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David Fincher’s Madonna videos hone her style, but dull her radical edge

Madonna David Fincher

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.

According to myth and legend, Madonna and David Fincher collided for a creative and passionate period of personal and artistic growth rivaling other great directors and their blondes: Hughes and Harlow, Hitchcock and Kelly, Hitchcock and Lee, Hitchcock and Hedren. Madonna herself famously compared the relationship to Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.

Articles are often so enamored with the pairing of pop star sensation and wunderkind director that we rarely get to discuss what the four videos they made together: “Express Yourself (1989),” “Oh Father (1989),” “Vogue (1990),” and “Bad Girl (1992)” collectively mean and/or achieve. By focusing almost exclusively on the process behind the making of these videos, we never understand the effects that came afterward.

When we look back with a longer lens, we see just how important these videos are. They gave Fincher the final push of recognition he needed to make his start in features. But, more importantly, they also helped complete the first significant reinvention of Madonna’s career. 

As bell hooks lamented, “after all her daring, her courageous challenging of sexist constructions of female sexuality, Madonna at the peak of her power has stopped pushing against the system. Her new image has no radical edge.”  

By tapping into Fincher’s cinematic, masculine, and commercial eye, Madonna was able to move away from her youthful feminist persona towards a hardened capitalist one. 

Madonna’s Music Videos with David Fincher:

I. “Express Yourself”

For “Express Yourself,” the second single off of her wildly successful post-Sean Penn divorce album, Like a Prayer, Madonna sought out a director who understood her vision for cats amongst Fritz Lang’s Metropolis vibes and found Fincher who had already well established himself in the industry as an auteur-istically-inclined drill sergeant.

The most enduring image from the video is, of course, Madonna in the pinstripe suit. Blazer open, and monocled, she’s flexing bicep, pointing finger gun, and grabbing crotch. She is The Boss. 

This is the fantasy world of a kept woman who is literally chained to the bed of a smarmy industrialist. Throughout the video, Fincher has overlaid images of wet, laboring, and muscular bodies of color in a dark world to continually contrast them with the clean and bright world above. 

In linking these two, Fincher and Madonna draw parallels — the laborer and the kept and chained woman are the same, slaves in their own way. Yet in her fantasy, Madonna doesn’t destroy or even attempt to escape this hellscape of labor. 

She runs the factory instead, “a queen on the throne.” Her idea of liberation is being able to put her “love to the test,” to quality inspect it, to “make him love it” and find the most productive one, the one that will love her till she can’t “come down.” Once we are in her steamy fantasy world, Fincher always has his camera beneath her. In doing so, he perfectly underscores the major themes of subjugation and dominance found in the lyrics of “Express Yourself.” Just like the men in her fantasy, we’re down “on [our] knees.” She looks down at us and must decide if we are worthy. 

Fincher does this expertly outside of the fantasy world as well. He intercuts sexual and violent imagery throughout the video. Men grapple with each other, the pace and tension hightening, as Madonna and The Laborer-Model finally get to fucking. Even the iconic black cat and Madonna lapping up milk from a bowl surface tensions between wild animal nature and domestication. (“Oh Father” will be the only video of theirs to not feature a feline.)

For Fincher and Madonna, sex, sexuality, and desire are all bound forces in need of radical deregulation so that not only unbridled consumption can occur but a consumption of the finest quality. Because “you deserve the best in life, so if the time isn’t right then move on.” Instead of obliterating, questioning, or critiquing the patriarchy, they posit being the patriarchy as freedom instead, a Patriarchy: For Women. 

“Express Yourself” begins the dulling of Madonna’s feminist edge. In using banal symbols of capitalism, masculinity, and slavery, Fincher and Madonna cease pushing back on the system. They embrace a status quo patriarchal pursuit of unlimited desire and pleasure that is explicitly expressed in terms and visuals of control and power in lieu of any true liberation of the body that would express sexuality in metaphors outside of value and domination. For them, liberated feminist sexuality can only be one thing — masculine.

Madonna tries to obfuscate this in the introduction to her book, Sex. “I wouldn’t want a penis,” she pens, “I think I have a dick in my brain. I don’t need one between my legs.” While disavowing the assumed genital association with patriarchy, she seems more than willing to embrace her “dick,” her spiritual masculinity. 

In its positioning of Madonna as boss and the fetishization of the laboring body, “Express Yourself” demonstrates a willful disinterest in shattering the patriarchy in favor of women being able to subject others “like a man.”

