With sales of Madonna’s latest album, MDNA, at historic lows, it’s not surprising that the accompanying world tour has been less a musical event than a carefully choreographed spectacle of political controversy. Virtually every show included a political statement, tailor-made to the city Madonna’s performing in. In Paris, she put a swastika on right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen’s forehead. In Istanbul, she flashed a nipple. In Washington, D.C., she called President Barack Obama a “black Muslim” — ironically, she later added. Music and Hollywood press covered each concert as its own, sui generis, moment of protest and art.
Madonna’s regional diatribes often seemed dilettantish and desperate, but for a while I was able to convince myself that her catch-all activist stance was well-earned. Or that anyone who said otherwise was sexist, anyway, eager to tear down a woman determined to be a sex symbol into her Social Security–collecting years. After all, wasn’t the rosary-desecrating foe of the Vatican a natural ally for Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band locked up for two years for performing in a Russian Orthodox church? Pussy Riot was excited by Madonna’s in-concert tribute, and their plight only served to remind me how sacred Madonna’s, and all of our freedom to strip down and say dumb things is. Until now.
On Wednesday, Madonna slotted Malala Yousafzai into the current events portion of her Los Angeles set list. A 14-year-old Pakistani, Yousufzai has been a brave advocate of girls’ education rights since the Taliban in her home Swat region forbade girls from attending school in 2009. Last week, she and two friends were critically wounded by a Taliban gunman who opened fired on their school bus. Yousufzai is still unconscious.
In earlier concerts, Madonna had voiced her support for political causes by stripping down to her bra, turning away from the audience to reveal the name of the cause du jour — “Obama,” “Pussy Riot” — stenciled on her back, and dedicating the song “Human Nature” to them.
“Express yourself/Don’t repress yourself.”
And despite the much more delicate circumstances surrounding Yousufzai’s cause, Madonna’s Los Angeles tribute was no different. Bra, back tattoo, song. I take that back: Photos from the concert show that Madonna also stripped down to her thong and fishnets.
On one level, I know I should be glad that Madonna is raising awareness for a cause I care about. And that I shouldn’t expect much cultural sensitivity from a woman who wore a bindi and sari for the length of one album’s promotion in the nineties. But this prefabricated protest leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Stenciling Malala’s name on her back, though a reliable way to get pictures of her still-hot-at-54 body circulated, seems like a clear provocation against Muslim modesty. Her quickness to link sweet, scarf-wearing Yousufzai’s fight for education with her own first-world fight for hyper-sexualized free speech — “Did I say something wrong?/Oops I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex.” — reveals how narcissistic her politics are.
“This made me cry,” Madonna said, of Yousufzai.
“Do you understand the sickness and absurdity of this?” she added.
Um, yes, Madonna.
Yousafzai was airlifted out of Pakistan to the U.K. today, so there’s reason to hope she’ll recover in safety. But it’s worth asking whether Madonna didn’t further endanger Yousufzai by using her one-size-fits-all protest on her. The Taliban, which quickly took credit for Yousafzai’s shooting, has vowed to kill her as retribution for her “obscenity.” Here’s what qualifies as obscene: “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” a Taliban spokesman told Reuters. “She was young but she was promoting Western culture.”Now she’s being promoted by Western culture, too, a faction of it that even I think is gratuitously lewd upon occasion.
As for Pakistanis, the tweets and comments on news articles and YouTube videos of Madonna’s performance are a mixed bag. Some express gratitude for an international celebrity’s support of “Pakistan’s daughter.” Others are appalled by the publicity play, which disrespects Yousufzai’s cause and condition. Still others wonder, rightly, when Madonna will dedicate a song to the innocent women and children killed in U.S. drone strikes on Pakistan.