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Reviews in American History 30.2 (2002) 295-301

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Spectacular Women

Charles L. Ponce de Leon

Susan A. Glenn. Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. x + 294 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $36.95.

Reading Susan Glenn's fascinating book on female theatrical performers led me to reminisce about graduate school and the fierce—and often ridiculous—arguments that graduate students like myself engaged in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of these arguments concerned Madonna, the chameleon-like pop singer and would-be actress, who was revered by some students but despised by many others.

For her graduate student fans, Madonna was the quintessential postmodern subversive, an adroit, self-conscious rebel who challenged conventional gender roles and normative definitions of sexuality. Employing arguments fusing the insights of Judith Butler with tropes drawn from the repertoire of Hollywood flacks, they insisted that she was an artist of real significance, and that her success demonstrated that the popular culture industries could nurture forces that undermined the dominant culture of "late capitalism." Even more provocatively, a number of Madonna's female fans contended that the singer, known for porno-inspired costumes and videos in which she appeared as a "boy toy," was the postmodern embodiment of feminism. This was too much for those of us, still influenced by the Frankfurt School, who were inclined to view popular culture from a more jaundiced perspective. It was also unacceptable to many self-consciously feminist students who looked to the activists of the so-called "second wave" for appropriate models of feminism and, from this point of view, found Madonna's feminism to be wanting. For her detractors, the mere notion that a figure like Madonna could be subversive was insane, the sort of crazy idea that postmodernists seemed to produce in abundance.

In the years that have elapsed since those often booze-inspired debates, cultural historians have done a great deal of work to provide us with a more sophisticated understanding of popular culture and the social, economic, and political contexts from which it emerged. This new scholarship has enabled us to transcend the narrowly dichotomous view of the popular culture industries that dominated academia for most of the twentieth century—and so [End Page 295] profoundly shaped our graduate school debates. It has encouraged us to see popular culture as a diverse and complex field where a multitude of forces struggle for influence and a range of outcomes are possible. It has also led us to think more seriously about the connections between popular culture and developments in society at large, including political developments that ordinarily have been examined from a more conventional perspective. These insights have not so much resolved the "Madonna question" as made it moot.

Susan Glenn's Female Spectacle is a distinguished addition to this growing literature, among the best books written about popular culture in recent years. Perhaps its most impressive feature is its remarkably nuanced point of view. Glenn, like Madonna's graduate student fans, recognizes the opportunities that the popular culture industries can provide individual artists, and how the efforts of artists can result in unprecedented and important works that have political repercussions that resonate well beyond the world of entertainment. But she also recognizes the constraints under which individual artists in the popular culture industries labor, and that the burdens imposed by these constraints are especially heavy for artists who have strong political and moral commitments. Had Glenn's book been around ten years ago, we might have understood that the key question was not whether or not Madonna was subversive, or whether or not the products created by the popular culture industries were "liberating" for consumers. Rather, the key question involved the "space" available to artists within certain fields and the particular opportunities and constraints that producers and performers confront at specific historical moments. As we now recognize, these opportunities and constraints exert a powerful influence on the products created by the popular culture industries, establishing an evolving, contested set of parameters within which virtually all...


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