Strong and Sexy: A comparison/contrast of Barbara Stanwyck and Madonna

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck and Madonna get what they want. These stars outshine most of their famous contemporaries because they will themselves to be the most desirable, intelligent, and unruly women of their respective eras. They convince audiences with strong actions that their high self-confidences and healthy self-esteems are justified, and, as a result of their poise, we believe in them, identify with them, and admire their spunk.

Both Stanwyck and Madonna use sex, materialism, and cunning to achieve their objectives. But there are two significant differences between these icons. The first is the influence their historical and political environments exert on their images and the second is the fate of their unruly characters.

Madonna goes Vogue
Madonna goes Vogue

Stanwyck’s use of feminine guile in the relatively conservative 1940s is necessarily less overt than Madonna’s blatant use of sex appeal in the more liberated atmosphere of the 1980s. Moreover, Stanwyck ultimately compromises her unruliness in favor of traditional female subservience, whereas Madonna maintains her independence and scoffs at male domination.

Ball of Fire and Desperately Seeking Susan expose Stanwyck’s and Madonna’s faith in sexuality as the most powerful feminist weapon. Although Sugarpuss O’ Shea, played by Stanwyck, never exposes taboo body parts in Ball of Fire as Madonna does in Desperately Seeking Susan, her vast sexual knowledge and physical desire are implicit. Indeed, her first appearance is as a performer, a role typically associated with exhibitionism and sensuality. Stanwyck’s swaying hips, exposed stomach, and sparkling costume instantly make her the focus of attention. She uses her seductive body and stalwart self-assurance to gain men’s admiration and compliance; the all male band follows her lead unquestioningly and the male audience members are joyously captivated.

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

Similarly, Madonna uses performance as a means of drawing attention to herself and emphasizing her sexual energy. The most striking instance of this tactic in Desperately Seeking Susan occurs when Madonna dances to her own music at a nightclub. Like Stanwyck, she appears comfortable flaunting her pulsing body in public, and revels in the attention she receives from male onlookers like Gary Glass.

Stanwyck’s and Madonna’s exhilaration at exposing their shapely physiques signifies their belief in feminine strength and reveals that they find no shame in using sexuality as a means to the ends they desire.

The quality of Stanwyck’s and Madonna’s voices and their use of language also contribute to their images as indomitable women. Both actresses have distinct, sensuous voices that contrast with their male co-stars’ bubbling, confused chatter. They use their vocal instruments, word choice, and snappy speech tempo to cow men into acting in accordance with their wishes. For example, when Professor Potts nervously apologizes for his slightly undone tie, Stanwyck immediately interjects the remark “Oh, you know, once I watched my big brother shave.” This sarcastic, well-timed declaration stops his patronizing ramble in mid-sentence and indicates that Sugarpuss will not stand to be treated as a naïve child.

Stanwyck also uses her voice to entice and signal victory. Indeed, after slowly, deliberately, and suggestively uttering the inherently sexual line “ I want you to look at me as another apple, Professor Potts…just another apple”, Stanwyck makes a triumphant clicking sound that is repeated throughout the film whenever she gets her way. The clicking works; Potts is so taken aback by her saucy articulation that he instantly retreats, allows her to stay, and finds her maddeningly intriguing. This clicking noise becomes symbolic of her ability to overcome obstacles to personal fulfillment, and the final sound of the film is the seven professors clicking away as she kisses the man she has won against all odds.

Madonna adds glamour to 'Dick Tracy'
Madonna adds glamour to ‘Dick Tracy’

Madonna’s vocal front is equally challenging. Indeed, she flat out tells her boyfriend Jimmy “I can take care of myself” when he expresses concern over leaving her in the midst of a murder investigation. Her words and confident delivery leave him with no option other than to admire her strength, sigh, and reply “I know”. These two lines alone reveal that Jimmy serves Susan in their relationship; she calls the shots and he must concede to her decisions in order to remain her lover.

Similarly, Susan controls Gary with her cool vocal frankness. When she orders him “Gimme the car keys” he is forced to comply; her tone is indication enough for him that she knows what to do to remedy a situation that he is incapable of understanding.

