One of the most recognizable and successful entertainers in history, the woman known by the one word appellation “Madonna” is a figure of fascination for many. Feminist theorists obsess over the various ways by which she has shocked and amazed in her self-representation. Media scholars and cultural theory students craft entire essays and dissertations over her music videos, and to that extent she is a public figure unlike any other. However, much less interest is accorded to her self-development and individual psychology, which is striking in its fit with Freudian and Adlerian personality theory.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone on August 16, 1958 in Bay City, Michigan to an Italian-American automobile engineer named Silvio and his French-Canadian wife Madonna Louise Fortin, Madonna was the third of six children. (Worrell, 1985) As the middle child of a large family, at least large by American standards, it became necessary for Madonna to compete for attention with her siblings. Furthermore, Madonna was profoundly affected by the changes brought into her family following the death of her mother, who was taken by breast cancer at the age of 30. However, it was not long until her father married their housekeeper, Joan Gustafson, who had two children with him. Madonna has admitted some level of resentment towards both her father and her stepmother, and later said, “”I didn’t accept my stepmother when I was growing up. […] In retrospect I think I was really hard on her.”
The combination of this loss, the need to assert herself amidst her siblings and the parental resentment provides fertile ground for the theories of Sigmund Freud. In her years of fame from using provocative imagery and a propensity for exhibitionism might be hypothesized as a means of displacement, in which she channels her personal frustrations upon a symbolic substitute. (Boeree, 2007) For Madonna, this could mean that her disapproval of the changes in her family was channeled into a tendency to mock and ridicule social conventions. Unconsciously speaking, she disparages and devalues the conservative notions of propriety simply because she herself was deprived of the traditional nuclear family upbringing. However, it is also possible to hypothesize that Madonna was attempting to compensate.
Alfred Adler’s conception of ‘compensating’ works in two ways: We behave in ways to compensate for our problems, and we develop skills to take up the slack left by areas in which we are lacking. (Boeree, 2008) This means that in Madonna’s case, she forged her sense of independence to make up for inability to fully trust and/or depend on others, and she developed an ability to shock and awe as a means to come to grips with her own shattered sense of family ideals.
There are some who would suppose that Madonna’s upbringing would result in a largely damaged child, ridden with so much world pessimism and personal self-doubt as to have difficulty in achieving personal success, but such is not the case for Madonna. Despite the loss of her mother, she remained an achiever in the realm of academics. That she learned to assert herself early on went well with these circumstances, as it seems to have encouraged her to overcome personal disappointment in favor of achieving personal goals.
Adler’s theories can also be applied to the way Madonna has reportedly treated others during her early years climbing towards fame and stardom. Rather than developing an inferiority complex, as suggested above, and complementary to the compensation mechanisms mentioned above, Madonna developed a superiority complex cemented by her own capacity for self-assertion, which can be best identified in her tense relationship with former manager Camille Barbone, the owner of Gotham Records.
After a few years in New York struggling with various performing gigs in small-time bands and low budget erotica, Madonna made Barbone’s acquaintance as the latter owned the recording studio where the former would rehearse. She had yet to develop a commercially distinctive style and required someone with professional sensibilities to help her move her career forward. Madonna invited Barbone to a concert, and Barbone suggests that this invitation flirtatiously played upon her gay sexuality: “She knew I was a gay woman.” However, the resulting relationship between Barbone and Madonna was problematic at best: While she was perfectly capable of using her street smarts to get through the day, her overall existence was rather chaotic and Barbone would spend as much of her time trying to manage this chaos as she was spending on her career. Barbone maintained confidence and belief in the struggling Madonna, and tried to surround her with positive collaborative influences. Her rising popularity resulted in tension between the two, which resulted in a termination of their contract. (The Daily Telegraph, 2006; O’Brien, 2007)
Adler theorized a psychological conception of superiority by suggesting that we all strive towards superiority. Failure to actualize this drive towards superiority results in the development of compensation mechanisms, inferiority complex. However, success without self-mastery can also result in a superiority complex. For Adler, a healthy self-actualization is the reconciliation of personal goals with the welfare of others and as such, the valuation of the self and the others are actually complementary. (Boeree, 2008; Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1964)
In the case of Madonna, her drive for personal superiority benefited from the support she derived earlier from musical acquaintances and later from, Camille Barbone. However, she failed to recognize this support, and instead exaggerated the extent to which she was the agent of her own success. This does not mean that she was not responsible for her personal successes, but that she devalued the assistance she got.
In the years between her active relationship, professional and personal, with Barbone she remained unsigned for several months and resumed her relatively difficult struggles for recognition, spending a year until she achieved her success through her singles Holiday and Lucky Star. Again, this was made possible by her ability to assert herself and the ease at which she developed professional connections and contacts such as the likes of her then-boyfriend, DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez and long-time drummer Steve Bray. (The Daily Telegraph, 2006; O’Brien, 2007)
Adlerian personality theory best fits Madonna’s personal development. While Freud functions well enough in representing the emotionality of her life narrative, in the sense that her career is the logical result of her personal frustrations, Adlerian theory measures her best in that it relates directly to the strive for perfection and superiority, which have not only been core themes in the life of Madonna, but a central aspect of the self-image that she and her record labels, promoters and marketers have used to define her within popular culture.
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Worrell, D. (1985, May 27) “Now: Madonna on Madonna.” Retrieved August 14, 2008 from: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957025,00.html
The Daily Telegraph. (2006, July 26) “The child who became a star.” The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved August 14, 2008 from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1400097/The-child-who-became-a-star.html
Dinh, M. & Murphy, J. (2008) “Madonna Biography.” People.Com. Retrieved August 15, 2008 from: http://www.people.com/people/madonna/biography
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O’Brien, L. (2007, September 2) “Madonna: For the first time, her friends and lovers speak out.” The Independent. Retrieved August 15, 2008 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/madonna-for-the-first-time-her-friends-and-lovers-speak-out-463608.html
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