Gay Iconography | Madonna

Gay Iconography: Happy Birthday, Madonna


Fifty-six years ago today, in Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone came into this world. More than half a century later, the pop landscape is forever changed.

The Queen of Pop’s legacy extends beyond the more than 300 million records she’s sold worldwide. She’s appeared in films (with varying degrees of success), written children’s books and inspired an entire generation of pop stars. But what makes Madonna so iconic — worthy of not just a college class devoted to her impact, but to an entire academic field of study — is her mastery of multimedia, sexual defiance and ceaseless reinvention.

Friends with Keith Haring and a member of the 1980s New York downtown arts scene, Madonna grew out of a heavily queer community. (She’s even attributed her initial push to pursue stardom to her gay ballet teacher.) Madonna’s sound and image pulses with queer sensibility, from the gay ballroom culture referenced in “Vogue” (or “borrowed,” if you’re being kind; “misappropriated” if you’re being serious) to the sweaty rhythms ripped from the clubs. She’s loudly championed equality, spoke out on the AIDS crisis, and, though her track record is far from flawless, she’s driven a huge amount of conversation about queer issues into the mainstream consciousness.

Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it: Celebrate the birthday [material] girl with some of our favorite clips, AFTER THE JUMP


MTV’s Video Music Awards have yet to create a more memorable performance than Madonna’s rendition of “Like A Virgin” at the very first show in 1984. The scene is etched in the collective consciousness: A young Madonna, clad in a wedding dress, descends a massive wedding cake and writhes on stage. It was a definitive moment for Madonna, the network and American pop music.


Madge inked a sweet endorsement deal with Pepsi in 1989 before dropping the video for “Like A Prayer.” The video for the Madonna classic provoked the ire of the Vatican for its controversial use of Catholic symbolism. Eventually the uproar from the religious community forced Pepsi to cancel her contract, but the song reached number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 15 million copies worldwide.


Her music has crossed many genres, including disco, dance and hip-hop. (Let’s not talk about the rapping.) A constant chameleon, one example of Madonna’s stylistic shifts was her interest in ‘90s dance and rave music, which she incorporated into her album Ray Of Light in 1998.

Pop stars who grew up watching Madonna dance and “sing” into a headset mic are still overtaking the charts today. Sure, there was Britney and Christina (whom Madonna famously kissed at the VMAs in 2003), but also Katy Perry, P!nk and, of course, Lady Gaga. The list goes on and on. You can see her duet with another Madonna-inspired star, Miley Cyrus, in the clip above.


For as much carrying on as folks do about Madonna’s controversies and image, it’s easy to overlook her very real talents. No one is going to argue she’s a powerhouse singer, but she is a skilled lyricist and songwriter. As just one example, she received praise from fellow pop-songwriting masters ABBA on her track “Hung Up,” which samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” They called it “a wonderful track - 100 percent solid pop music.” 

With someone as prolific (and divisive) as Madonna, there’s always lots to discuss. We've only barely touched on why Madonna matters. Share your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. LOL. Nice tribute esp. the part where you get her age wrong.

    Posted by: Sean Maloney | Aug 16, 2014 1:02:51 PM

  2. I have never liked this woman.

    Posted by: Mike Ryan | Aug 16, 2014 1:07:57 PM

  3. She's 56 today. All hail The Queen! :o)

    Posted by: SpaceCadet | Aug 16, 2014 1:12:59 PM

    Not 58.
    Don't hurry it along...

    Posted by: Brick | Aug 16, 2014 1:14:00 PM

  5. 56, Aug 16, 1958

    Posted by: eric | Aug 16, 2014 1:14:37 PM

  6. Star light, star bright
    First star I see tonight

    You must be my lucky star
    Cause you shine on me wherever you are.


    Posted by: Brick | Aug 16, 2014 1:15:16 PM

  7. "Queer community", "queer sensibility", "queer issues" = fictional concepts that spring from a deeply heterosexist mentality. Quiet as it's kept, non-heterosexual does not automatically translate into "queer".