II. “Oh Father”

For her third release from the Like A Prayer album, Fincher suggested that Madonna release a video for “Oh Father,” an autobiographical song reconciling with her childhood abuse. It was Madonna’s most personal video to date and concretely positions her within the uneasy feminine trope of the broken angel, daddy’s little girl who lost her “innocence” too soon.

Drawing on Citizen Kane, another film about a media mogul’s lost innocence, Fincher films “Oh Father” in a black and white snowscape with precise use of deep focus to create a cinematic and haunting atmosphere. After Little Madonna loses her mother and her father descends into anger and abuse, Fincher films from more and more disorienting angles as this young Alice is taken to a terrifying Wonderland.

The broken string of pearls become the main symbol of broken purity, something precious unable to be made whole again. Cut back to Adult Madonna in the snow. Fincher lights and frames Madonna in such a way as to elevate her to a level of purity and vulnerability that we have not seen in the Madonna image-canon thus far. 

It’s as if Fincher and Madonna want to silence the critics of her expressive sexuality by deflecting to and with her trauma, completing a classic white woman narrative of absolution through emotional “vulnerability.” So real is this absolution that Fincher has Adult Madonna visit a priest for no reason other than to make a heavy handed pun on the lyrics “oh father I have sinned.”

Everything but the cycle of abuse is broken in this video. Though the chorus lyrics are about her father not being able to hurt her anymore and feeling better about herself, they are sung over images of Madonna enduring domestic violence as an adult. Not-Sean-Penn hits Madonna very close to the camera. There’s a profound yet self-indulgent sadness in how open and vulnerable Fincher has shot the uncomfortable moment to connect past and present.

In becoming and forgiving the patriarchy with “Express Yourself” and “Oh Father,” respectively, Madonna shows her willingness to adopt patriarchal tropes and ideas. She has her own complicated relationship with abuse and unrevolutionary opinions like those she penned in Sex: “I think for the most part if women are in an abusive relationship and they know it and they stay in it, they must be digging it.” These two videos together reveal an unsteady conception of how power should work and play out in (sexual) relationships. 

In the fantasy world of “Express Yourself”, it’s hard to say when power would become abusive. “Oh Father” is a testament to the very dangers of that deregulated power. Yet, she remains noncommittal about how power should work. 

Fincher similarly echoes throughout his filmography with questionably “feminist” characters like Amy Dunne, Meg Altman, or Lisbeth Salander. And while they were at the same time advocating for radically deregulated sexuality, they were also advocating for a radically deregulated culture industry as well.

III. “Vogue”

From the very beginning of the video, it’s clear we are looking at the stuffed corpse of a culture hunted by colonial textual poachers. Nothing about “Vogue” reflects voguing roots in Black queer ballroom culture. Fincher’s repeated use of black and white film immediately confronts us with how white Madonna is. And then we realize how fascinated Fincher has been with Madonna’s whiteness since the beginning. 

The first thing you notice about Madonna in the “Express Yourself” video is her white skin. Fincher has amped the exposure to such a degree that her features are nearly indistinguishable and juxtaposed her the infamous black cat. Madonna is so white in this video she can appear as smoke. Other iconic symbols of whiteness like swans and milk appear. 

It seems a benign aesthetic move until her neck collar and metal chain connects her, the spinning jazz musicians being appraised by her slimy husband, and finally the idealized brown Laborer-Model. Now it’s his dark body that shows off her whiteness and her newly liberated sexuality.

“Oh Father” deliberately sets her amongst equally white things. Even the pearls, the central visual motif for the shattered innocence is also used as an indicator of precious whiteness as well. And the problems with Old Hollywood filming and staging nascent in “Oh Father” get brought out dramatically in “Vogue.”

We need to remember, as Film scholar Richard Dyer said, that the “codes of glamour lighting in Hollywood were developed in relation to white women, to endow them with a glow and radiance that has corresponded with the transcendental rhetoric of popular Christianity.” White skin served as the literal standard for film coloring and lighting, especially when it came to defining what made “beauty.”

Fincher takes full advantage of this with “Vogue.” Filming Madonna in crisp greyscale and craftily playing with lighting to give Madonna that radiant, supposedly “liberated,” glow, the two build upon the brand of whiteness established with “Express Yourself” and purified with “Oh Father.” 

