On the re­lease of her film W.E., the su­per­star talks women, power, and sex­u­al­ity

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR ESCAPE - Text by NAOMI WOLF Pho­tographs by TOM MUNRO

Madonna lives be­hind high, spike­topped, black metal walls in three town­houses joined into one on New York’s Up­per East Side. I had to man­age my cove­tous feel­ings as I was ush­ered through the gate and then walked through pris­tine liv­ing rooms, din­ing rooms, and sit­ting ar­eas, all dec­o­rated like the high­est end of Bri­tish ho­tels, in a mélange of blacks and greys. There were glossy black floors and doors, orig­i­nal Ta­mara de Lem­picka paint­ings on the walls, and, I would swear, a wall cov­er­ing made of teal duck feath­ers in at least one bath­room. But I was open to for­giv­ing Madonna all of these signs of her suc­cess be­cause the fact is, I think the wo­man is gutsy, and the risks she has taken in her ca­reer have made the world a bit freer and more in­ter­est­ing for women of my gen­er­a­tion.

In per­son, Madonna is tiny and alarm­ingly fit, and she has the pos­ture of a sea­soned dancer. Her face is more del­i­cate than in pho­tos; one gets the sense that she is aware of her ev­ery ges­ture. She is wear­ing beige slacks with boots and a belted beige sweater over a white shirt; her hair is sim­ply styled in blonde waves. She greets me war­ily and wel­comes me into a quiet study.

Then the sur­prises be­gin. Through­out my for­ma­tive years, when she was so iconic, I had al­ways as­sumed that Madonna had been brave in her choices be­cause of some in­nate ego­tism or some aber­rant strength of will. In per­son, I find she’s been brave in her life desspite lack­ing cer­tain kinds of pro­tec­tion, priv­i­lege, and con­fi­dence. What I hadn’t ex­pected to feel was moved. At 53 years old, Madonna is scrappy, re­ally smart, and young in the way that peo­ple who have had a child­hood trauma—she lost her mother when she was five years old—of­ten seem to be. She is very guarded at times and then, as we speak, more open, even vul­ner­a­ble.

“For some rea­son, I feel like I never left high school, be­cause I still feel that if you don’t fit in, you’re go­ing to get your ass kicked,” she says. “That hasn’t re­ally changed for me. I’ve al­ways been acutely aware of dif­fer­ences and the way you are sup­posed to act if you want to be pop­u­lar.”

I have al­ways been in­trigued with Madonna as a provo­ca­trix, and her lat­est ven­ture is no ex­cep­tion to that record. Her new di­rec­to­rial project is W.E., a cin­e­matic ver­sion of the story of Wal­lis Simp­son, the Amer­i­can di­vor­cée for whom Bri­tish monarch King Ed­ward VIII fa­mously ab­di­cated the throne in 1936. It pre­miered at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val this fall to mixed re­ac­tions and will open state­side in De­cem­ber. “Mak­ing movies is re­ally hard. It’s the hard­est thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

The film, which Madonna also co-wrote, jux­ta­poses Wally (Ab­bie Cor­nish), a modern-day tro­phy wife who has every­thing on pa­per but is trapped in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship, with a myth­i­cal ver­sion of Wal­lis Simp­son, played by An­drea Rise­bor­ough. The two women’s sto­ries in­ter­twine when Wal­lis en­ters the mind of the later Wally and serves as a kind of muse and men­tor to her, at­tempt­ing to spur the young wo­man from de­pressed pas­siv­ity to agency in her own sit­u­a­tion. “Get a life,” Wal­lis says sharply to Wally in one of my favourite scenes.

“I be­lieve some­times we aren’t al­ways in charge of every­thing that we do creatively. We sub­mit to things as we’re go­ing on our own jour­ney,” Madonna says. “Wally was learn­ing about her­self, and so was I—on my own jour­ney and the jour­ney of all women. I don’t work any other way.”

She was drawn to the sub­ject pre­cisely be­cause of how po­lar­is­ing a fig­ure the Duchess of Wind­sor re­mains—an is­sue with which she iden­ti­fies. “When I brought up the sub­ject of Wal­lis Simp­son to peo­ple when I was liv­ing in Eng­land, I was as­tounded by the out­rage that was pro­voked by her name,” Madonna says. “The movie is all about the cult of celebrity,” she adds. “We like to put peo­ple on a pedestal, give them one char­ac­ter trait, and if they step out­side of that shrine-like area that we blocked out for them, then we will pun­ish them. Wal­lis Simp­son be­came fa­mous by de­fault, by cap­tur­ing the heart of the king, but it’s ob­vi­ously a sub­ject I’m con­stantly on the in­side of, and the out­side of.

