Midweek Media: Madonna’s “Bad Girl”

I’ve always wanted a discussion of this video – is it feminist? Anti-feminist? Something else? – and Midweek Media seems like a perfect opportunity. To transcribe a six minute video with the level of detail Revena devotes to commercials would take thousands of words, so I’m brush-stroking it and you can read the lyrics here.


Let me preface it with a couple of general remarks:

This video is gorgeous – every shot a masterpiece of lighting and thoughtful positioning of elements. Even the editing is amazing. Madonna wears her hair shoulder-length and very light blond in a wavy style. This is one of her most conservative, traditional, sophisticated looks, and every shot of her is particularly striking. She always wears black business suits at the office and white clothing at home. Finally, this video features several known actors whom I’ve identified as best I can.

Now for the very lengthy transcript, which you can skip if you’ve watched it instead.

We open with the image of two men (Matt Dillon and I don’t know) entering a brownstone and walking down the hall into a room. Sunlight pours through the window. The men wear trench coats and one wears a fedora. They’re discussing something.

Outside, a police officer walks by while, above him, on chair suspended in midair like a cherry picker, sits Christopher Walken in winter wear, observing the events below. It’s a gray day.

The two men, whom we now recognize as police detectives, walk further into the room. Matt Dillon takes a sip from a disposable cup of coffee. The older detective lifts a bed sheet to show us Louise (Madonna) laying dead on white bed linens, eyes open, head turned to one side, one arm curling awkwardly around her head, with something thin like a cord wrapped tight around her neck.

Outside, Christopher Walken looks unhappy. He looks at a beautiful pocket watch, and its hands spin backwards in time as we pan over old buildings crowded together. We zoom slowly into the rear window of a home and see Louise and an orange cat in the kitchen.

Next shot: we follow behind Louise in a black overcoat as she walks into an office. A young Asian woman wearing black dashes up to her with some papers and walks just behind her. A young man (Tomas Arana) gives her a significant look as she passes. She’s wearing sunglasses as a middle aged white man falls into step behind her other shoulder, with some photographs. Clearly, they need her to answer or approve these documents, but she just walks into her office and shuts the door. The name on it reads “Louise Oriole” (Louise is one of Madonna’s middle names).

Christopher Walken is standing outside the window on a ledge, looking into her office, unnoticed by the window washer a few feet away. Louise stares at something on her desk, then jerks her head up, as if something startled her but she has no idea where or what it was. She opens a box on the desk and gets out a cigarette. He watches with an angry/sad expression as she smokes.

Arana opens her office door and stands leaned against the jamb. He chuckles silently at her. She regards him thoughtfully as she exhales smoke that curls around her face.

A long shot shows them leaving the office, and wipes – with an artful shot of a bartender (Mark Margolis) wiping a bar – to a shot of Louise and Arana sitting down at the bar. Her smoke twists over the scene, then dissipates to reveal the young man twisting his wedding ring. Louise narrows her eyes slightly, then unbuttons the top button on her overshirt.  The next shot is of the two of them kissing outside his building. He hands her keys and she opens the front door.

Back to the office – must be early morning because no one’s around. Louise in her office takes the plastic off a dry-cleaned outfit to change into. She’s wearing sunglasses again.

It’s night. Christopher Walken sits at a table in a diner looking angry/sad again. He reaches into his pocket. Louise, totally unaware of him, sits at another table with coffee, reading something on the table. Walken puts a cigarette in his mouth. Louise puts one in hers. Walken lights his. Louise brings her lighter up to her cigarette. Walken blows out the flame on his lighter. Louise’s flame goes out too. By now, it’s fairly obvious Walken is a Guardian Angel of some sort, so I’ll start referring to him as the Angel.

A young man (Michael Massee, I think?) puts an empty glass down forcefully on her table. She looks up at him. the Angel looks away. Now Louise and this man are at his cramped, messy studio apartment. She looks out of place with her elegant black clothes and perfectly coiffed hair and makeup. Her eyes fall on a crucifix hanging from a cross-shaped jewelry tree and she fingers it. He gets two chilled glasses out of the fridge as she unzips the back of her top. The next shot is of her waking up in his black-sheeted bed. She finds a note on his pillow, reads it and crumples it while the Angel, sitting in midair in the corner, observes. She tosses the note on the floor, but magically it ends up in the Angel’s hands and he reads it: “Thank you, whoever you are.” In the bed, Louise looks unhappy.

We watch through the peephole as she enters her home. She has to kick a pile of mail out of her way in the hallway, telling us she hasn’t been home in days. She picks it up. In the bathroom, she tosses lingerie into the sink, presumably for later washing by hand. In the living room, her cat leaps onto the mantel, startling her. In the kitchen, she puts food out for the cat and has a glass of white wine for herself.

