Reading the Wife of Bath by the Light of Madonna
An Anachronistic Post-Modern Reading of a Post-Medieval Text
Susan K. Hagen
I'm not sure why I went to see Truth or Dare, in the first place. Maybe it had
something to do with the supposed appeal of popular culture: "the joy of surrender,
the guilty pleasure of being taken in" ("Dominatrix of Discourse"). For the sake of
academic discourse let's just say I was there to be entertained, to be amused, maybe
even to be slightly shocked. Certainly I was out of the classroom, out of the study,
out of the house, and willing to surrender to something--whatever it was. But for an
academic, I'm not certain surrender is ever complete. The irony cells in the brain, the
ones that register incongruity and discrepancy have no "off" switch. Once the rocku-
docudrama began I found myself not so much surrendering to popular culture as being
aware of watching it, partaking of it--creating it.
Black and white footage of Madonna on a chaise speaking directly to the
camera of the previous night's farewell party for the Blond Ambition Tour precedes
the opening credits. Her voiceover then narrates flashback scenes of her cleaning up
the post-party bottles and glasses, then moves further back in time to the tour's
beginning. The first color sequence opens with a wide angle shot of audience and
stage--it is the opening number of the show. By hydraulic magic Madonna rises
center stage through the lighting haze. She begins singing "Express Yourself." She
wears a man's suit with a garter belt over the wide leg trousers; the jacket has bold
slits cut vertically over the breasts so that stiff brassier cups punch through. A
monocle swings from neck chain between the bottoned jacket's lapels. But she also
wears headphones, a mike, and a portable powerpack strapped around her waist. Ah
Ha! I thought, this is pop culture: voyeurism, music, sex, and high tech!
In subsequent color segments I saw her in more garter belts and teddies
grabbing her crotch, and thrusting her hips at the dancers, the stage, or the air, and
then singing of religious and familial patriarchial oppression and of respecting yourself.
Then in black and white sequences I heard her joking about sex and lovers and saw
her passing out rosaries to her dancers, leading circle prayers, and refusing to violate
her self-proclaimed "artistic integrity" by changing her show to suit the authorities in
Toronto and Rome. And suddenly I thought, this is more than pop culture. This is the
Wife of Bath 600 years displaced.
Now, there are some rather obvious similarities that make these two women
sisters in a cultural time warp: things ranging from their bold speech and their dress--
I'll trade you fourteenth-century red stockings and spurs for twentieth-century teddies
with Brunhilde-styled breast cones-- to their self-defined Christianity. Certainly each
is the consummate "Material Girl" of her age. And each repositions the significance
of virginity within her culture--Madonna by redefining it as a state of mind as she
sings in "Like A Virgin" of feeling "all shiney and new" at the side of a fresh lover;
Alisoun by declaring it a choice rather than a command as she conceeds, the prize is
up for virginity, "Cacche whoso may" (III 76). But more significant, is how each
defines her personal sovereignty in terms of sexual power and control. I am struck,
too, how in both Truth or Dare and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale the narrative
voice moves from a self-consciously fashioned confessionalism to the intimation of
wish-fulfilling romance as Madonna performs her concert numbers and Alisoun tells
her tale. To illustrate this, lets consider the significances of the black and white, and
color sequences of Truth or Dare and what they may suggest about the Wife of Bath's
prologue and tale.
As E. Deidre Pribram points out in a detailed analysis of the film's formal
techniques, Madonna's 1991 Truth or Dare defies cinemagraphic categorization: "It
is a docudrama of sorts" Pribram explains, "part documentary, part concert film, part
dramatic entertainment" (189). It combines two traditions of concert films: black and
white direct cinema techniques that create an understanding or appreciation of a given
celebrity through both backstage and onstage footage (Don't Look Back 1965) and
more recent color filmings of concerts per se (190-91), for example HBO's color
taping of the Blond Ambition show in France.
The jumpy, grainy black and white segments seem to invite us into Madonna's
private life. Often recorded in her hotel room, or dressing room, they offer us a
Madonna in bathrobe and towel, in half make-up, in conversations with friends
(Sandra Burnhard) and lovers (Warren Beatty), even in conversation with the
cameraman himself. They have the feel of single camera shooting and virtually no
editing. They make us think of home movies, of intimate sharing with friends.
