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Madonna: Who's a gold digger now?

October 24, 2008 |  5:59 pm

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With much more serious choices pending for Americans at the polls in just 11 days, the side-taking game surrounding Madonna's collapsed marriage is trivial at best. Commenters on entertainment news message boards declare themselves for "Team Madonna" or "Team Ritchie," but who really cares? It's just another War of Roses, with both sides shaming themselves with displays of materialism and vindictiveness.

But this is Madonna, who's channeled feminine aspirations and anxieties since Sarah Palin's role model Ronald Reagan was in office. It's a pity that her personal life now generates more interest than her art -- the matter of her divorce has become a central theme in the mostly negative reviews of her directorial film debut, "Filth and Wisdom," and the mostly positive ones for her new Sticky & Sweet tour -- but it's also inevitable, given her lifelong devotion to the project of creating herself in public. What's truly sad is that she's seemingly abandoned the aspects of her mission that challenge the culture in favor of simply promoting and preserving her own gain.

Or has she?

In the 1980s, Madonna shocked onstage and in her music, but now we've grown utterly comfortable with bared midriffs, masturbation references and even the language of S&M; they're just part of the blithely exhibitionistic era that Madge herself helped usher in. The imagery she used in her tours, her "Sex" book and her videos pushed an envelope that's been ripped open -- now you can see girl-on-girl action in episodes of "House" and bondage is a joke in a bound-for-Broadway musical.

Madonna herself embraced a more conservative image, though by no means did she conform to old ways. She became a mom without marrying her daughter's dad, Carlos Leon. She wed Ritchie, son Rocco's father, but that union broke another mold -- Ritchie is a decade younger than she is. Her third son, David Banda, was born in Africa and joined the family in a controversial adoption. Madonna also became religious during the last decade, but she's devoted herself to Kabbalah, a mystical Jewish sect that was hardly the obvious path for this former Catholic schoolgirl.

As the entertainment world caught up to her, making it tougher for her to break taboos, Madonna became less controversial and more simply clucked over by gossips. But even sticking with the tabloid fodder, she's still flipping old norms.

Take recent reports that she's been calling Ritchie a "gold digger" -- a term rarely, if ever, associated with the male plaintiff in a divorce. The quote she apparently fed to an anonymous friend didn't invoke the usual term for a money-hungry male -- gigolo, which would have had demeaning sexual connotations for Madge. "Gold digger" feminizes Ritchie and elevates Madonna to the role of the soft-hearted moneybags -- as played, for example, by Tommy Noonan in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a flick we all know she's seen a few times.

The gold digger is also a recurring character in pop music. Madonna may have tossed off the reference in anger, but her word choice shows some of her old cultural savvy. After all, she's played the gold digger herself in song and videos; to brand her soon-to-be-ex with the label signals her final ascension beyond that scrappy role. It also relates, however accidentally, to the present moment of economic struggle and doubt.

The "Gold Diggers" films of the 1930s provided dazzling distraction from the economic hardships of the times. Busby Berkeley's choreography could make even poverty picturesque, while the antic plots celebrated showgirls who lived by their wits but ultimately let love rule. The fact that their hearts usually steered them toward wealthy suitors only made the atmosphere bubblier. In these films, gold diggers could sometimes be conniving, but could plead that they were just looking out for themselves. They represented American pragmatism in a rapidly changing time.

From the Depression on, the gold digger has remained a complicated comic figure in pop culture, a female trickster who upends the boys' club by playing a traditional female role. Independent but not exactly feminist, a champion of the underdog who's not above pulling some tricks to benefit herself, she represents the possibilities and limits of individual empowerment in arenas dominated by men.

Madonna herself refashioned Marilyn Monroe's portrayal of the diamond-loving Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," a 1949 gold digger film, into her "Material Girl" identity. Though in the video she plays the gold-hearted vintage vamp, the song has a twist that makes it very 1980s and all Madonna: "Experience has made me rich and now they're after me," she sings, putting herself forward as the working woman who'll make her own material world, thank you very much.

A few other women have taken on the persona since Madonna christened herself the Material Girl in 1985, but the most noteworthy gold digger of the new century is the one Kanye West described in his hit of 2005. Tweaking a Ray Charles sample (in the original song, the woman gives her man money instead of taking it), West offers a wry meditation on the risky intersections of lust and money.

He admires the gold digger he takes to task -- "Get down girl, go ahead, get down," he chants in the chorus, resigning himself to her charms even when he knows he should demand a pre-nup. And the last verse suggests that a man can be a gold digger too, though on a more modest scale. Admonishing a put-upon girlfriend to stay with her struggling, would-be "baller," West concludes by joking that when he does make it, he'll dump her for a white woman.

The scenario West paints in his song is the same one in which Madonna's offhand bash at Ritchie resonates. When materialism has gone too far, whether in a scene like hip-hop or in a marriage like that of the Ritchies, it can become impossible to separate money hunger from other forms of lust, or love.

It's a sad scenario, and particularly repulsive now that the whole culture's greed is backfire. It's too bad Madonna's least attractive side is now making her more relevant, but you gotta hand it to the woman: she can still tap into our rawest nerve.

--Ann Powers

Photo: AFP / Getty Images

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