the school intercoms. She even denied Pillsbury the ability to listen to Madonna because she didn't own her confidence (i.e., sexuality) enough.
I was surprised by Kurt Hummel and Mercedes Jones, who shook things up in "Power." It turns out they were the ones who created the "Vogue" video we were all talking about last week. They perform "4 Minutes to Save the World" with the Cheerios. They join the squad because, as they explain to Schuester, they are tired of being marginalized. This complaint of course echoes the criticisms many have made about the show relegating token characters to the background. Maybe they can get Quinn Fabray back on the squad, as she hasn't made much noise since the season resumed. I'd be fine with seeing a pregnant cheerleader execute a floor routine on stilts.
But these moments aren't enough. Once again, Berry is showcased in two songs: "Express Yourself" and "Like a Prayer." She and Hudson also do a mash-up of "Borderline" and "Open Your Heart," which is intended to ramp up continued romantic interest in the couple. Jones does tear it up with some solo runs on "Express Yourself" and "Like a Prayer." But this is just as she and the viewers at home predicted, thus making the episode's events at once meet and miss expectations.
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