The color segments, with one exception, are all onstage performances from the
Blond Ambition show. They have the polish of careful editing and the richness of
multiple camera angles. The 16-mm black and white footage and the 35-mm color
sequences have entirely separate filming crews--complete with different directors of
photography and editors. I point out these differences between the cinematography
of the black and white, and color segments to underscore a correlation I see as
comparable to the differences in tone, language, and theme between the Wife of
Bath's prologue and her tale--differences akin to Alisoun's choice of a romance as a
tale to tell, of her now carefully controlled rhetoric, of her gentle persuasion, of her
idealized view of gentlesse and individual integrity--differences that belie director Alek
Keshishian's claim that he "just used the concert scenes for emotional beats"
(Johnson, "Unmasking Madonna"). The dialogue and action recorded in black and
white both precisely before and after certain color segments suggest strong
interpretative relationships, as the first segway demonstrates.
As noted before, Truth or Dare opens the day after the final company party for
the Blond Ambition tour. Madonna's voiceover quickly takes us back to the opening
concert in a Japan so cold and rainey that the troupe perform bundled in tour jackets
rather than decked out in costume. We see part of that concert captured in black and
white, then as Madonna tells us she looks forward to getting to America and "doing
the show the way it was meant to be," the film cuts immediately to a full color, wide
angle shot of the audience, stage, and dancers. Let me play this first color segment
Please notice the difference in Madonna's and the female vocalists' and
the male dancers' dress.
Notice subservience of men to the women
Visually, doing the show in the rain and out of costume has the same relation
to "doing the show the way it was meant to be" as black and white has to color, as
backstage has to onstage, as daily life to performance--can we even say as reality to
romance? Remember, the opening number is "Express Yourself," in which a female
voice calls for sexual self-determination, reverses female/male power relations--and
sexual positions--and collapses barriers between gendered dress while mimicking
female erotica in outer-worn underwear and mocking male voyeurism through the
uptown monocle. When the number ends, we see a straight cut in black and white
of a plane heading, we would suppose, back to the United States; therefore, the
musical number we have just seen is out of chronological time even within the
flashback of Madonna's recounting of the tour. It serves less as documentation of
events as they happened than as comment upon "the way it was meant to be."
This sharp delineation between the realms of offstage and on stage blurs,
however, in subsequent concert intervals, suggesting additional significance as two
contrasting episodes evidence. One is the color segment I referred to before that is
not concert footage. Threatened with arrest in Toronto if she grabbed her crotch in
simulated masturbation during her "Like a Virgin" number, Madonna defiantly refuses
to change her act, or as she puts it, refuses to violate her artistic integrity. After the
concert footage recording her performance, the film shifts--still in color--to a TV
anchorwoman reporting Madonna's close call with the Toronto police. I suggest this
is the film's way of allowing the artistic integrity of the performance to spill over into
real life, while at the same time allowing the reality of "news" to be--please forgive
the pun--colored by performance.
Another episode brings the grainy black and white of offstage onstage. The
film candidly records Madonna's tense relationship with her father through telephone
calls and dressing room encounters. It also records her bringing him onstage in Detroit
and singing happy birthday to him--in black and white, suggesting a performance this
time more indicative of capitulation than integrity. As we move from the first to the
last number of the tour, the cuts between black and white and color become
increasingly complex; concert numbers are not necessarily seen in their entirety, some
are edited with black and white intercuts or with sounds from backstage and on stage
occurring simultaneously (Pribram 194). As Pribram concludes, this change "serves
to collapse the spaces that the film so carefully [set] off by defining them initially. We
are left with one of the most significant questions posed by the film: What, after all,
are the differences between onstage and offstage spaces?" (194).
Without using the words offstage and onstage, how many recent readers of the
Wife of Bath's reconciliation with Jankyn and the Old Lady's gift of a beautiful and
true self to a reformed rapist husband have not asked the same question? How are
we to read Alisoun's statement that after their fist fight, she and her physically and
verbally abusive fifth husband lived happily ever after all because he told her she could
do as she pleased? How are we to read this especially after realizing the story of the
fight grew in the performance of telling as one torn leaf from a book becomes three?
After her passionate defense of age, low birth, and poverty, how are we to read the
old lady's concession that since she knows her new husband's worldly appetite she
will offer him more pleasing options? How are we read this, especially since at the
tale's close Alisoun quickly reverts to the contentious tone of her prologue and curses
husbands who are niggardly to their wives? "What after all are the differences
between onstage and offstage spaces," between tale and prologue? Surely the
mundane beauties and delights of real life color the idealism of the tale, just as the the
fiction of performance colors the Wife's recounting of her life with her five husbands.