    Posted by: Stuffed Animal | Aug 16, 2014 1:16:30 PM

  8. i remember playing Ray Of Light continuously on my CD player and disc man back in 1998. That album changed me, i was 16, and truly - truly - was part of the collective of art and literature that inspired me to come out. my mum used to talk about my sister and i, dancing in the back yard to madonna and david bowie tapes in the 1980s - even as a kid i had that connection to her music. i've been listening to her for as long as i can remember.

    happy birthday! and thanks for the music. saw her Reinvention and MDNA tours ( Reinvention was FREAKING INCREDIBLE) and her rendition of "another suitcase in another hall" has been a staple of my family's music playlists for years.

    i hope she starts to get back the borderline-acoustic guitar sounds she was exploring in Music and American Life - it was a totally interesting avenue for her, and I wish she'd explore it more.

    X-Static Process, Nothing Fails, Gone, Easy Ride....all incredibly underrated songs, which her matured vocals utterly NAIL.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 16, 2014 1:16:48 PM

  9. @Little Kiwi. I hope you're still saving up for hair transplants.

    Posted by: Jas | Aug 16, 2014 1:21:53 PM

  10. @Jas - illness may have taken my hair years ago (and 6 months of my life, confined to a bed, for what it's worth) but it did not kill me, nor rob me of my voice, my drive or my ability to stand up to be counted.

    Now, feel free to talk about Madonna, rather than wasting another day trolling to get my attention.

    Posted by: Little Kiwi | Aug 16, 2014 1:25:44 PM

  11. Updated age above, thanks for the catch.

    Posted by: Bobby | Aug 16, 2014 1:37:08 PM

  12. the like a prayer video feels like a short film, with racial undertones that still resonate today. brilliant in its day.

    Posted by: george | Aug 16, 2014 1:49:03 PM

  13. Nothing more than a blood sucking leech.

    Posted by: Lazycrockett | Aug 16, 2014 2:05:38 PM

  14. Happy Birthday, Madonna!

    Posted by: jamal49 | Aug 16, 2014 2:48:37 PM

  15. Hating Madonna is not a talent by the way....

    Posted by: rochon | Aug 16, 2014 3:29:32 PM

  16. It is worth noting that this "gay icon" has contributed nothing of her 9-figure net worth to the cause of gay equality. She has given nothing to GLSEN or the Trevor Project. She gave nothing to fight Prop 8 or any other anti-gay ballot measure. She has never supported a community center or a youth shelter. She failed to support gay people in Malawi. (And BTW, she never built that school in Malawi either, after taking in millions in donations and displacing residents from a large parcel of property.)

    The last thing that she did for us was an AIDS benefit concert. In 1986.

    Contrast that with people like Brad Pitt, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight anti-gay ballot measures in 5 states and lent his name and talent to the play "8". Or Daniel Radcliffe, who has passionately supported the Trevor Project. Or Chris Kluwe, who just spent a lot of his own money on lawyers to hold the Vikings accountable for their homophobia.

    Why some people continue to glorify exploiters like Madonna and Bette Midler is beyond me.

    Posted by: Jon | Aug 16, 2014 3:41:46 PM

  17. @Stuffed Animal - Agree 100%. Don't know Bobby Hankinson, but the fact that he so casually refers to gay people as "queer" suggests he has some real issues with self-acceptance. Either that or he is just really old and thinks that it is still 1991.

    @Little Kiwi - Sorry about your hair. If it is any consolation, you were as awful person with hair as without. What is this mystery illness which caused alopecia? Was it pathological rage, dementia, or repeated bouts of syphilis?

    Posted by: Mike | Aug 16, 2014 3:51:52 PM

  18. "Why some people continue to glorify exploiters like Madonna and Bette Midler is beyond me."

    Because effeminate gay men see bitchy, slutty women who hate and exploit men as vehicles for their "revenge" against a male culture that rejects them. Never mind that these women they live vicariously through are either oblivious to them or in many cases downright hostile to virtually all of them are. In the effeminate gay man's screwed-up, emotionally-damaged mind, these women "represent" him.

    And as for all the men you mentioned who have done far more for gay causes than any of these female "icons"? For the effeminate gay man to embrace them, he would have to embrace maleness--and all that goes along with other words, he would have to give up thinking of himself as a pseudo-woman and thinking of men as some kind of alien species.....and start thinking of himself as being a man, himself, which would cause excruciating mental pain when he surrendered his masculinity a long time ago, after internalizing the notion that being attracted to other men makes one devoid of masculinity.

