The western world has an enthusiasm for blondes that amounts to a cultural fetish. As a signifier the blonde is loaded: blondes have more fun, blondes are dumb, blondes are more sexually available, blondes are less capable, less serious, less complicated. The blonde is, in modern day patriarchy, often portrayed as the ideal woman. The Oxford Dictionary defines a Goddess as a female deity or a woman who is adored for her beauty. The Blonde Goddess then is the ultimate contemporary female, worshipped for her appearance, erotically idolised. She may be a Playboy bunny, the hot girl on the beach or the larger than life billboard, but everywhere her image haunts mere mortals: the men who can’t have her and the women who can’t be her.
During the second wave of feminism the Blonde Goddess was vilified as an unrealistic illusion and exploitive fantasy and our enthusiasm for her was roundly challenged. She was a stereotype, feminists cried, a site of oppression, a phoney construct. Men were judged harshly for desiring her and women were discouraged from being her. Well beyond hair colour and its power as signifier the very notion of Goddessness, of being adored for one’s beauty, was considered repressive. Women were called upon to refuse participation in blondeness (in its signifying sense) and Goddessness (in the sense of being revered for attractiveness) and men were chastised for being superficial and chauvinistic.
Nevertheless, decades later, many men continue to lust after her, women (and increasingly younger girls) work ever harder at being her — bleaching, shaving, breast augmenting and botoxing — and the media promotes endless representations of her. If the second wave thought the Blonde Goddess would give up the ghost easily it was mistaken but what their enthusiastic critique did enable is the birth of a new type of Blonde Goddess, one generally considered to be stronger, more empowered and a better role model for the 21st century Miss. Though the likes of Mae West hinted at this type of Blonde Goddess well before Madonna it was not until Madonna’s generation that she went mainstream.
There have been many Blonde Goddess “It girls” — Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield and Debbie Harry (singer of the band Blondie) to name a few, but two in particular stand out as the embodiment of these types; their bodies and identities going beyond the image-making machinery to become a kind of Blonde Goddess performance art. They are Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. The enthusiasm for blondeness and Goddessness routinely gives rise to faddish cultural enthusasisms. In Monroe’s day her curvaceous figure was upheld as the model female form. After Madonna appeared with her bangles and layered tops girls all across America and around the world dressed like her.
Drawing on Angela Carter’s feminist readings of De Sade in The Sadeian Woman and envisioning Monroe and Madonna, two of the most fêted examples of Blonde Goddessness in history, as De Sade’s Justine and Juliette reveals their erotic currency as both couched in patriarchal gender relations and binding us to it. Considering Monroe and Madonna with the Marquis De Sade characters Justine and Juliette in mind illustrates that Goddessness as I’m defining it here — the enthusiasm which with women rely on beauty for affirmation and men’s enthusiastic feeding of that dependence — amounts to a feminine masquerade that disempowers women from a real experience of femaleness, emancipation and eroticism.
When feminists in the 60s and 70s critiqued the Blonde Goddess as the poster-child for good old-fashioned sexism it was women like Monroe they had in mind. What feminists argued for they largely got — access to life beyond the domestic domain, financial autonomy, self-determination — but, as a De Sadian viewing of Madonna will show, we’re still compromised. While many feminists, most notably Andrea Dworkin, rejected the Marquis De Sade, notorious libertine and writer, as a dishonourable pornographer, others, such as Luce Irigaray and Angela Carter, felt he accurately reflected the social structures and relations of western civilisation and was therefore fertile ground for the exploration of what it is to be a woman in our culture.
Justine and Juliette are erotic novels that recount the very different fortunes of two dissimilar sisters. They are beautiful (of course) and as such they are Goddesses, even while being defiled and defiling. Monroe and Madonna are metaphorical sisters in a man's world (and it was an infamous touch of video genius when Madonna acknowledged as much by doing Monroe in the video for “Material Girl” early on in her career). Yet one is a survivor and one isn't. One is living and one is long dead. Monroe is the Blonde Goddess as victim; Madonna is the Blonde Goddess as Villain. Monroe cast a shadow; Madonna has danced with the shadow.
