The Art of Madonna (Part II)

Justify My Love (1990)

The black-and-white European-art style “Justify My Love” video was shot in Paris by director Jean-Baptise Mondino. The video begins with a worn-out Madonna being approached by a stranger in a hotel hallway. While they kiss and prepare to make love, Mondino teases out a series of sexual images, including bisexuality, androgony, cross-dressing, voyeurism and sadomasochism. Madonna leaves the stranger behind and runs down the hallway, laughing. The video ends with the words “poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.”

justify 2

Click here to watch video: http://vimeo.com/59487452

The video is deliberately surreal, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. The furor over the video was all too real. MTV banned the video for its sexual content. Madonna responded by releasing a video-single of the song, which became the best-selling video-single of all time. It was named the “Best Video of the Year” by the critics of Rolling Stone magazine and as one of “Best 100 Videos” of all time by that magazine.

“Justify” asks what constitutes acceptable sexual behaviour in (American) society. For Madonna, sexual behaviour with a woman as its subject was always going to be socially problematic. “I was not objectified,” she explained to Bob Guccione Jr., “and that is unacceptable.” The “Justify” video shows Madonna granting permission to her lover to enter her room, taking control of her fantasy, creating one erotic scene after the next and leaving the man after she’s done with him. While a public backlash was brewing against her for going too far, Camille Paglia defended Madonna for exposing the puritanism and hypocrisy of America.

The video also appealed to sexual sensibilities other than standard male heterosexuality. In presenting, homosexual behaviour, cross-dressing and gender-bending, “Justify” challenged the idea of a  heteronormative America. As Madonna explained, “sex is the metaphor that I use, but for me it’s about love…tolerance, acceptance and saying, ‘Look everybody has different needs and wants and preferences and desire and fantasies.’”

Madonna was not the first mainstream artist to showcase voyeurism, androgony or even bisexuality, but she was the first to present that content as natural outside of the conventions of heterosexual male desire. As J.D. Considine points out, music videos like George Michael’s “Freedom 90” featured lesbianism but as a spectator sport for straight men. “Justify”  on the other hand implied that both bisexual and homosexual desires were acceptable subjects for fantasy.  “These feelings exist” said Madonna in her interview on Nightline defending “Justify,” and “I’m just dealing with that truth here in my video.”

Written by Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Camille Paglia, “Madonna – Finally, a real feminist,” The New York Times, December 4, 1990

J.D. Considine, “How to justify Madonna’s new video?” The Baltimore Sun, December 9, 1990.

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