Erotica / Sex by Madonna: a political statement about female emancipation and freedom

During the whole 1992 election campaign, expressions like ”restore family values” had turned into a political motto in the United States. The Republican party, led by the then President George Bush Senior who was running for the second time and clashing with Democrat Bill Clinton, had based much of their new propaganda on the recovery and preservation of traditional family, whose stability (according to conservatives) was increasingly undermined by the influence of bad habits and social phenomena such as premarital pregnancies, voluntary abortion and, last but not least, civil rights recognition for the homosexual community, which enjoyed strong support from the opposite side.

In May of that year, when an infamous Republican convention was held in San Francisco, Vice President Dan Quayle (an avid defender of nuclear family with offspring rigorously conceived after wedding) took the chance to accuse national TV of connivance for broadcasting in prime time the fourth season of Murphy Brown, a very popular sitcom in which the main character giving name to the series, played by actress Candice Bergen, got pregnant after divorce and chose to raise her child alone, becoming a monoparenthood model: such alternative life choice was actually the most urgent issue worrying fundamentalists, especially those passionate about bringing back the old Christian mindsets and domestic harmony that working fathers and childcaring mothers epitomized in the early ’50s, when an economic boom exploded in the States despite the ongoing Cold War against Soviet Union.

But portraying wives as completely devoted to their husbands, maternal and loyal (temperance and moral integrity were symbolically incarnated by first lady Barbara Bush at the time) implied women were functional to alpha males and denied them any possibility to emancipate themselves, grow professionally and break down the most retrograde of taboos: to explore the different shades of sexuality. It’s no coincidence that the ideologists of the then ruling party used to hold the feminist movement down, even through Quayle’s wife very words at a conference in Houston, where she asserted that becoming brides and giving birth were not just arbitrary aspirations, but natural needs women are bound to.

In such a social and cultural climate, one of the most acclaimed and discussed female pop artists in the world had the nerve to expose herself without regrets, close to presidential elections, promoting what sounded (and looked) like a proper Antirepublican manifesto through a record titled Erotica and a photography book, Sex, released 25 years ago, respectively on the 20th and 21th of October. That woman could only be Madonna, and the 1992/1993 era will always be remembered as the most controversial and dangerous phase of her long career.

Erotica, the album cover

Fifth studio album from the Italo-American diva, Erotica was described as ‘a musical ménage à trois’ on the press release longtime spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg sent to media and critics. Madonna’s partners in crime for her new aural adventure were DJ and remix pioneer Shep Pettibone and rising producer André Betts (whom Lenny Kravitz had introduced to the songstress a few months before). Between pleasant incursions into New York and Philly house music (Fever, Deeper And Deeper, Thief Of Hearts, Words), hip hop beats combined with jazzy and funk elements and piano driven ballads, Erotica turns out to be an unexpectedly eclectic album, mostly content wise. Sung and spoken vocals take turns in line with each track’s mood on a record that doesn’t only embrace predictable topics like sex and love, but also jealousy, female rivalry, emotional meltdowns degenerating into addictions (Bad Girl) and fight against homophobia (Why’s It So Hard), without forgetting to glorify ‘the source of life’ on a sensual ode to cunnilingus (Where Life Begins), far from sounding as explicit as many might guess but cleverly written around the double meaning of the ‘eating out’ expression and the mischievous metaphors that spring to one’s mind when linking lust to food. (”Now what could be better than a home cooked meal? / How you want to eat it depends on how you feel / You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat / Now where else can you go for a meal like that?”).

Sex, on the other side, was not a conventional release. Published by Time Warner, the book consisted of 128 spiral bound pages, with an aluminium cover, collecting raunchy tales and adults only photos that would often and lightly touch the boundary of pornography. Its most iconic pictures show Madonna casting herself as a character named Dita Parlo, whose name she borrowed from the homonymous star of 1930’s silent cinema. Conceived as a nickname for hotel reservations that La Ciccone begins to adopt in ’91, shortly after the release of her Truth Or Dare documentary, Dita evolves into an alter ego with its own nature and personality as shootings for the book and recordings for the album go ahead: she’s a dominatrix, keen on BDSM practices and sexual fetishes, and doesn’t mind role playing with some of her partners. The snaps taken for Sex by Steven Meisel depict her alone and together with extras and celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Vanilla Ice, Isabella Rossellini, Big Daddy Kane and German actor Udo Kier. They range from the sadomasochistic to the homoerotic sphere, from voyeurism to gender ambiguity, passing through obscene acts in public places, orgies, watersports, gerontophilia and whatnot. Be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions, though: despite appearing transgressive and impudently lascivious, Dita remains something fictional, she’s just a persona loquens who gets excited when posing naked for the camera and enjoys sharing filthy stories. She’s doesn’t necessarily reflect what Madonna is in her private and real life. Here’s why the popstar is prudent enough to warn readers with a long preface to the book ending with the following words: ”Everything you’re about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend. But if I were to make my dreams real, I would certainly use condoms. Safe sex saves lives. Pass it on. And by the way, any similarity between characters and events depicted in this book and real persons and events is not only purely coincidental, it’s ridiculous. Nothing in this book is true, I made it all up.” Result? 150,000 copies sold in the United States on the first day.