Specific choices about expression and movement complement these icons’ vocal style and contribute to their pervasive onscreen personas. For Stanwyck, her bright eyes, teasing smile, and graceful walk contribute to her image as self-possessed and intelligent. Indeed, Harvey describes her classic gaze as “a killing look in many ways — a predator regarding the prey — and also very funny… it’s her cryptic, self-possessed look, with that sense of a smile behind — far, far behind — the eyes that miss absolutely nothing”. This observation is significant because it pinpoints one of the qualities that distinguishes Stanwyck from other sex symbols: her wit. Her squinty, comprehending eyes and knowing smile indicate that she understands human nature and is, in many ways, more discerning than Potsy, who has attended Princeton and Exeter. When she exclaims “Oh Potsy” in her sensual voice and turns her shrewd gaze in his direction, it is made abundantly clear that she has the upper hand in their relationship. Moreover, Stanwyck’s erect posture and smooth walk communicate self-confidence and charm.

Similarly, Madonna uses bold manners, a charismatic smile, and a challenging gaze to solidify her unruly, predatory image. Specifically, her oral fixations make her seem intimidating and unattainable. The constant smoking, gum chewing, and Cheeto munching are mesmerizing to watch. Her mouth takes in the world and spits it back out bluntly, assuredly, and, above all, coolly. For example, she sucks in Roberta’s diary with a puff on her cigarette and smartly relays the information in it to Gary with the snide remark “It’s gotta be a cover. Nobody’s life could be this boring.”

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

Like Stanwyck, these cogent lines are usually followed by a captivating grin for emphasis. In this instance, Madonna’s knowing gaze and broad smile imply that Gary has contributed heavily to Roberta’s dull existence and reveal her understanding of Roberta’s decision to abandon domesticity. Madonna’s powerful gaze, exemplified in this scene with Gary, is described by Robertson as “subvertand complicat the primacy of Hollywood’s structured male gaze.”

Robertson further observes that “azed at by a bevy of men, Madonna returns the gaze, asserting her own desires and desirability, her status as a sexual object and not merely a sex object”. Additionally, Madonna’s strut supplements her powerful image; its slight bounce accentuates her physicality and her direct movement patterns reflect self-assurance and independence. When Madonna walks, she knows where she is going and why she is going there. It is her obvious autonomy, made clear through deliberate expression and liberated behavior, which drives men wild and demands admiration.

Another significant link between Stanwyck’s and Madonna’s images is their attachment to materialism. Both of these women are initially fascinated by material goods, valuing them more than meaningful experiences and personal relationships. Indeed, prior to her moral transformation, Sugarpuss is overcome with joy at receiving Joe Lilac’s expensive ring although she realizes his motivation for proposing is selfishness rather than love. She is clearly unimpressed by Potsy’s small, plain engagement ring even though he adores her and has worked honestly to pay for the love token.

Similarly, Madonna continually risks her reputation and safety in Desperately Seeking Susan to acquire luxuries. She steals from an ill-fated Bruce, attempts to shoplift boots, and takes a sequined jacket from Roberta’s closet despite Gary’s protestations. Her image is paramount: clothing completes her.

The status of Stanwyck’s and Madonna’s relationship with material goods by the end of these films marks one of the primary distinctions between these two women. Whereas Stanwyck ultimately gives up a higher standard of living for true love and intellectual stimulation, Madonna remains infatuated with materials and refuses to compromise her appearance for Jimmy, security, or domesticity. She retains her unruliness, sporting mesh belly shirts, ostentatious earrings, and sparkly boots right up through the final frame of Desperately Seeking Susan. Dissimilarly, Stanwyck’s costumes and accessories become increasingly conservative over the course of Ball of Fire. Her revealing sequined ensemble from the Drum Boogie scene morphs into duller shirt and skirt outfits as her relationship with Potsy becomes a greater priority. She abandons the “tramp” element of her personality in order to appeal to Potsy whereas Madonna embraces her overt sexuality and discards men who find it offsetting.


Although she develops into the ideal 1940s woman, Stanwyck, like Madonna, is initially scandalous for her time period. In an era when World War II was unifying the nation and causing most people to yearn for the secure pre-war nuclear family ideal, Stanwyck’s “playful vulgarity associated with show business, gangsters, and the wrong side of the tracks” is outrageous. Her persona at the beginning of Ball of Fire defies domestic ideology and the traditional American female image. Indeed, her erotic demeanor stands in stark opposition to Mrs. Bragg’s more conservative, domestic style.

The contrast between these two women emphasizes Stanwyck’s unruliness before her Ball of Fire comes to rest and Potsy assumes his conventional patriarchal role. By the end of Ball of Fire Stanwyck has chosen a subdued path that is similar to Mrs. Bragg’s lifestyle: she sacrifices her adventurous existence and abandons materialism to serve Potsy and confirm accepted ideology. Thus, though Stanwyck initially poses a threat to typical gender positioning, she backtracks to become the ideal 1940s female.

