Vogue, Vogue, Gender, Repetition, Erasure
I wrote this piece recently on Madonna’s music video “Vogue.” It was fun to write, so I thought I’d edit it and include it here.
Feathers part like curtains to announce the beginning of a performance. Figures impeccably dressed strike poses and are interspersed at intervals between objects of art. In participating in the same space as paintings and sculpture, they acquire the attributes of being visually constructed and topically determined. But, beneath surfaces, there are only more surfaces denying interiority. The figures are thus postured to be apprehended through their presentations. Their personae and their appearances inscribe themselves in each other as they are being simultaneously determined.
In concerning itself thus, “Vogue” lends itself to being read through Butler’s notions of gendered identity as constructed through socially recognized tropes and displaces them to reveal their construction. In calling to question the signifiers of gender, the video eventually pushes beyond Butler into the deterioration of the signifier via Derrida, and an ultimate denial of its power. This particular narrative of the gendered trope in “Vogue” will bracket the racial and sexual discourses also in play for the sake of scope and emphasis.
Butler and “Vogue” intersect in three points in approaching the idea of gendered performance and gender as surface. Both begin by relying on the existence of a recognized system of signifiers, which constantly operate in society within a normative threshold. It anticipates the associative power of the signs it calls upon. They both acknowledge that the relationship of a particular gesture with a gender has become so normalized as to be imperceptible. “Vogue” problematizes this system of signs by interrupting their relationships to their corresponding genders, thereby revealing the social internalization of gendered signs. Simultaneously, it confirms that notions of gender originate from the exterior and can be invoked thus. This idea is punctuated by the evocation of gender through clothing, which itself is constructed covering meant to be placed on top of the body.
The notion of gender as topical thus radically denies notions of essentiality. In Butler, there is no correspondence between a potential interior and the possibilities of the exterior: the body has no obligation to a particular sex. The song is an open invitation to participate in performative and gendered behaviors. Then, both men and women make the same gestures. Thus if anyone and everyone can perform the actions, there is no privilege of the interior essence.
In looking at gender as performed on surfaces and acknowledging its lack of fixity, it becomes something temporally asserted and made present only through repetition for Butler. In the video, performativity and iterative recall take two forms: in the materiality in clothing and in the gestural in dancing. The men are in a state of constant re-dressing the body, re-presenting themselves through and in their clothes in a masculine visual discourse. The dance conversely connotes a femininity that similarly is constructed, as dance itself is conceptualized as a series of motions rhythmically repeated. Its style returns to a few gestural motifs, which are not only recurring, but also executed in multiple. The rhythm driving the dance is Madonna’s voice tripling over itself, “vogue, vogue, vogue.” The aggregation of these repetitions construct a gendered habit, and thus gendered identity.
Yet, there is a limit to reading the video strictly along Butler’s understanding of the behavior of gendered signifiers. Butler’s argument is founded on an idea that the signifier always and absolutely recalls what it refers to. It is constant, total, authoritative, implemented without being reacted upon, the subject and never the object of action. However, the tropes of gender that “Vogue” deploys experience a gradual shift through the process of deployment. It is necessary to call on Derrida here.
Derrida’s signifier is an imperfect construct, never fully productive at its task of conjuring what it refers to, and arbitrarily assigned, void of intrinsic meaning. Thus Derrida postures himself prior to Butler’s initial assumption of the existence of a universal system of gendered signs, and finally extends beyond the bounds of her discourse. Where Butler denied the essence of the subject calling upon the signifier, Derrida denies the essence of the signifier.
Past the middle of the song, Madonna breaks the melody to recite a list of names quoted from classic Hollywood, each recalling a notion of masculinity or femininity. In calling them, she demonstrates their power as signs of gender and their power of recall. Simultaneously, she reduces the complexity of human subjects to points distributed along a bilateral divide. The names thus become highly abstracted symbols in the discourse of the video, made only more so in their presentation in metered rhyme, which re-fragments them as syllables and sounds. The arbitrariness of the signifier is pushed to the forefront in addition to what it necessarily omits and excludes as it functions. Each invocation of a name becomes the active erasure of its own meaning, simultaneously outlining and obscuring.
Usage doubles back, resulting in the negation of the sign’s authority. Women in suits do not become like men, but rather deny the power of the suit to continue to signify maleness. Signs are malleable and contort under use until they eventually cannot carry the weight of meaning at all. Repetition here pushes beyond iterative construction into deconstruction. The dancers’ difference undercuts the coherence of a unified sign and its integrity is unraveled. The sign thus no longer participates in the gendered divide, but gets pushed into a plane that exists beyond binary opposition.
With Derrida, the video loses its obligation to a system of engendering. Just as “Vogue” enters into a space beyond the authority of social significations of gender, it pulls back and recognizes its own status as performance and an exception. Feathers fall back over the performance’s end, drawing the concluding visual parenthesis, and coyly excuses itself from the daily continuum. But even in self-containment within the self-imposed frame, “Vogue” manages to toy with the expectancy of bilateral symmetry.