There goes Madonna, classing up the joint again. To show her support of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot and critically wounded by the Taliban because of her advocacy for girls' education, the Material Girl (a.k.a. Madge, Esther, the Queen of Pop, the Hottest Bod in the AARP) took the opportunity during a recent concert at L.A.'s Staples Center to pull her pants down and reveal a (fake) tattoo of the girl's name inked across the small of her back.
Take that, Taliban! Mess with girls' education and you're messing with a 54-year-old pop star in a leather corset.
Malala was attacked Oct. 9 when Taliban militants stopped her school bus and shot her. She underwent surgery in a Pakistani hospital and was transported Monday to a medical facility in Britain. Meanwhile, the Taliban announced that if Malala does not succumb to her injuries, it will finish the job by killing her or her father. (Malala's father, a poet, is also an educational activist who owns a chain of schools.)
Malala was already famous in Pakistan. In 2009, when the Taliban shut down girls schools in her area, she began writing a blog for the BBC. Last year, she became the first recipient of Pakistan's National Youth Prize, and Desmond Tutu nominated her for an International Children's Peace Prize. Meanwhile, a Pakistani group called the National Youth Assembly has appealed to the government to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
And if all that weren't enough, now Malala has received (quite literally) the ultimate stamp of approval in America: her name spelled out across Madonna's backside.
If only Malala were conscious and aware of this honor! How proud she would be to share the company of other recent Madonna causes, such as the persecuted Russian punk band Pussy Riot. How gratified she'd be knowing she was among the many straws at which Madonna is grasping as her latest album, "MDNA," delivers some of the worst sales of her career. How humbled that she provided an American woman for whom education was a given (and who even attended college) with an occasion to take her clothes off in front of about 20,000 people.
Madonna's activism has been particularly wearying of late. At an August concert, she superimposed a swastika on the forehead of French politician Marine Le Pen; the next month she "ironically" called President Barack Obama a "black Muslim" while "endorsing" him at a performance in Washington. But somehow her co-opting of the attack on Malala leaves an especially sour taste in the mouth, and not just because it seems a wee bit tone deaf to honor a modest Muslim girl by stripping down to your underwear and displaying her name on your skin.
No, what's most troubling about Madonna's "Malala moment" is that it doesn't promote Malala's message as much as twist it.
With her head scarf and her earnest, un-primped face, Malala symbolizes the idea that girls can transcend their status as potentially exploitable sex objects. Madonna doesn't transcend objectification, she courts it. Sure, she tried to start a girls school in Malawi, but the feminism she's best known for is one that constantly plays with the archetypes of female sexual objectification: the cheerleader, the Catholic schoolgirl, the femme fatale, the dominatrix. She may intend it as cleverly transgressive, but to a lot of people — particularly those less accustomed to viewing everything through an ironic lens — it looks like plain and simple depravity
With her relentless self-promotion, envelope pushing and obsession with her body, Madonna is, in a very real sense, an extremist. And, sadly, that means she taps right into extremist ideas about "Western freedom" and what happens when women gain power, not to mention an education. In other words, by "supporting" Malala, Madonna might be putting the teenager even more into harm's way.
Of course, what matters most right now is not sexual politics but Malala's condition. Doctors call her prognosis good, but her treatment and rehabilitation could take months. In the meantime, maybe Madonna should find a new stencil for her back. After Tuesday's presidential debate, the word "binders" ought to fit nicely.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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