Erotica and Sex were marked by a deep interdependence, you could listen to the songs featured on the former while flipping the pages of the latter. They were not only distributed by Warner Brothers Records and Time Warner, but also by Maverick, a newborn multimedia company founded by Madonna, her then manager Freddy DeMann and lawyer Ronnie Dashev, that unveiled Ciccone’s latest reinvention: from popstar and performer with an active (yet controversial) film career to talent scout and entrepreneuse. A pure exemplar of empowered and independent woman, to the delight of Bill Clinton’s supporters.

Dita Parlo

On the title track and first single from the LP, Madonna (pardon, Dita!) doesn’t try to turn the listener on with soppy vocals and female seduction. Instead, she demands submission and obedience, armed with handcuffs and whips and flaunting a golden tooth and a black leather mask on her eyes (“Give it up, do as I say / Give it up and let me have my way”). Like much of the book, the whole song is based on the bond between pleasure and pain in a sexual context, two apparently contrasting perceptions that alternate and fuse in BDSM practices (”There’s a certain satisfaction in a little bit of pain / I can see you understand / I can tell that you’re the same / If you’re afraid, well, rise above / I only hurt the ones I love”). The visual transposition of Erotica included excerpts from the making of Sex, shot by French designer Fabien Baron, and scenes with just Madonna as Dita filmed inside the Kitchen Theatre in New York with the help of Bobby Woods. All captured in Super 8mm, in the style of Andy Warhol’s homemade movies, whose spirit actually pervades the entire project (just think that the writing in italics on the book and album cover emulates the calligraphy of Pop Art master’s mother, used on several of his works).

With a pretty austere advisory, in which viewers were warned and advised to go to sleep or switch channel, on October 2, ’92 Kurt Loder introduced the Erotica video world premiere on MTV, strictly broadcasted at midnight and in a censored edit. NBC, instead, refused to air it regardless, while Sony prevented radio station Z100 from renting one of their giant screens in Times Square to debut the clip in the Big Apple’s most crowded place. Despite having banned the Justify My Love video in 1990, this time MTV proved lenient towards Madonna, granting the diva two more night replicas for Erotica (both preceded by further disclaimers) before permanently removing the short film from their schedule.

Anyway, the backlash didn’t take too long before blowing up. ‘Whore’ and ‘witch’ were the most frequent insults addressed to Madonna by journalists and TV personalities, who contributed to feeding the fire on a mediatic pyre set up (not by chance) by Republican influenced press and perpetrated a ‘slut shaming’ ahead of its time against a woman whose only fault was pushing the envelope a bit much. Even in Europe there were cutting remarks and controversies, mainly from religious associations: on the one hand, the Vatican judged Madonna’s latest effort sinful and immoral, urging people to boycott it; on the other, a Parisian Catholic group, Avenir de la Culture, tried to file a lawsuit against the superstar, in vain, asking for every single copy of Sex to be withdrawn and burned as a harmful and misleading vehicle for the French youth. The Holy Inquisition had just begun, indeed.

Although Madonna had repeatedly pointed out it was not her intention to threaten the very essence of family and that she had simply chosen to promote freedom of expression in the most extreme way, Sex represented what puritan and conservative America was afraid of. The core of the matter was that, fear. Being afraid to disclose the innermost cravings, defeating shame and come out, whether it was about sex or any other aspect of life. For this reason, Madonna’s book (a unicum in music and pop culture history) is not just another middle finger raised by a mainstream artist against hypocrisy and bigotry, but also a political statement opposed to the repressive context and time surrounding its release. Moreover, it was the singer in person, openly Democratic, to refute the Republican propaganda regarding family values ​​when, interviewed by Andrew Neil for the British Sunday Times, she bluntly stated: ”To love your family means to accept them, OK. So if your kid comes home and says ‘I’m gay’, George Bush will say that’s wrong, there’s something wrong with him. So he’s not saying ’embrace your family and love them no matter what’. Bullshit about family values.” And to strengthen her point of view, later on, were the election results on November 3, 1992, which allowed Clinton to become the new president, with clear majority of votes, and brought liberalism in the United States after 12 years of GOP.

Contrary to Erotica, Sex is now out of print and can only be purchased through private sellers and online auctions, but the imaginary shaped by Madonna with this book (and with the album), after exactly 25 years, keeps on scaring and intimidating public opinion. In our current society, soiled by sexism and machismo, Dita has been giving incisive lessons and has paved the way to many starlets and pop divas worshipped by the youngest Millennials, yet she still walks the borderline for many. Simply because she wants to be in charge, she punishes her lovers and, most of all, she’s got the pussy.


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