A bold feminist statement? – DW – 11/25/2022

When Madonna published her coffee table book “Sex” in 1992, almost everyone was up in arms.

The Vatican called it “morally intolerable,” Japan and India banned it, and some churches in the United States reviewed their business dealings with printing companies as they didn’t want their Bibles going through the same printing presses as “Sex.”

Yet the $50 book — published a day after its accompanying album “Erotica” was released — sold 150,000 copies on its first day of sales in the US and more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. It topped bestseller lists of the Washington Post and the New York Times and remains a much sought-after collector’s item.

A book with an aluminium cover with the word 'Sex' imprinted on it.
A sought-after collectors’ items since 1992Image: Camilla Zenz/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Now, 30 years later, 800 copies of the book are being reissued by Saint Laurent Rive Droite and will be featured at an exhibition from November 29 to December 4, 2022 at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

Curated by the 64-year-old singer and Anthony Vaccarello, large-format prints from the book will be shown in Miami for the first time. Vaccarello is an Italian fashion designer and currently the creative director at Saint Laurent.

A limited number will be signed by Madonna, the proceeds of which will go towards the singer’s Raising Malawi charity via an auction in the upcoming months.

‘Queen of Kink’

The 1992 version of “Sex” came sealed in a Mylar bag — to resemble a wrapped condom.

The 128-page spiral-bound book was encased between aluminium covers and featured photographs by Steven Meisel of nude and semi-nude pictures of Madonna simulating various sex acts and BDSM scenes.

Renowned personalities such as British supermodel Naomi Campbell, model-actress Isabella Rossellini and 90s rapper Vanilla Ice, who Madonna once dated, had cameos.

Madonna had authored it as her alter ego “Mistress Dita” — inspired by 1930s German film actress Dita Parlo.

“It’s not a question of trying to outdo myself,” Madonna told USA Today in 1992. “America has become so repressed sexually, and maybe that’s why people attach that stigma to me — ‘How far will she go?’ Nobody asks Martin Scorsese how he’s going to top himself.”

While there was general consternation regarding the book’s contents, some critics were wryer in their assessment of her attempts to assert her sexuality.

Black and white picture of a seated blond woman wearing underwear and fishnet stockings looking a man in jeans who's standing facing her.
Pictures like these were considered risque in 1992Image: Röhnert/Keystone/picture alliance

“The queen o’ kink draws on the same weary sexual fantasies you see front, back and center in the pages of Penthouse,” USA Today‘s Deirdre Donahue wrote in 1992. “‘Sex isn’t shocking. It’s silly. Slightly pathetic. And worst of all, inadvertently funny.”

After all, Madonna has never shied away from controversy over the course of her career. Her “Like A Prayer” music video featured burning crosses and a Black Jesus that outraged the Catholic church.

Her “Justify My Love” was considered too risqué even by the seemingly revolutionary MTV.

And her live performances were just as eyebrow raising.

Who can forget that lip lock with Britney Spears at 2003 MTV Music Video Awards? Both singers recreated their kiss in September 2021 when Spears married Sam Asghari.

Bold post-feminist work?

In October this year, Madonna reflected via an Instagram story on the changing standards on how women are now allowed to talk about sex and own their sexuality.

“30 years ago I published a book called S.E.X. In addition to photos of me naked there were photos of Men kissing Men, Woman kissing Woman and Me kissing everyone. I also wrote about my sexual fantasies and shared my point of view about sexuality in an ironic way,” she wrote on Instagram.

“I spent the next few years being interviewed by narrow-minded people who tried to shame me for empowering myself as a Woman,” Madonna continued in her post. “I was called a whore, a witch, a heretic and the devil.”

‘You’re welcome’

Though initially condemned for having “gone too far,” latter day reviews have been more favorable, with even academics discussing its merits.

A 2017 Huffington Post article, for instance, points out that “Michael Jackson had been grabbing his crotch for years, and Prince wore an assless pantsuit to the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, but women were only allowed to push so many buttons.”

It further drew comparisons with Madonna’s female peers of the 80s listing how they couched their sexuality in other aesthetics: Cyndi Lauper had a punk persona, Annie Lennox was androgynous, Janet Jackson sang anthems about respect while Whitney Houston projected love-hungry wholesomeness. 

Aram Sinnreich, professor at American University’s School of Communication, was quoted by USA Today in October that Madonna “began to see that she had this opportunity as one of the biggest pop stars in the world … to speak frankly and positively about sexuality in a way that could be liberatory for an entire generation of women.”

Black and white picture of Madonna being embraced by a tattooed man.
Madonna’s ‘Sex’: Once shocking, now seen by many as a bold feminist statementImage: Camilla Zenz/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Meanwhile, Madonna linked her experiences to the current crop of younger female musicians and public figures, suggesting her book paved the way for them to be more open about their sexuality in public.

She wryly commented that rapper Cardi B can now explicitly describe body parts in song, Kim Kardashian can expose her derriere on magazine covers and Miley Cyrus can “come in like a wrecking ball.”

She ended her Instagram post succinctly: “You’re welcome.”

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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