“I think my be­hav­iour and my life­style threaten a lot of so­cial norms, like the movie does,” she ob­serves. “I think there are a lot of par­al­lels and con­nec­tions.”

For her star, An­drea Rise­bor­ough, it was lib­er­at­ing to work with such a pow­er­ful wo­man on a fe­male-cen­tric film. “I was in­ter­ested in the strong, in­ter­est­ing per­son apart from the pub­lic per­sona, and I was not dis­ap­pointed,” she says of Madonna. “I found it hugely ful­fill­ing.”

Madonna’s work is al­ways strong­est when she reaches into archetypes, and this film places the emer­gence of a wo­man from vic­tim sta­tus (ac­tu­ally, of two women; Wal­lis Simp­son also was abused in her first mar­riage) to mis­tress of her own des­tiny at the heart of the sto­ry­telling. That fo­cus on a wo­man’s jour­ney is very rare in ma­jor fea­ture films. The role of men in the film is also rad­i­cally un­usual: They are pre­sented al­le­gor­i­cally—the vil­lain, the sex ob­ject/nur­turer—in a way that women char­ac­ters are usu­ally por­trayed in re­la­tion to the male hero’s jour­ney.

Some of the crit­i­cal hos­til­ity Madonna faces with this film, I am sure, is a re­flex—our cul­ture’s re­sis­tance to women hav­ing power; di­rect­ing a fea­ture film is a pow­er­ful role, and women are cen­tral to this movie. I work with young women, I am the mother of a daugh­ter, and I wanted to know, how did Madonna’s sense of self emerge so in­tact? “I don’t re­ally know how,” she replies. “I think it’s just that as a creative per­son, in all the dif­fer­ent things that I’ve done or ways that I’ve found to ex­press my­self, I’ve con­sis­tently come up against re­sis­tance in cer­tain ar­eas. I think that the world is not com­fort­able with fe­male sex­u­al­ity. It’s al­ways com­ing from a male point of view, and a wo­man is be­ing ob­jec­ti­fied by a man—and even women are com­fort­able with that. But when a wo­man does it, iron­i­cally, women are un­com­fort­able with it. I think a lot of that has to do with con­di­tion­ing.”

I press fur­ther, won­der­ing how ex­actly she es­caped that con­di­tion­ing. “The fact that I didn’t have a mother helped me in some re­spect, and that I didn’t have a fe­male role model. I was al­ways very aware of sex­ual pol­i­tics, grow­ing up in a Catholic-

Ital­ian fam­ily in the Midwest, see­ing that my broth­ers could do what they wanted but the girls were al­ways told that they needed to dress a cer­tain way, act a cer­tain way. We were told to wear our skirts to our knees, turtle­necks, cover our­selves and not wear makeup, and not do any­thing that would draw at­ten­tion. One of my fa­ther’s fa­mous quotes—and I love him dearly, but he’s very, very old-fash­ioned—was ‘If there were more vir­gins, the world would be a bet­ter place.’”

“Wow, Papa,” I say, laugh­ing. “I’m sure he wouldn’t say that now,” she says. “He’s prob­a­bly cring­ing. Ob­vi­ously, that was when I was young. And then, go­ing to high school, I saw how pop­u­lar girls had to be­have to get the boys. I knew I couldn’t fit into that. So I de­cided to do the op­po­site. I re­fused to wear makeup, to have a hairstyle. I re­fused to shave. I had hairy armpits.”

The young Madonna was “tor­tured”. “The boys in my school would make fun of me,” she con­tin­ues. “‘Hairy mon­ster.’ You know, things like that.”

It wasn’t un­til her teenage years, when she be­gan hang­ing out at gay clubs, that Madonna started to find her­self. “Straight men did not find me at­trac­tive,” she says. “I think they were scared of me be­cause I was dif­fer­ent. I’ve al­ways asked, ‘Why? Why do I have to do that? Why do I have to look this way? Why do I have to dress this way? Why do I have to be­have this way?’”

The na­ture of some of Madonna’s ques­tions has changed, es­pe­cially as she now has four chil­dren: Lour­des, 15; Rocco, 11; and David, 6, and Mercy, 5, who were both adopted from Malawi. I ask about her moth­er­ing phi­los­o­phy. “Well, I say to Lour­des, school­work al­ways comes first, so any­thing that gets in the way of that falls by the way­side. We put our en­ergy in ed­u­ca­tion.” So how does Lour­des man­age her school­work and a cloth­ing line (Ma­te­rial Girl, which launched last year)? “She loves fash­ion and style. She helps de­sign the col­lec­tion. I just stand in the back­ground and watch. I proof­read her blogs and edit them and give her a hard time when I think she’s be­ing a lazy writer.”