As we meet Madonna reclining on her chaise suddenly speaking directly to the
camera apropos of nothing, we meet Alison of Bath as she steps forward to take up
a challenge no one has proffered. No endlink clearly elicits its apparent argument for
experience over authority, no headlink gives it a situational context. As Marshall
Leicester says, the text "springs from a gap in the poem and a blank on the page, a
voice begins to speak out of nowhere" (69).
Because they face us head on and just begin by telling us they are going to talk
about themselves, we have labeled both women's performances as confessional. The
four confessional prologues are a common place in undergraduate Chaucer courses.
Early reviews of Truth or Dare hailed the film as confessional with headlines such as
"Unmasking Madonna: She Bares All in a Documentary" (Johnson), "Madonna! The
World's Hottest Star Speaks Her Mind" (Johnson), and "Madonna Bares All"
(Magiera). But what does this really mean? It didn't take long for critics like Stanley
Kauffmann to be making evaluations such as: "Her frankness [in Truth or Dare] seems
less compulsive honesty than a campaign to build up a public persona of frankness"
If we listen carefully to Madonna in both the film and various interviews, she
tells us much the same herself. For example, in a 1991 Rolling Stone interview with
Madonna by Carrie Fisher, the two talk openly of relationships with parents, with
lovers, even with dildos. Fisher asks--in reference to Madonna's "hanky Panky"
routine, which claims, "I enjoy a little spanky"--
What about your whole spanking thing? I don't get that.
It's just a joke. I despise being spanked [Madonna replies]. I
absolutely detest it. It's play. I say I want to be spanked, but it's like
"Try it and I'll knock your fucking head off." It's a joke!
But I saw you on Arsenio and you said--
I was just playing with Arsenio.
This is a very important piece of news. [Fisher concludes] (part
Unfortunately, Fisher pushes the implications of this "important piece of news" no
further; what does it suggest about the very, "candid" "nothing held back" interview
she herself is conducting? Where is the line between play and honesty? What, after
all, is veracity within the politics of the signifier as signified?
In both Truth or Dare and an MTV interview at the time of the film's debut,
Madonna seems willing to suggest that there may be no such line. In a frequently
cited episode from the film, Warren Beatty claims that for Madonna there is no
offstage, no private, everything is performance, and by inference, therefore,
everything is a form of play. Here is the cut as it appeared within the MTV interview
with Madonna's response to Kirk Louder's subsequent question about Truth or Dare
being a "totally honest movie." The setting is a physician's examination of Madonna's
failing vocal chords and his inquiry as to whether she would rather continue off
Surely, this must shade any expectations that anyone might have of Truth or Dare
presenting us with truth. Nonetheless, Beatty was wrong. For Madonna there is
reason to do some things off camera--and Truth or Dare is surprisingly honest about
this, offering as it were a clue to the film's verity hidden in full view. In a black and
white rehearsal segment still interspersed with opening credits, Madonna becomes
angered by sound feedback on stage and refuses to continue. She petulantly calls her
stagemanager and crew to her and retires to her dressing room for a meeting. As the
camera begins to follow her in, she testily slams the door saying "Get out! I'm having
a business talk!" The camera may follow her into the bedroom, but not into the
boardroom. So, there is reason to do something off camera; it is to control the
production of both the concert and confessional persona.
There may be another clue to the performative status of Truth or Dare in the
episode that gives the film its American title, (its European title is In Bed with
Madonna). There is a game of truth or dare in which Madonna chooses the dare. The
dare is to show how she performs fellatio, which she does most impressively with the
tall neck of an empty mineral water bottle--all to the appreciative hoots and hollers of
her dancers. By the way in the Rolling Stone interview, Madonna tells Fisher that she
doesn't care for such activity ("I don't like blow jobs" [part 1, 40]). The point here
is not the nastiness of the dare, but the source of this film's title. How do we read
the text when it is so framed within the context of a game? A game that chooses a
potentially embarrassing dare over truth. And our reading gets all the more
troublesome when we look at the context of this game scene within the black and
white and color sequences within the film as a whole.
The game appears immediately after the "Vogue" routine from the show. This
color performance is interspersed with black and white cuts of Madonna, her dancers,
even fans, making voguing gestures similar to those performed in the number (see
Pribram 194). Voguing began in the gay culture as a form of subversion of the
dominate heterosexual culture (see Mandziuk 179 and Hluchy), but was taken over
by Madonna as a means of acting out fantasies of wealth, power, and adoration, of
posing and masking, as the song's repetitive refrain "Strike a pose" underscores.If,
as Pribram says, "the [color] performance serves as the base of [this] scene, and the
black and white cut-aways act as illustrations or snapshots" (194), especially with its
immediate cut to the truth or dare game, then the film inevitably blurs the distinctions
between performance and reality as posturing becomes the mode of both arenas.
