Madonna and Penthouse
Exploring the legacy Madonna claims made the way for Cardi B, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus.
Over the weekend Madonna shared an Instagram story reflecting on the 30 year anniversary of the controversial photography book S.E.X. published in 1992, which arguably was the apex of her status as cultural agitator. Madonna wrote:
“30 years ago I published a book called ‘S.E.X.’ In addition to photos of me naked there were photos of Men kissing Men, Woman kissing Woman and Me kissing everyone. Now Cardi B can sing about her WAP. Kim Kardashian can grace the cover of any magazine with her naked ass and Miley Cyrus can come in like a wrecking ball."
While this statement has already led to think pieces about nudity in popular culture since 1992 and interviews with Cardi B, historical sources in the OG Collection allow us to look back and understand how Madonna's career teaches us about sexuality and stigma in ways that inform societal reactions to boundary pushing art to this day.
In the mid-1980s Madonna was arguably at the height of her fame, her second studio album “Like a Virgin” hitting a new record for most albums sold by a female artist. With her entry into mainstream films in 1985, Madonna’s public displays of sexuality was a hot topic for American conservatives and parents’ groups. This controversy was exacerbated by the scandalous publication of nude pictures taken of Madonna pre-fame, when she was working as an art model.
OG Collection materials include the contracts pertaining to the publication of the images, revealing the business transactions that made this cultural moment happen. An excerpt from the contract with photographer Bill Stone identifies Madonna by her birth name, Madonna Louise Ciccone, as well as states that Stone is the copyright holder. Madonna, as the photographer's subject, had no publishing rights to the images of herself, showing how early photographs of pre-fame celebrities could be circulated without their consent before the internet amplified this issue. Later Penthouse pictorials featuring Vanessa Williams, Lauren Hutton, and Pamela Anderson with Tommy Lee made Penthouse notorious for this type of reporting, in turn making it an important cultural resource for celebrity culture.
The publication of these images added fuel to the public debate over Madonna’s icon status, and her response exemplifies the iconoclast we know now. Madonna proclaimed on the cover of the New York Post “I’m not ashamed!” The month after the photos were published Bette Midler introduced Madonna during a Philadelphia Live Aid concert by referencing the infamous photos, stating that Madonna was “a woman who pulled herself up by her bra straps and has been known to let them down occasionally.” When she took the stage Madonna proclaimed to the global audience of 1.9 billion viewers that “I ain’t taking off shit today.”
On Twitter Cardi B responded to Madonna's comments about S.E.X., stating that they had a great effect as Cardi has "paid this woman homage so many times cause I grew up listening to her." While a phone call between the two apparently smoothed things over, Cardi's reaction also illuminates how Madonna's cultural impact has had a directly influenced on the biggest artists today, whether serving as inspiration or acting as a precursor who widened the road for artists who did not reflect the stereotypes expected by the industry.
Scandals like the “Madonna in the nude” Penthouse cover speak to the undercurrents of sex, shame, and stigma during late-20th century in America, where the outcry over Elvis was compounded with misogyny to create impossible standards for women in the public eye. To learn about an even more complicated story, the 1984 Vanessa Williams Miss America scandal, check out another Vocal article for a deep, nuanced dive also pulling from the OG Collection.
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Exploring the most significant and hidden stories of the 20th century through iconic magazines and the titan of publishing behind them.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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I remember this time but I was young so I didn't really have a fuller picture. A few years ago I saw an interview she did and how ahead of her time on consent, self-determination etc. in sexuality blew me away.
My favourite piece of the OG collection so far. Madonna was absolutely instrumental in paving the way for sexual expression and freedom.
A lot revealed here that I thought I knew. Many thanks for this one.