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Helen West asks what Madonna's critics are afraid of

Personally, I was shocked when I tore off the Bacofoil. Where were the hamsters wrapped in Sellotape, the novice nuns being gang-banged by Leeds United fans? Where were the images that caused the Japanese authorities to censor it and the French, renowned for having more ooh-la-la than the rest of us, to seize the book at customs? The filth that forced the American printers to insist that they remain anonymous? The erotic poses that persuaded Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil to fly 6000 miles to quiz the star? Where was the Sex I'd read about?

The publishers called the collection of Madonna's fantasies the 'dirtiest coffee table book ever'. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic clamoured to publish the photos, while condemning them as 'offensive' and 'pornographic'. The News of the World blasted 'Dirty' Don Trelford, who scooped the British rights to the photos: 'Now mucky toffs can Observer.' Even before he had set eyes on the book, Brian Appleyard claimed in the Times that 'this stuff does not look good and it offends against something that is'. Tory MP Robert Spink, introducing his anti-pornography bill in parliament, condemned Madonna as 'a confused and perverted woman'.

Yet inside its shiny aluminium covers, Sex is surprisingly tame. Pictures of bondage, of masturbation, of lesbian desire, all artfully posed. Pictures of Madonna hitch-hiking in the nude, eating a pizza in the nude, looking over a wall in the nude. Some of the photos are certainly erotic, some are naff, a few humorous. But they are not that different from what you might find in Playboy or Penthouse or even Health and Efficiency, though they are shot with considerably more glamour and panache. Let's face it, this is the stuff that top shelves are made of.

The text that accompanies the photos is often embarrassingly gauche. 'My pussy is the temple of learning', gushes Madonna. 'Sometimes I sit at the edge of the bed and stare into the mirror.' Me and my teenage girlfriends came up with more convincing stuff than this before we'd even had sex.

There is nothing in Sex that Helmut Newton and David Bailey haven't already put in the Unipart calendar or on the coffee table. A week before Sex hit the bookshops, the Telegraph magazine celebrated Bailey's new book If We Shadows as a 'testament to his love of women': 'there are lots of women, many of them naked, some of them in lesbian poses: some of these are of his wife Catherine Dyer, in black underwear or nothing at all.'

But the women Bailey and the Telegraph celebrate know their place in society and the photos they commend picture women as passive and iconic. 'It's because I'm so heterosexual', Bailey told the Telegraph. 'I don't mind them doing it with other women, but I don't want them doing it with men.' Bailey depicts lesbian desire as a bit of harmless fun for the lads to watch.

Madonna, however, is something else. She's not just explicit, she's brazen. She enjoys sex and wants to tell the world about it. She likes to experiment, and to hell with strait-laced morality. (Let's not forget that the Jason Donovan response to discussions on sexuality is the norm for the nineties.) She ruthlessly exploits her sex appeal. And she does it all to an audience of millions. 'Madonna has authority', warned Appleyard, 'a popular right to endorse the virtues of bad behaviour, to celebrate adoles- cent excess. If Madonna is "doing" pornography, it acquires a certain kind of virtue'.

Madonna's critics are furious because she has made sleaze respectable and she shows no shame about it. 'Women in your business', Andrew Neil pontificated in his interview with Madonna, 'sometimes flaunt their bodies - or are forced to flaunt their bodies - to further the start of their careers. When success comes they usually regret they did so. But you...'. 'My career and the choices that I make are not based on what other people do', snapped back Madonna. 'Where is the rule that you can't use your mind and your body from start to finish?'

And there is the nub of the problem for the moralists: Madonna refuses to be straitjacketed by the unwritten rules about the roles that women should play. Unlike many female icons, Madonna is in control, and wants everyone to know it. 'Marilyn Monroe', she once said, 'was a victim and I'm not'. That is just why the Andrew Neils of this world can celebrate Monroe and condemn Madonna.

From her first hit single, 'Like a Virgin', through the 'blasphemous' video 'Like a Prayer' and the sadomasochistic 'Justify My Love' to her latest film Body of Evidence (in which she plays a sadomasochist accused of murdering her rich, old lover during sex), Madonna has caused the guardians of morality to skip a heartbeat. Throughout her career, the questions about Madonna have never been 'Is she a good singer, dancer, actress?', but rather, 'How appropriate is she as a role model for young women today?'.

The publication of Sex coincides with a growing conservative backlash against liberal morality and in defence of 'family values'. From Middle England to Middle America, sexual promiscuity is held up as a mortal threat to society. 'The clutched crotch', claimed Brian Appleyard, 'is to today's youth what the clenched fist was to yesterday's'. Madonna has become the latest whipping girl in this new cultural war in defence of moral standards.