She adds, “I also en­cour­age all of my chil­dren to ask ques­tions and in­ves­ti­gate. I never want my chil­dren to come to me and say they want to do some­thing be­cause ev­ery­one else is do­ing it. That doesn’t in­ter­est me at all. You need to tell me your per­sonal rea­sons about why it will ben­e­fit you, what you’re go­ing to get out of it, what it means to you. Other­wise, you’re just a ro­bot. You’re not think­ing for your­self. Where would you go with your life with this kind of at­ti­tude?”

Madonna is frank about the im­pact her celebrity has on her kids: “The other day, I was out on the street with Lour­des. She wasn’t feel­ing well and had a fever,” she says. “She was wear­ing her track­suit bot­toms and her T-shirt, and she turned around and was like, ‘Ugh, there’s a pa­parazzi, and I look like shit!’ I felt for her be­cause, you know, I thought, this is an ex­tra layer. It’s al­ready a chal­lenge to have a teenager, then to have a teenager in New York City, and on top of that, she’s the daugh­ter of some­one fa­mous. It’s a lot. I’m aware of it, and I con­stantly find my­self apol­o­gis­ing for it. But it also pro­vokes many dis­cus­sions with us about what’s real and what isn’t real.”

In ad­di­tion to han­dling a new coun­try and set of schools as a sin­gle mother (she moved back to New York two years ago), Madonna is in a re­la­tion­ship; she is cur­rently see­ing French break­dancer Brahim Zaibat. I spec­u­late, as a sin­gle par­ent my­self, about whether the new model her set-up rep­re­sents (a suc­cess­ful sin­gle wo­man who has her work and her kids and who has taken a lover—or lovers—sim­ply be­cause he makes her happy) is threat­en­ing to pa­tri­ar­chal bound­aries around the idea of fam­ily life.

“Well, it can also be more than just sex­ual, um, ap­pendages,” Madonna an­swers. “I don’t nec­es­sar­ily like to use the word lover be­cause it sounds like they just come over and have sex with you. I as­pire to more than that, and I need more than that.”

Like what, ex­actly? “Some­one to share my in­ner life with. That’s ex­tremely im­por­tant. It’s also im­por­tant that my chil­dren ad­mire and re­spect this part­ner that I would choose for my­self. Es­pe­cially for my sons, who have their fa­ther [ex-hus­band Guy Ritchie], but they need a male role model as well. So I need to keep this in mind: What is this per­son mod­el­ling to my sons, what kind of man is he, what val­ues does he have, what en­ergy is he giv­ing off? Be­cause they are im­pres­sion­able. It’s so im­por­tant.”

What qual­i­ties does she most want her sons to see in a part­ner of hers? She replies, “Re­spect for women and un­der­stand­ing that every­thing must be earned. Those are two big ones.”

Wal­lis Simp­son, of course, had an in­trigu­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a sex­ual sor­cer­ess. “I se­ri­ously doubt it’s true,” Madonna says. “But she was a pow­er­ful wo­man, so it makes sense that peo­ple would make things up about her. When women are per­ceived as pow­er­ful and do­ing some­thing they aren’t sup­posed to be do­ing, they are of­ten por­trayed as sex­ual preda­tors.

“They said that be­cause they couldn’t un­der­stand how she won a king,” she ex­plains. “She wasn’t con­ven­tion­ally pretty, she had the body of a teenage boy, she was di­vorced twice, and by the time she mar­ried the king she couldn’t have chil­dren. What did she have to of­fer? She’s not pretty, fer­tile, or a vir­gin, so she’s use­less. I was ac­tu­ally told once by a Ja­panese wo­man that there’s a phrase for women who are past the mar­ry­ing age: ‘stale cake.’”

Madonna points out that her own age is al­ways a fo­cus. “I find when­ever some­one writes any­thing about me, my age is right af­ter my name,” she says. “It’s al­most like they’re say­ing, ‘Here she is, but re­mem­ber she’s this age, so she’s not that rel­e­vant any­more.’ Or ‘Let’s pun­ish her by re­mind­ing her and ev­ery­one else.’ When you put some­one’s age down, you’re lim­it­ing them.”

She says, “To have fun, that’s the main is­sue. To con­tinue to be a provo­ca­teur, to do what we per­ceive as the realm of young peo­ple, to pro­voke, to be re­bel­lious, to start a rev­o­lu­tion.”

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