Both Marilyn and Madonna assumed a feminine masquerade so successful, so omnipotent, that they became not just Goddesses, desired by men, admired by women, and emulated by girls, but the most iconic and celebrated Blonde Goddesses of their age. It was, and in Madonna’s case still is, a highly sexualised masquerade that utilises and promotes itself as a commodity. Both women milked this masquerade to achieve notoriety and wealth in a world where women are disadvantaged in the public sphere. Some read this kind of exploitation of erotic desire as a mark of subjugation while others see it as a feminist act: a knowing usage of means toward a self-possessed end, but as Carter will help demonstrate, masquerade is, either way, an artificial construct and our enthusiasm for trading in it comes at a high price.
Monroe, the sexy, fragile child-woman, was the firstborn of the sisters. Her star rose in the moralistic fifties, and by all accounts she spent most of her time in the limelight frustrated by her career and by the studio’s control of it. She was “owned”, and she rebelled against it, fleeing to New York City to study acting at the renowned Actors Studio. She became a devoted student of method acting, a technique that encourages actors to plumb their emotional depths and experiences, though her own psychological instability threatened her career. She was scandalously difficult to work with: chronically late, forgetful, and self-indulgent; and she died alone, intoxicated and naked. Conspiracy theories aside, it seems likely that a cocktail of mental disturbance, man trouble, and substance addiction led to her premature death by overdose in 1962. Monroe’s traditional take on blondeness and Goddessness embodied the purely feminine masquerade and translated to the classic Justine trajectory.
Madonna can be thought of as Monroe’s post-modern younger sister, the next generation of Blonde Goddessness. Known for her self-determination, business savvy and self-control Madonna’s self-parody and decades long survival and triumph in a male dominated industry is remarkable. Perhaps this is where the sisters differ most: Madonna challenges the dominant semiotic code of traditional gender roles in that she combines her feminine masquerade with masculinity, witness the pointy cone bra worn with pinstripe trousers and monocle on the “Blonde Ambition” tour. Madonna is the new blonde — shrewder, more forceful, more man-like. She plays girly in her feminine masquerade, but she does so self-consciously, with a wink, as the second sister who has observed and learned the lesson of the first.
In Carter’s exploration of the characters of Justine and Juliette she notes that when the orphaned girls are turned out of the convent to fend for themselves, Justine, the sister whose goodness and innocence is constantly met with the brutality and betrayal of men, "embarks on a dolorous pilgrimage in which each preferred sanctuary turns out to be a new prison and all the human relations offered her are a form of servitude" (39). During Monroe’s pilgrimage from foster care, to young wife, to teen model, to star she found herself trapped in an abusive studio system that could not nurture her and instead raped her over and over again in the sense that it thwarted her personal aspirations as an actor and her desire for creative autonomy by overpowering her with its demands. Monroe did not own her own life and sexuality so much as function as a site of objectification, a possession of the Tinsel Town suits. In her personal life she was endowed with the “feminine” trait of feeling; she was, like Justine, "the broken heart, the stabbed dove, the violated sepulcher, the persecuted maiden whose virginity is perpetually refreshed by rape” (Carter 49).
In real life and in most of her characters Monroe was kind hearted, generous, caring and compassionate. It is this heart that Justine values most; whatever happens to the body, no matter how impure it becomes, the heart remains sacred. The victim with heart is morally superior to her masters. In a suffering that becomes second nature, "Justine marks the start of a kind of self-regarding female masochism, a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity” (57).
Conspiracy theories and rumors of Monroe's suffering and possible murder at the hands of the Kennedys (cast as evil Sadian masters) abound. Suicide attempts, drug dependency, and nervous breakdowns were the order of the day in her final years. The continuing fascination with Monroe lies in the fact that she was the archetypal sullied virgin. Feminine virtue and goodness require sexual innocence and purity. If Monroe’s innocence (a feature of films like Some Like it Hot) was too often confused with stupidity she made the most of it by cornering the market on bimbo roles (Gentleman Prefer Blondes is her ultimate dumb blonde performance). But even those who thought she couldn’t act realised that her appeal was potent because her innocence was infused with the potentiality of an uncontainable libidinous energy.