Andrew Neil of the Sunday Times lectured Madonna as if she were singlehandedly responsible for the decline of Anglo-Saxon civilisation . 'So many social problems we face - the ghettos being the worst - are the result of the collapse of the nuclear family. A lot of what happened in the Sixties - and what you are doing is a continuation of that - helped to destroy the nuclear family. The result is a society with too many welfare mothers bringing up kids without a man in the house.' In other words, Madonna is not just a dirty cow, she's also somehow to blame for every problem from unemployment to the Los Angeles riots.

Madonna, as usual, has the last word. 'I'm getting the flak from the people I mostly don't respect at all', she has said. 'In fact if I wasn't criticised by them I'd be mortified....All the things I find shocking, they don't at all. Like poverty, exploitation and conventional morality, which actually makes people accept these things. If they are shocked by me, they can go to hell.'

Battle of the sexes?

Neil Lyndon has created a storm with No More Sex War a tirade against 'the failures of feminism'. Tracey Lauder surveys the debate and talks to one of his critics, writer Yvonne Roberts

Neil Lyndon is a man with a chip on his shoulder and acid on his tongue. In No More Sex War he argues that feminism is a form of totalitarianism comparable to Nazism, and draws parallels between the Holocaust and the abortion of thousands of fetuses. Feminism, argues Lyndon, is the incubus that has visited our society, destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation of sixties radicals (like him), and subjected men to untold injustices.

Lyndon says that the pill and the 1967 Abortion Act liberated women in Britain, but that men are denied equal rights. Men cannot retire at 60, fathers are denied equal access to their children, and so on. Today, writes Lyndon, women use the myth of oppression to excuse 'all the nightmare excesses, the poisonous hostilities and vicious aggressions' which feminists have heaped upon men over the past 20 years.

Lyndon has a particular bee in his bonnet about domestic violence, which he claims is another feminist myth. His main evidence is his personal experience of fights with various girlfriends. 'I was the one who got more badly hurt', he wails, hence proving conclusively that wife- beating is feminist propaganda. He has another interesting line of argument to prove that rape is not really a problem. 'What if the statistics are wrong?', he asks - and goes on to demonstrate that if the statistics were wrong, then rape cannot be of real concern to women.

The crudity of Lyndon's misogynistic arguments occasionally makes you think he must be a skipful of bricks short of a full load. His book generated predictable outrage everywhere from the Guardian women's page to the BBC's Late Show. Yet the arguments in No More Sex War are symptomatic of a wider reaction which is eroding the climate of liberalism that first gave rise to feminism.

While many critics of Lyndon are incensed by his misogyny, the debate has rarely moved beyond the immediate parochial concerns of the chattering classes. The economic and social roots of women's oppression have rarely been addressed. Issues such as abortion rights, nursery facilities or equal pay - issues that are crucial to the vast majority of women in Britain - have featured little in the debate. Instead, much of the discussion has focused on problems of personal relationships and on the individual qualities or failings of men and women. While Lyndon blames women for the problems facing men, most of his feminist critics blame men for the problems facing women. Both sides are united in playing down or ignoring the role of society in shaping women's lives.

This was strikingly illustrated in a public debate between Lyndon and journalist Yvonne Roberts, whose book Mad about Women is a response to No More Sex War. Roberts at one point told the audience that she was going to use the 'C-word - capitalism'. 'My heart leaped for a moment', responded someone from the audience. 'I thought you were going to talk about children.' The pressure which capitalist society puts on working class women raised little debate; the impact of family breakdown on children excited much concern. When a speaker from the floor raised the need for 24-hour nurseries, she faced opposition not just from Lyndon, but from many women in the audience who wanted to celebrate the 'caring, nurturing' side of women's personalities through motherhood.

Yvonne Roberts is aware of the need to break out of the traditional view of women as carers and nurturers. 'The main success of the women's movement', she told me, 'has been to give women a sense of themselves, the feeling that we aren't all born to be mothers and carers'. Economic independence, she observes, is the only real security a woman can have: 'You can't get security from another person.' Roberts argues that the very nature of family life in our society creates tensions between men and women. 'I have seen it with my relatives. As the first, then second, child comes along, the lives of the two people would grow further apart, climax perhaps once a week when he gets his leg over and she gets resentful.'

Roberts herself sometimes slips into seeing men as the problem - for example, she blames the 'male media' for distorting the message of feminism. But she also recognises that the fight against oppression cannot be reduced to a 'battle of the sexes'. In the public debate, Roberts called for a united struggle between men and women on issues like low pay. What does she regard as the feminist agenda for the nineties? 'Childcare is probably the most important issue. It should be subsidised by local authorities, employers and government.' True, though most working class women cannot afford even the 'subsidised' facilities that some councils and employers now provide. What women need is free, round-the-clock childcare.