    Madonna is perhaps therefore perhaps the ultimate vehicle for the perpetrators and practitioners of the culture of effeminacy--as bitchy and slutty as it gets and prone to use men for her own purposes and them discard them.

    The whole iconization of such women by effeminate gay men is truly sick and pathetic, but, then again, so are they.....

    Posted by: Rick | Aug 16, 2014 4:14:57 PM

  19. While I applaud her sense of activism regarding our community, as an "artist" she always falls short. It isn't because I think she's bad at what she's her mediocrity that has always bothered me. She isn't a great singer,her songs are bland and as for her acting she's barely believable. I realize there are some gay men out there who will feel that I'm committing blasphemy, but that's just how I feel.

    Posted by: rebarb | Aug 16, 2014 4:28:14 PM

  20. "as an "artist" she always falls short."

    That, too. Even using the term "artist" in connection with a purveyor of formulaic bubble-gum pop with a disco beat is absurd. She will be totally forgotten 20 years from now--at least some of the "icons" like Streisand actually have real talent....not that that makes the "iconization" of them by effeminate gay men any less ridiculous and pathetic.

    Posted by: Rick | Aug 16, 2014 4:41:16 PM

  21. Bring the original Diva and Champion of Equality: Cyndi Lauper! Tony, Emmy, Grammy Winner Ms. Lauper is and will always be the talented one!

    Posted by: Josh | Aug 16, 2014 4:45:59 PM

  22. How come Rick, Rebarb, and JON all have the same IP address? Hmm.....

    Posted by: John Enos | Aug 16, 2014 4:46:09 PM

  23. Rick, those are really 2 different issues. Whether it is healthy for gay men to identify with women is one issue. My view is that there is nothing wrong with gay men having a female icon or role model as a long as we admire her for some universal character trait or some talent or achievement. For example, I admire Elizabeth Warren and astronaut/scientist Mae Jemison. Not because they are women or because I see myself as a woman, but because of their accomplishments and values. IMO, it is unhealthy for gay men to idolize women for their dysfunctional lives (Midler) or tragic deaths (Monroe, Garland) or because of psychological issues which preclude identifying with male icons.

    An entirely separate issue is whether any individual - male or female - should be considered a gay icon if they do nothing for gay people. There are plenty of women who support us and for whom this second issue wouldn't apply. For example, the actresses Judith Light and Glenn Close. Both have supported gay causes for a very long time. Glenn Close is especially admirable. She made substantial donations to marriage equality in Maine with no fanfare. She just did it, without glory-seeking. Lady Gaga as well, has done a lot for us. I will never forget how she mobilized her "monster army" to call the US Senate to vote on DADT. These 15 and 16 year olds recorded their calls on video and uploaded them to YT. Thousands of teens, 90% straight, calling their senators to fight for us because Gaga inspired them to do it. When has Madonna or Bette Midler done anything like that?

    Posted by: Jon | Aug 16, 2014 4:46:10 PM

  24. Whether directly intended or not, Madonna's irreverence and personal bravery in sticking the middle finger up to all conservatives and religious zealots was more than anyone else has done to allow the mainstreaming of homosexual identity in our culture over the last 30 years, particularly between 1984 and 1994, and so all this talk of being a vulture and an ineffective supporter of LGBT rights is pointless. She isn't a gay man, and so she isn't going to solely relate to your plight, but I am quite certain she has consistently been vocally supportive of our "community", and to deny her great and constant generosity in matters related to AIDS-related charities, both public and private, is nothing more than a perpetuation of self-loathing under the guise of the proverbial ghetto mentality.

    Happy birthday Madonna! You actually are an icon, unlike the last few subjects of iconography on Towleroad!

    Here's to enjoying the rest of your career, and your fascinating life!

    Posted by: AlexN | Aug 16, 2014 4:51:37 PM

  25. Meh. Donna.
    Glad to see I'm not the only one who absolutely does not understand her appeal.

    Posted by: Tom | Aug 16, 2014 4:58:15 PM

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