Like Justine, Juliette was a woman born into a man's world, but in her corruption Juliette decided beat men at their own game, to transcend her destiny as woman at any cost. Carter says of Juliette:
She is rationality personified and leaves no single cell of her brain unused. She will never obey the fallacious promptings of her heart. Her mind functions like a computer programmed to produce two results for herself — financial profit and libidinal gratification. (79)
Indeed, it could be said that it is financial profit and libidinal gratification that most defines Madonna in the public’s eye. She is obscenely rich and often cited for her calculated re-inventions and assertive sexuality (which peaked in the early nineties with the album Erotica and the graphic Sex book). Madonna, like Juliette, is a story-teller. Even if she isn’t always the author of her songs she creates narrative interplay using song, fashion, and video. Like Juliette Madonna takes control of her destiny. She heads her own production company and is intimately involved with the details of her multi-faceted career.
Like Monroe Madonna is said to have slept around strategically in her pre-stardom years, but unlike Monroe she was not passed around. The men in Madonna’s life early in her career were critical to advancing it. From Dan Gilroy, who helped form her first rock band, the Breakfast Club to DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez, who remixed tracks on her debut album Madonna took every step up the ladder of success guided by a precision instinct for self-preservation and promotion. She was not used up as she used others. Her trail leaves no sign of weakness, just one envelope-pushing accomplishment after another, with a few failures along the way, most notably in film. Though very different central to both Monroe and Madonna’s lives and careers is a mega-watt erotic appeal, an appeal that has everything to do with their respective differential repetitions of being blonde.
In Eroticism Georges Bataille defines eroticism as the fusion of separate objects involving the play of discontinuity and continuity. In Bataille’s work these words have a specific and unconventional meaning. Discontinuity describes our individuality, our separateness from each other, a separateness that reigns in our social and work-a-day lives. Continuity refers to dissolution of separateness that is most associated with death but which is also experienced by way of exalted living through a taste of transcendence. Bataille posits three types of eroticism: physical, emotional and religious and he claims that they all “substitute for the individual isolated discontinuity a feeling of profound continuity” (15).
Here Bataille meets De Sade. In the Introduction to Eroticism Bataille speaks of De Sade’s assertion that we come closest to death (continuity) through the “licentious image.” Further, Bataille declares that eroticism is not just an enthusiasm; it is the enthusiasm of humankind. “It seems to be assumed that man has his being independently of his passions,” he says. “I affirm, on the other hand, that we must never imagine existence except in terms of these passions” (12). He goes on to state that our enthusiasm/eroticism is not just an aspect of our being, but its driving force: “We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear.” (15).
Human beauty is, Bataille suggests, measured by its distance from the animal — the more ethereal (light and unearthly) the female shape and texture, and the less clear its relation to animal reality, the more beautiful — the erotic moment lies in profaning that beauty, reducing it to its animal essence. Perhaps this is another reason why blondeness matters and signifies sex, conferring as it does a halo, an ethereal “light” which evokes the sacredness of continuity while denying the animal (the hairy and base reality of the body). This is the invitation The Blonde Goddess makes to defilement, her begging to be reduced to her private parts.
Juliette/Madonna subverts her blonde invitation to be profaned by actively taking part in the profanation. Madonna has openly embraced gay culture, S & M, exhibitionism, fetishism, role-play and religious symbolism placing herself centre stage at all times. Justine/Monroe attracted erotic victimisation while Juliette/Madonna refused it by sleight of hand, and here again De Sade can help make sense of this.
The works that illustrate this difference between Justine/Monroe and Juliette/Madonna most clearly are The Misfits and Truth or Dare. The Misfits is a beautiful and delicate film, written by Monroe’s then husband, Arthur Miller. The role of Roslyn is rumored to be based on Monroe's own character and her relationship with its three metaphorically dying cowboys reveals an enchanting and pale Justine broken by the dysfunctional and dominating masculinity around her.