As for the women's movement, Roberts feels that one of its biggest failings has been its willingness to see women as victims rather than as fighters. 'I hate the whole victim thing', she said. 'One of the ways they try to solve the position of women is to imply that all women were somebody's prey, about to be raped or murdered, or that they aren't responsible for themselves. Somewhere down the line you have to stand fast and say "This is me, I am responsible for myself, I deserve better".'
  • Neil Lyndon, No More Sex War, Sinclair-Stevenson, £14.99 hbk
  • Yvonne Roberts, Mad about Women, Virago, £5.99 pbk

Helen Carradine reports from Tokyo on how the Japanese are turning cuddly

The cult of the cute

The streets of Osaka and Tokyo are full of wannabe cuties. Paranoid young women and ecstatic anorexics alike are squeezed into frilly skirts, cuddly tops and ankle socks. Young men sporting flares scamper across the pavements, snuggling their hands inside their jumper sleeves in an attempt to look like small furry animals. Being cute and cuddly has become a national obsession. Even the punks smell of soap.

Two themes have converged in Japanese fashion in recent years: the ferociously, stylishly modern (that's the good news) and the infantile regression cult. Far from being inscrutable in the traditional po-faced sense of Western stereotypes, people here seem to alternate between pulling the innocently amazed face of a six-year old that has just discovered a dandelion and the look of a one-year old baby who has just mastered the single expression, 'I don't understand anything I'm looking at'.

The bizarre popularity of anything soft, cosy and reminiscent of the nursery is not limited to the youth who actually get to dress up like toddlers. I know a stressed-out office worker in his thirties whose desk is covered with protective glass. Peering from under the surface are the meltingly pretty faces of all the schoolgirl pop idols he has cut out from magazines. On top of the glass sit cuddly animals, bendy rubber Mickey Mouses, a soft patchwork cloth tissue box holder, and pink and white stationary. On his chair is a giant cushion in the form of a blue furry pig.

All right, he is a little extreme. But most people do have a collection of cute thingamibobs hanging around the place. In many ways they have little choice. It is often impossible to buy ordinary things other than in primary colours with a cheerful little chap like 'ampan man' or 'mina tabo' waving at you from it. Take kerompah, the resident imbecile frog (predictably a very childish version of Kermit): he pops up in so many places that I wouldn't be surprised to find his stupid face printed on the end of a condom.

Young people have an almost hysterical obsession with physical appearance. Even your soundest friends will drive you crazy as they lay into their fifth consecutive conversation about what they look like, about what you look like, about what the television weather man looks like. You might think that popular magazines in Britain are obsessed with the question of personal appearance - but wait till you see Japanese magazines. Here, the equivalents of Cosmo or Marie Claire simply do not have the space to advise on those other staples of British magazines, such as how to be good in bed or how to get on in the office. Magazines here are like mail order catalogues, for clothes, cosmetics and anything else to improve your appearance.

Physical self-obsession is so rampant that it has lost all its embarrassing connotations. Guys and girls stare at themselves in little portable comb and mirror gadgets wherever they happen to stop and feel the need to minutely adjust the hair that is likely to be washed twice a day. It's not even as if fashion and style and image are about self-expression: they are more about the need to conform earnestly, thoroughly and flamboyantly.

Noticing Japanese cuteness is not, by the way, my prejudice about a people who happen to be smaller and smoother than your average European. There was certainly more than an element of that prejudice in general MacArthur's remark in 1945 that 'measured by the standards of modern civilisation [the Japanese] would be like a boy of 12 as compared with our development of 45 years'.

The striking thing today, however, is that a cult of immaturity should have blossomed over the very years during which we have seen a dramatic convergence of Japanese society with that of the West. Indeed in some ways the cute phenomenon is a reaction to the Westernisation of Japan.

In the mid-eighties the big pop idol here was Seiko Matsuda. She was called the leading burriko (pretend child) and kawaiiko-chan (little miss cutie). Her decision to have eye operations to give her a more Western appearance signalled her decline. Not only did that offend national sensibilities, it also made her less cute and attractive to her audience.

The term kawaii derived from a word meaning pathetic, vulnerable or weak. Today it means 'desirable' in the most general sense of expressing approval about something. It is not only used to signify being childlike and happy, but also to indicate an attitude of hardworking jollity, upfront simplicity and polite submission. And, surprise, surprise, it is often used in these ways in the context of work.

Many commentators have remarked upon the extent to which kawaii assists the smooth and efficient functioning of Japanese capitalism. Some have even questioned whether the full formation of an adult subject is really necessary. Others have suggested that the cult of the cute reflects Japan's problematic political and cultural relationship with the USA, which has encouraged the growth of a distinct, independent cultural trend which is not challenging or threatening to the senior partner.

Personally, I think that Japanese people have been coping with their lives of tedium and toil by trying to escape into fantasies of sweetness and light, into the childish state of innocence and ignorance where you don't have to think or take responsibility, or even care. In a nation that has become a byword for capitalist advance, personal survival requires a return to the nursery.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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