Not to be confused with a segment on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Madonna’s latest creative effort (released piecemeal via Instagram) is called Her-Story and is “dedicated to all women who fight for freedom.” This, to be sure, definitely does not apply to just anyone (certainly not miss meme, Kellyanne Conway). We’re talking about women like the women of Pussy Riot, whose political subterfuge in 2012 led to the arrest of members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, and was, in many respects, one of the inspirations for Madonna to make secretprojectrevolution with Steven Klein in 2013. The 17-minute black-and-white short, eerily prescient in its treatment of artistic oppression, features a voiceover from Madonna (later to be repackaged for the intro to her Rebel Heart Tour) and is set in a prison where M is dragged by guards and kicked while she’s down at the end. In between, a disturbing rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” plays. It’s all very “Die Another Day.”
Her-Story, released to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, takes a slightly less defeatist approach, with Madonna showcasing a far more empowered look in what can best be described as a high-fashion Nazi uniform as she opens the twelve-minute short with two dogs fighting before she wrangles them with effortless aplomb. In short, she’s not taking any shit, just like she refused to at the Women’s March, during which her statements stirred up their usual brand of taken-out-of-context controversy.
The rich cinematography and direction by fashion photography duo Luigi & Iango allows Madonna’s natural confidence to shine through. Divided into a total of eight “chapters,” the second shows two epicene women in sailor uniforms prancing about together in a deserted (presumably German) street. The androgynous look of women throughout Her-Story is, in part, what makes the film stand out, speaking to the notion of how many women have masculinized themselves in response to the current tableau of “maleness.” It harkens back to Madonna’s early 90s obsession with this notion of unisexuality, as presented in all of its neo-noir German-inspired glory of the “Justify My Love” video.
In Chapter Four, Madonna dances serenely with androgynous women near a punching bag–no doubt an overt metaphor for how women are generally treated. French singer Soko makes another cameo by dominating all of Chapter Five, dancing about while playing the accordion–a whimsical tune for a dream-like film. And yes, the surrealism reaches another crescendo in Chapter Six, with Madonna’s aesthetic channeling a modern Boy George as she shuffles a deck of cards. The women surrounding her are more masculine than any mafia don and have the badass sartorial style to back it up.
Chapter Seven again finds Madonna exploring familiar and go-to territory: her criticism of organized religion. Dressed in priest’s garb, the overpowering intro from the MDNA Tour version of “Girl Gone Wild” haunts the clip. The balefulness of Chapter Seven persists with Madonna sporting a beret and angel wings like some sort of combo platter of her Dita Parlo and Louise Oriole from the “Bad Girl” video personas that she enjoyed so thoroughly in the early 90s.
Sadly surveying New York while wearing a noose like a necklace, Madonna appears to be mourning the loss of something–presumably women’s rights, though did we ever really have them within our grasp? The final chapter concludes with Madonna’s voiceover throwing shade by bringing it back to an excerpt from her Women’s March speech, in which she declared, “We cannot fall into despair”–especially in the face of what feels like endlessly dark days. The clincher of the last scene is two women running down the street with a banner that says, “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS.” Yes, we should. Particularly since none of us are getting any dick anyway these days.