Madonna never ceases to challenge domestic ideology. Although the 1980s was a comparatively liberal decade during which many women were breaking away from the domestic sphere, Madonna’s attitude in Desperately Seeking Susan defies any trace of conventional gender roles. Indeed, David Tetzlaff discusses Madonna’s revolutionary style in the following excerpt from Schwichtenberg’s The Madonna Connection:

Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck

“From the beginning, Madonna’s self-representation in promotion publicity material portrayed her as defiantly independent, a woman who challenged and overcame gender restrictions. This representation was greatly bolstered by Madonna’s role in the popular Hollywood feminist film Desperately Seeking Susan. In contrast to the image of women as nurturer, the metatextual Madonna was plainly focused on success in her own career. She clearly articulated that she was out only for herself, that stardom and its perks of money, power, and respect were her goals. In contrast to the image of woman as keeper of decency and morals, the metatextual Madonna was clearly thumbing her nose at the traditional discourse of femininity.”

Some of the clearest instances of Madonna’s disdain for traditional male domination in Desperately Seeking Susan are her confrontation with a newspaper boy, authority over Gary Glass, and treatment of Jimmy. In the scene with the newspaper boy, her refusal to be won over by his offer of a free newspaper terminates his initial smirking manner and forces him to respect her daring. Madonna’s abrasive throwing of newspapers at his feet reveals that she is not so easily won, and he backs off once he recognizes that she is not a typical blushing violet.

Similarly, Gary doesn’t dare patronize Madonna as he does his wife Roberta. Her dynamic sexuality and bold personality leave him speechless. For example, she strides undaunted into his home and berates him with “Just between you and me, what do you really know about Roberta?” Stunned by Madonna’s frank question, Gary simply gawks and is forced to follow her lead in the investigation. His doofy persona is no match for her wit and beauty combo.

Jimmy, though slightly hipper than Gary, also falls short of being Madonna’s equal. Indeed, he seeks her desperately because he needs her energy to feel fulfilled. For her, Jimmy is simply another material accessory in many ways; she seems to derive as much pleasure from her sassy boots as she does from his spontaneous appearances. This reversal of stereotypical gender roles is made abundantly clear in the second to last scene of the film, when Jimmy comes climbing through the dressing room window and Madonna pats him on the head. He is Madonna’s pet, and he is unable to express discontent with his positioning for fear of losing her.

Thus, the significant difference between Stanwyck and Madonna is that Stanwyck ultimately conforms to the social expectations of her era whereas Madonna takes the unruliness embraced by many women in the 1980s to an unprecedented level. However, Stanwyck is not a complete sell-out; her independence and strong sexuality in the beginning of Ball of Fire foreshadow the brief post World War II feminist movement.

Madonna in 'Who's That Girl'
Madonna in ‘Who’s That Girl’

After the war, “omen who had experienced paid employment outside the home during the wartime emergency often had difficulty readjusting to a more restricted domestic role”. Indeed, many women fought against being reimprisoned in the domestic sphere, inciting the indignation of their more traditional peers. Conservative men and women suppressed the budding feminist trend by proliferating “anti-feminist tracts which consciously or unconsciously invoked the Freudian dogma that ‘anatomy is destiny’”. In doing so, they “buttress their argument that women were static creatures, impervious to historical change, whose very natures would be violated if they were diverted from reproduction and nurturance to the ‘masculine’ realms of intellect and career.”

Stanwyck is as wild as 1940s society permits. Had she played Sugarpuss as more overtly sexual or unconstrained, it is unlikely that audiences would have universally acclaimed Ball of Fire.

In a sense, Madonna is the icon Stanwyck would have been in a later, more liberated era. Although Madonna seems more dangerous and edgy than Stanwyck, it is important to recognize that by the 1980s it was more widely acceptable for women to be self-reliant.

Indeed, according to a poll taken by Seventeen Magazine, by 1980 women were receiving roughly 1/4 of all the medical degrees, law degrees, and doctorates awarded in the United States. Moreover, many women were postponing marriage to establish their careers. In this social context, Madonna’s unruliness is lauded as admirable, even when her physicality and sauciness are taken to the extreme.

In the final analysis, Stanwyck and Madonna are both commanding sexual icons of their respective eras. Their use of physical attraction as a tool, daring actions, and link to materialism give them the upper hand in relationships and allow them to maintain degrees of autonomy. Although Stanwyck ultimately conforms to the patriarchal system in Ball of Fire, Madonna picks up where her gutsy predecessor left off by maintaining unruly independence in Desperately Seeking Susan. Both actresses can be perceived as feminist symbols due to their wit, strength, and manipulative charm.

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