Fincher knows the easiest way to highlight this glowing whiteness is to contrast it against something dark. In “Express Yourself,” it was the black cat and the laborer’s body. “Oh Father” has its play with shadows, statutes, and silhouettes. “Vogue” combines all these and then doubles it by not only capitalizing on the Black body, but on Black culture as well.

Because while there’s the usual Madonna/Fincher positioning of the white female against the Black body as sexual or statuesque props (as is the case for both “Oh Father” and “Vogue”) to mark sexual liberation, they are also using Black culture to prove “coolness” and relevancy. 

By setting this song about a specific form of queer Black expression against the context of Old Hollywood, Madonna and Fincher actively poach basic dance moves and formations from Black people and blanche them in white supremecist standards of beauty and cinema. 

Fincher highlights this by framing the Black bodies that do appear in the video in classical angles and lighting that we established during a time when Black actors could be little more than extras. In Madonna’s entire spoken-word list of great purveyors of beauty and Culture, not a single person of color is mentioned, yet without them, this supposedly “hit” song would not exist. 

IV. “Bad Girl”

For their final collaboration, Fincher and Madonna reteam to use Old Hollywood again, this time to establish Madonna as a “serious” artist with a visual literacy to impress the establishment. “Bad Girl” is a midling video off of her Erotica album, the album accompanying the publication of Sex, which details a femme fatale’s Elektrile dysfunction and her murder against an overlit neo-noir setting.

The video follows Madonna, a “bad girl, drunk by six, kissing someone else’s lips,” as she tries to find fulfillment in sex only to be murdered by a partner, allowing her to join her true love, her guardian angel (Christopher Walken). What is supposed to be Waiting for Mr. Goodbar meets Wings of Desire is a flim-flam patchwork of visual and lyrical cliches. 

This fallen woman is too bossy, “smokes too many cigarettes,” she drinks masculine drinks with the boys and then drinks champagne alone through her tears. The neo-1940s aesthetics attempts to say that “then is still now,” and these stifling attitudes persist. 

But there’s nothing in the lyrics that suggest the need for Madonna to die because of these vices and cement the perpetuation of sexist storytelling. The decision to kill the femme fatale is motivated by little more than wanting to make cinematic allusions.

At best, this is another attempt to silence conservative critics who were outraged at the explicit content of Sex and the two other singles off the Erotica album, “Erotica” and “Justify My Love.” At worst, this is another instance like “Oh Father” in which Madonna and Fincher fail to see the hypocrisy in their invocation of patriarchal tropes, images, and attitudes towards power as being the very cause of Madonna’s discontentment and “downfall.”

Writing with a beleaguered sigh at the publication of Sex, feminist firebrand bell hooks wrote, “currently, Madonna is redefining her public persona in a manner that negates and erases her earlier support for feminist issues.” The essay, which makes up the iconic opening chapter in hooks’ seminal Outlaw Culture, stakes out the ways in which post-”Material Girl” Madonna shifted from a conscious and critical feminist persona to a “colonial” and “antifeminist” one.

But Madonna did not accomplish this alone. She had help. As hooks acknowledges, “Madonna is really only a link in the marketing chain that exploits representations of sexuality and the body for profit,” she writes, “a chain which focuses on images that were once deemed “taboo.” Not wanting to undermine her own hype, the material girl must argue that her images are different – original.” Enter video wunderkind, David Fincher.

The four music videos David Fincher and Madonna made together chart the pivotal steps in this turning away from any sort of recognizably helpful feminism. And neither of them show any signs of putting down these tools. 

Madonna still insists on using Black culture and bodies as props to mark her personal freedoms. Fincher films the ice-pick feminism of Amy in Gone Girl and Lisbeth Salander in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo much the same way he filmed Madonna in “Express Yourself.” Alien3 and Panic Room feature the same weak gender trope reversals that do little more than give a woman “dick energy.” Lisbeth and Amy’s whiteness is essentially a supporting character, given how much Fincher uses it to contrast and blend into the backgrounds.

These are the images hooks has in mind when she says, “Most of the recent images [Madonna] projects in videos, films, and photographs tell women and everyone that the thrill, the big orgasm, the real freedom is having the power to choose to dominate or be dominated.” 

Supported by Fincher’s imagery and aesthetics, Madonna was able to redefine herself as a straight-white-dick-centered and ultimately status quo hedonist, hidden behind a consciously cinematic screen.

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