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John Cameron Mitchell on Madonna’s ‘Desperation’ and Hollywood’s ‘Lazy’ Feminism

"In the early '80s, you had to decide whether you were a Cyndi Lauper or a Madonna person, and there was no question for me," Mitchell said.

Madonna John Cameron Mitchell hedwig

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With her 14th studio album newly released, a politically charged performance at World Pride in New York City, and FX’s “Pose” reminding everyone how “Vogue” helped mainstream ballroom culture, Madonna is back. But while The Queen of Pop has long reigned as an LGBTQ icon, as The Huffington Post’s Matthew Jacobs so thoughtfully observed last week, she has weathered some pretty sharp criticism over the years as well. Chief among them is filmmaker and actor John Cameron Mitchell, best known for creating and embodying his own iconic and chameleonic singer in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“There was a time in the early ’80s when if you were gay you had to decide whether you were a Cyndi Lauper or a Madonna person, and there was no question for me,” Mitchell said during a recent phone interview. “I see no soul there, and it’s all about herself. I appreciate that she spoke up about AIDS and queer people, but there was also a kind of appropriation. I don’t know. I feel like she’s a user. [People] see a sort of desperation in her. She’s trying to remain relevant.”

The film of “Hedwig” (it’s also been a hit Broadway musical) joined the Criterion Collection last month, and IndieWire took the occasion to speak to Mitchell about Hedwig’s legacy. The character, a transsexual cabaret singer from East Berlin, is a paragon of radical sexuality and liberated gender expression. During a talk with the great John Waters earlier this summer, Mitchell called Hedwig’s coerced transition a statement about patriarchy; a consequence of living as a queer person under fascism. Mitchell’s work, while always entertaining, has always been political — he’s one of the few filmmakers who consistently delivers a raucous good time with a healthy dose of subversive ideas.

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As pop feminism and colorful LGBTQ characters have become de rigueur in Hollywood, Mitchell is wary of what he deems “lazy” feminism.

“There’s lazy versions of that. A woman with a gun is not a feminist because she has a gun like men do. That’s the sort of [like saying]: Charlize Theron had a gun in ‘Mad Max: [Fury Road]’. She’s a feminist. No, she’s a killer,” Mitchell said during a recent phone interview. “Empowerment is not always freedom. It’s what you do with the power. Margaret Thatcher had power. She just imitated the bullies. There were so few women of power, that when Maggie Thatcher did come up in the world and Madonna at the same time, from different points of view, people are like, ‘She’s an incredible businesswoman,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s not enough.'”

“I don’t like her music. [People say:] ‘But she’s a feminist.’ I was like, ‘Why? Because she bullies people?’ She’s been mean to people. She also doesn’t write [her music],” he added. “She was an awesome stylist, and I admire her for her style. But I didn’t feel any soul. I didn’t feel [the] generosity and passion that I felt from her competitors.”

Of the recent release of her 14th studio album, Jacobs writes: “The sad thing about Madonna’s disrepute is that doubters have no idea how interesting she still is. ‘Madame X’ is more original than half of what her younger contemporaries are doing.”

While Madonna is more interesting to Mitchell than say, Britney Spears’ “blow-up doll stuff, which is an even worse example of a gay icon,” he laments the loss of the strong woman as gay icon — someone who came up against society’s ideas of womanhood.

“Gay icons for men used to be very strong women, or women who broke the rules. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich. Even in the ’70s it was Barbra Streisand and Cher, who are very strong women who went their own way and sometimes were victims. Marilyn Monroe, but those were more the straight guys’ female idol. The gay ones, there was a fighting going on. I don’t think it was a mistake that Stonewall happened the day after Judy Garland died.”

There are some contemporary artists who strike Mitchell as genuine: He applauds Lady Gaga, but truly reveres Björk.

“I appreciate Lady Gaga’s activism and eclecticism, but there’s a kind of, ‘I want to be something that already existed.’ The quickly shifting to another, ‘You don’t like this look? How about this one?’ As opposed to someone building stuff from the ground up and creating a pure iconography, like Kate Bush or Björk. I’m talking about the female ones because gay men very much relate to the complexity of the female experience,” he said. “The male experience is a hard one too, but perhaps there’s less room to develop in the male box. The box of being a male. Gay men saw women, even though they had less power, that there was more flexibility to feel things, to try things. Men just seemed stuck in a smaller box. There were fewer male gay role models.”

Mitchell draws a fine distinction between the artistry of David Bowie and the pastiche of Madonna’s career.

“There were artists who are chameleons, David Bowie and Madonna are put in the same breath for that reason, but David Bowie was definitely a…magpie. Bits and pieces to line his nest, but he would truly make them his own and write his own songs,” he said. “With her, it felt more like applique, just kind of sticking another sticker on her exercise book as opposed to synthesizing it through your view because she wasn’t really a writer. She was a kind of stylist.”

Mitchell took a breath, and before diving into another topic about which he has just as many opinions, added: “But whatever, that’s neither here nor there. We have much worse problems than Madonna.”

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