In contrast, Truth or Dare is a self styled documentary of Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour. It portrays Madonna striking a pose as the tough-talking Queen of the castle, calling the shots, with a bevy of play-thing pawns scuttling beneath her. But, opposite as these characterisations are, some sameness emanates from the two women in these works. Something haunts the screen and it is this: the sisters’ unavoidable cultural roots as women. Even as Madonna sucks on a bottle in faux fellatio, even as she simulates masturbation on stage or scolds her messy young dancers there is something melancholic about her, a vague relationship to Monroe. And here Carter helps solve the mystery: "She [Juliette] is just as her sister is, a description of a type of female behavior rather than a model of female behavior and her triumph is just as ambivalent as is Justine's disaster. Justine is the thesis, Juliette the antithesis” (79).
In other words, in Carters’ view Justine/Monroe as heart personified maintains the traditional role of woman as body, as one belonging to the private sphere who pays dearly for entering public life, while Juliette/Madonna as reason personified infiltrates the male dominated territory of culture. Unlike Monroe, Madonna gets away with being a public figure, flourishes even, but as Carter’s Juliette, this victory has required her to betray herself in some way. It is “ambivalent” and Madonna doesn’t quite get off scot free.
Madonna has been progressive in that she moved away from the traditional feminine role of body in a forbidding industry, but even though her lucrative maneuvering is more sophisticated than Monroe’s careening, she walks a fine line. In De Sade the sexuality of a libertine is a male identified desire in which women are objectified and exploited. Madonna’s trick is to manifest in feminine masquerade then take an ironic turn in objectifying and exploiting herself in what amounts to a split persona, half woman, half man. In other words she seduces herself under our gaze, and she dares to enjoy it. Ultimately, neither sister can escape the social structure into which she was born. Monroe, who was unable to live as a real woman, lives on as a legend, a Blonde Goddess in the eternal feminine masquerade. Madonna is reborn every time she re-invents herself but it’s hard to tell, with all the costume changing, who the real Madonna is.
It was the unactualised real woman that the second wave tried to free by daring to suggest that she existed and was valuable beyond signification and Goddessness and that she had a right to her own experience of enthusiasm/eroticism rather than being relegated to the role of being the “licentious image” for the male gaze. The attack on the Blonde Goddess underestimated the deeply rooted psychic/emotional conditioning at play on both sides of the Blonde Goddess game. Here we are in a new millennium in which the ‘pornified’ Blonde Goddess is everywhere but even if she’s more unfettered and sexually active that deeply rooted conditioning remains. For Carter neither Justine nor Juliette is a worthy role model for the women of today and it would seem to follow that neither are Monroe nor Madonna. However, Carter does speak of “a future in which might lie the possibility of a synthesis of their modes of being, neither submissive nor aggressive, capable of both thought and feeling” (79).
Blondeness as a signifier and Goddessness as a function inhibit an experience of shared enthusiasm and eroticism between men and women. When Bataille speaks of nakedness he means eroticism as the destruction of the self-contained character that gives rise to an experience of continuity. This kind of absolute nakedness is impossible for those trapped in the cycle of signification and functional relations. I suggest that the liberation project of the second wave of feminism stalled when in our desire to not be Justines we simply became more akin to Juliette. Blondeness as a signifier is still problematic, and Goddessness of the kind I have spoken of here — women’s attachment to using beauty to garner adoration in place of an innate sense of self and worth and men’s willingness to patronise it — is still rampant and both the Justine and Juliette feminine masquerades produce a false economy of enthusiasm and eroticism that denies the experience of authenticity and the true potential of relationship. The challenge now is one that most needs to be met not in the spotlight but in the privacy of our own beings and the forum of our lives as the struggle for synthesis continues in those of us, female and male, blonde, brunette, redhead, black or grey-haired, who long for an experience of ourselves and each other that transcends masquerade.
Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman. London: Virago Press, 1979.
Bataille, Georges. Eroticism. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1987.
Madonna. Erotica. Warner Bros, 1992.
———. “Material Girl.” Like a Virgin. WEA/Warner Bros, 1984.
——— and Steven Meisel. Sex. Warner Bros, 1992.
The Misfits. Dir. John Huston.. MGM, 1961.
Some Like It Hot. Dir. Billy Wilder, Billy. MGM, 1959.
Truth or Dare. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Live/Artisan, 1991.