Who’s That Girl: The Feminist Icon & Trailblazer (Madonna 40th Anniversary Special)

US singer Madonna (L) performs in concer
US singer Madonna (L) performs in concert in Seville at Olimpic Stadium at La Cartuja, on September 16, 2008. AFP PHOTO/ CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)

Did you guys hear? That the police are here?” Madonna asked backstage at her 1990 performance in Toronto during her “Blonde Ambition Tour.” “If I touch my crotch during the show I’m going to be arrested.”

The moment was filmed for her 1991 documentary, “Truth or Dare,” her dancers backstage were all in shock that Toronto police were threatening to arrest her for violating public decency laws during her performance of “Like A Virgin,” where she would stick her hands down her crotch to simulate masturbation as two male dancers caressed her body. While the singer was surprised she could be arrested, she was no stranger to controversy by this point in her career.

At the time, such explicit acts of female and LGBTQ+ sexuality were alien concepts in mainstream entertainment. When the topics did come up, they were typically wrapped up in innuendo, making for deniability if a record label executive or government official were to make a complaint. The Pope and Catholic Church called for boycotts of her performances, with “Like A Virgin” and its video accused of promoting premarital sex and undermining family values when it was released in 1984. Moralists and conservatives called for the song and video to be banned, but Madonna doubled down.

Throughout Madonna’s career, her live performances have carried that boundary-pushing ethos. Her most recent trek, “The Celebration Tour,” included a callback to the “Like A Virgin” masturbation scene with a 1990 doppelgänger version of herself, along with topless dancers first seen during her 1993 tour, “The Girlie Show,” that featured Madonna dressed as a dominatrix. She was villainized by the general public, her career was declared dead after her 1984 MTV VMA performance of “Like A Virgin” (where she crawled along the floor while wearing a white wedding dress topped with a belt saying “Boy Toy”). But, of course, the outcry never stopped Madonna, and she continued owning her sexuality, including the release of her 1992 coffee table book, “Sex,” followed by her 1994 album, Erotica. She also starred in the 1993 erotic thriller film “Body Of Evidence” which contained scenes of sadomasochism and bondage.

At her 1990 Toronto show, Madonna declared to her dancers and those filming “Truth or Dare” that she would rather be arrested than compromise her vision.

“I am not changing my show, Freddy,” she told Freddy DeMann, her manager at the time, in Toronto. “What’s to straighten out? All you have to do is go out there and tell them I am not changing my show. I am an artist and this is how I choose to express myself. So what do you have to tell them?”

Nowadays, women feel free to rap about their sexuality, dance provocatively and do what they feel they should to present their art to the world. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, while still catching some flak for their sexually explicit collaboration “WAP,” were able to get the music video on air. For the most part, fans won’t even think twice about the concepts. Because of Madonna, it’s par for the course.

Up until last year, Madonna held the record for the highest-grossing tour by a female artist with 2008’s “Sticky and Sweet,” which Pollstar reported grossed $411 million at the time (around $610 million adjusted for inflation in 2024). Taylor Swift broke that record last year, her success could indirectly be traced back to Madonna.

Part of what made Madonna so groundbreaking in her time was her continual reinventions. It’s another common aspect in pop stardom today, with Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour,” which takes fans through each of Swift’s albums and a variety of reinventions, presenting what could be achieved with that format. The “Eras Tour” became the highest-grossing tour of all time, reaching more than $1 billion in grosses with European dates still to go.

Beyoncé’s last album, Renaissance, calls back to the ’80s with house-inspired tracks celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. Back then, Madonna was one of the only prominent artists to stand up for the community, her song “Vogue” allowing mainstream audiences to learn about voguing and LGBTQ+ ballrooms, themes prominent throughout Queen Bey’s last album. Beyoncé herself has stated Madonna inspired both her career and this particular album.

During her performance at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, last summer, Beyoncé spotted Madonna in the crowd. “Big shout out to the queen,” Beyoncé said upon spotting her. “Queen Mother, Madonna, we love you.” The show also included a nod to Madonna’s 1990 club track, “Vogue.”

Beyoncé invited Madonna to sing on a remix of the song, “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix)” sending a bouquet that Madonna posted on her Instagram story in August 2022 with a note that read, “Thank you, Queen. I am so grateful for you. You have opened so many doors for so many women. You are a masterpiece genius. Thank you for allowing me to sing in your song and thank you for naming the remix. Love always and forever, B.