This pivotal number, then, casts an ominous light back on the opening number
"Express Yourself," for modes of expression seem dangerously close now to mere
posturing. Strike a pose. Choose a mask. Take the dare.
Have I lost the Wife of Bath in all of this. Not at all, but when I look back at
her now one line echoes throughout her entire text, "for myn entente is nat but for
to play" (III 192) She, too, has accepted the game. She wants the free dinner as
much as anyone else. She postures, she pronounces, she plays out the challenge of
Host, Pardoner, Friar, and Clerk alike. I would certainly second Leicester's assertion
that self-presentation is the announced aim of the Wife of Bath (65), but I would sing
him praises for pointing out that explicitly because it is framed as self-presentation,
the text cannot in his words, "offer any certainty about what has the revelatory status
of fact in the Wife's performance" (66). Her opening number might be "Express
Yourself," but her method is to vogue, to strike a pose, whether it be the reprobate
feminine exegete, the insatiable Venusian, the shrewish wife, the jealous wife, or the
What I find so amazing in these two self styled performances of confession and
romance, separated as they are by 600 years and phenomenological existence is that
both express their individuality in terms of sexual autonomy and control. As several
critics have pointed out, Truth or Dare is a tour de force of Madonna manipulating
others' lives, manipulation that she unabashedly refers to as mothering. The most
poignant moments of personal revelation in the film come not from the life of
Madonna--her affected visit to her mother's grave not withstanding, but from the
recounted rape of her secretary and the confused homophobia of the dancer Oliver.
I believe it would be stating the obvious to saying anything about the Wife's
manipulation of others. In 600 years no images apart from patriarchal coding have
emerged to suggest that self-expression for women may lie in anything other than in
images of female sexual voracity or in patterning of male notions of power in which
sovereignty remains dependant upon the control of others.
When confronted with the issue of wearing a dog collar in the "Express
Yourself" video by Fisher, Madonna responds, "First you see me chained to a bed,
then you see me on top of a stairway with these working men below and I'm wearing
a suit and grabbing my crotch. Extreme images of women: One is in charge, in
control, dominating; the other is chained to a bed, taking care of the procreation
responsibilities" (part 2, 48). When confronted with the similar issue in a NightLine
interview with Forest Sawyer, Madonna defends herself by proclaiming, "I put myself
in those chains. I'm in control."
Madonna may be in control of her chains, but is she chained to images out of
her control? When Chaucer looked for the image of a highly gendered female voice,
he envisioned it a highly sexual voice. So, too, does Madonna. After the questions
of onstage and backstage spaces, the questions of masking and posing, another
arises: Is our concept of gender so determined by the history of gender coding that
the image of a self-enfranchised woman lies inevitably the mimicked images of auto-orgasmic pleasure and manipulation of others to the service of our pleasure? Well,
I suppose we must leave the answer of that to "The Wife of Bath and Madonna, Part
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," The Riverside Chaucer. Gen. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 105-22.
"Dominatrix of Discourse." The Economist v320 (July 27 1991): 82.
Fisher, Carrie. "True Confessions: The Rolling Stone Interview with Madonna."
Rolling Stone. part 1, n606 (June 13, 1991): 35-40, 120; part 2, n607 (June
27, 1991): 45-48, 78.
Hluchy, Patricia. "The World of Voguing (review of Paris is Burning)." Maclean's
v104 n19 (May 13 1991): 49.
Kauffmann, Stanley. "Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Naked Truths." The New Republic
(June 10, 1991): 26-27.
Johnson, Brian D. "Madonna: The World's Hottest Star Speaks Her Mind." Maclean's
v104 n19 (May 13 1991): 44-49.
Johnson, Brian D. "Unmasking Madonna." Maclean's v104 n19 (May 13 1991): 50.
Leicester, H. Marshall, Jr. The Disenchanted Self. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Magiera, Marcy. "Madonna Bares All. But Miramax is Modest About Movie."
Advertising Age v62 no20 (May 13 1991): 4.
Mandiziuk, Roseann M. "Feminist Politics & Postmodern Sedutions: Madonna and the Struggle of Political Articulation." Schwichtenberg, 167-87.
Pribram, E. Deidre. "Seduction, Control, & the Search for Authenticity: Madonna's
Truth or Dare. Schwichtenberg, 189-212.
Schwichtenberg, Cathy. The Madonna Connection: Representationsl Politics,
Subcultural Identities and Cultural Theory. Boulder: Westview P, 1993.
SEMA Conference, New Orleans, 1993.