I recently watched the documentary Strike a Pose. I expected it to be mere pop-culture frivolity, which I don’t often indulge in, but I thought it would help me reminisce about friends that are no longer here and whom I miss. The documentary is the reunion, 25 years later, of the dancers from Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, during which they also produced the ground-breaking Truth or Dare documentary. Anyone who remembers that era, might associate it with the song Express Yourself and with Madonna’s rawest, most sexually uninhibited years.
There were a few key elements of the documentary that moved me. Two of the dancers came out as HIV+ and both teach dance as their profession. One of them died from AIDS-related complications in 1995. A few of them did not make the most of the doors that opened and the opportunities that emerged from having toured with Madonna, and either succumbed to drugs, or alcohol, or both. One of them, Kevin Stea, looks absolutely gorgeous at 47 and is my Platonic crush.
The film struck another chord for me, as I have recently been reading the book The Sculpted Word–which evaluates the ancient sculptures of Epicurus and the other founders of my philosophical tradition from the perspective of art history and of their effect upon the psyche of early converts to Epicurean philosophy. I’ve been thinking about the role of aesthetics and of art in Epicurean spirituality.
Like the Truth of Dare phenomenon did in the “gay” nineties, the documentary revisits the affirmation of the flesh and of carnal desire as an act of power. In the nineties, this affirmation emerged during the AIDS health crisis, as society was hysterical with panic against the gay male community, and certain religious groups waged a cruel war against what they saw as “evil” pleasures.
Let’s take a moment to consider Truth or Dare within the broader project of Madonna’s brand and career. Of Italian and Catholic upbringing, she adopted a self-conscious appropriation of the sacred feminine imagery in her ancestral faith–that of the Virgin Mary, a Goddess in all but name who had been desexualized, made the epitome of obedience, and domesticated by a patriarchal church–and she imbued that imagery with desire, with sex, with all the worldly attributes that the Immaculate Virgin had been denied. Madonna (Our Lady, in Italian) was no longer the pure Queen of Heaven. The name and the icon was now as earthly as it could be re-imagined: the word “Madonna” would forever be associated with one of the most emancipated women in history, a pop icon who is sexually uninhibited and who even proudly calls herself a Material Girl. Material, as in non-Platonic, as in non-heavenly, as in carnal, not merely as in attached to wealth. All the masks, all the hypocrisies of the church, would lay dismantled at her feet throughout her career. The church may consider Madonna a false idol, but is she really the false one? Is the so-called “virgin” Mary a real woman? Are real, wholesome women asexual, Platonized versions of womanhood?
In her video Like a Prayer, we see that a black saint comes to life and is wrongfully convicted for a crime. We also see burning crosses, which hint at the role that religion has played in perpetuating racial oppression in America. In Oh Father, the lyrics say: “If you never wanted to hurt me, why am I running way?”
In Strike a Pose, we see that by dancing, these artistic souls carried out gay liberation. They fought and helped millions of fans to proudly fight the internalized self-loathing, and the external abuse from society. They helped a minority who was powerless to feel power through self-expression. They helped many to be authentic through creativity.
Liberation through dance. Self-creation as an art. Liberation through the mere strike of a pose. Consider that. Where have we heard this before? This is a Nietzschean idea: art as imbued with meaning, as an act of power and of sculpting the self, and of liberation.
Of course, art is not a static thing. We may be able to sculpt our identities by striking a pose, but then–as with a ritual–that moment is gone, and we return to reality, to the world, to a society that is still homophobic. But we are perhaps transformed, as if we had been initiated into a Greek mystery.
We may have mostly forgotten about it, and the younger generations never lived through it, but the legacy of the Truth or Dare phenomenon–and of the “gay” nineties–lives on and these newer generations reap the benefits of that revolutionary, artful embodiment of an inner transformation that happened when it was most needed. And it did as much for the redemption of the flesh and of desire, as it did for gay liberation.