We see a closeup of Louise putting drops in her eyes, and then she’s sitting in the living room, a turban around her hair, a towel around her body, the white wine in her hand. Drops run down from her eyes – eyedrops or tears? She wipes them away.  We cut to a montage of the Angel doing this weird dance Walken did in everybody’s videos for a while around the time this was out (I don’t get it, but whatever), Louise smoking, her apartment and night shots of the city with all its lights.

Morning. Louise is looking in the mirror and mouthing lyrics as she applies lipstick.

Evening. James Rebhorn is in a dark booth in a dark bar, chatting away. Louise sits next to him, drinking and letting her eyes wander to a young man who looks over his shoulder at her. She turns back to Rebhorn. Outside, the Angel sits under an umbrella, reading a tabloid with the headline “Bloody Rampage.” Louise takes another drink, and we flash back to the morning scene – She’s touching her face with both hands and looking distraught. The young man gets up and walks out. She hurries after him without a word to Rebhorn. He waits at the end of a hall, holding a door open for her. Louise sighs and walks faster.

Outside, the Angel looks up from his newspaper to see through the window a frustrated Rebhorn and no Louise. He folds up his tabloid.

Louise is leading the young man into her home. Outside, the Angel floats around, looking for her. Louise takes off her earrings and coat while the young man looks around at her decor. She sits down on her bed and takes off her shoes. There’s nothing sensual in this. It’s like a task. The Angel, still outside looking, has tears in his eyes.

Louise takes off her stockings and wraps them forcefully around one hand. In walks the Angel, visible to her for the first (apparent) time. The music stops with a trailing echo of the line: “I’m not happy… this way.” Louise’s eyes meet those of the Angel. He sits down beside her and they gaze meaningfully at one another. He kisses her. In another room, the young man sprays breath spray into his mouth. The cat hisses. Back in the bedroom, the kiss has ended. Louise keeps her eyes closed a moment longer and touches her lips as the angel stands up. They face each other for a moment. He walks out, pausing at the door to look back. She looks back, her face sad. Then he’s gone, and there stands the young man. the music starts again. He looks over his shoulder, as if sure the look she’s giving him must be for someone else.

He walks over and tugs the stockings out of her hand. She surrenders them, her expression once more resigned. Her eyes fall half shut as she begins to lay back on the bed with a cryptic expression – almost a smile.  He checks the hallway for privacy. Back to Louise laying down – she is smiling. The young man shuts a door. Outside, the Angel wipes a gloved hand over his eyes. In the brownstone, we see the older detective’s hand closing Louise’s eyes in a similar motion – she’s dead and posed as we found her in the bed at the start, and now we know the cord around her neck was actually the stockings the young man took from her to murder her. Someone in a coat covers her with the white bed sheet. We see the edge of the Angel’s face above the scene, looking down.

EMTs and police carry a stretcher with Louise’s body down the stairs outside her front door. The Angel sits in his perch from before, smoking two cigarettes. He hands one of them to Louise, who’s perched beside him. They watch her body being carried out, then the connected chairs they’re sitting on move up and away. Superimposed on the image of her body being loaded into an ambulance is Louise’s face, peaceful in sleep. Fade to black.

What do you think? A woman who’s a success in a man’s world can’t find happiness and commits suicide by serial killer (remember the headline “Bloody Rampage”). Is this an anti-feminist message about how success won’t make women happy unless they find a man to love them, too? Is it slut-shaming? Is it a troubling representation of murder-victim-as-glamorous? How about a story about urban isolation featuring a woman for a change? Or just the sad tale of an incredibly depressed woman who finds a way to die around the Catholic rule against suicide? Or something else entirely?


  1. sheila says

    Well I’ll be dammed, I never thought it was suicide…but looking it at it again, it sure does look like she knew what was going to happen.

  2. Eileen says

    And starting at 3:25 Chris Walken gets in some practice for the future Fatboy Slim video.

    About the video… if this was the only story Madonna ever told, or if it characterized her work, I would be pissed. I think this is kind of unique for her though; like she’s finding a way to explore negative aspects of sex and domination that are almost always portrayed positively in her other videos. It’s like a brief foray into the negative version of her life’s work.

    It’s not great. The song is OK, but the story being told is far from original. She looks awesome. So does Christopher Walken. I’m not a big fan of dead girl stories generally. Twenty years of Law and Order and CSI have probably dulled the impact of this video considerably.

  3. Robin says

    The thing that strikes me about the video is the absence of the “you” from the lyrics. Based on the song itself, Louise’s dalliances would seem to be acts of cheating on a monogamous partner, but there’s no real indication in the visuals of who that partner might be unless maybe she’s meant to be talking to her work persona? That doesn’t quite scan for me, though.

    Perhaps “you” is Walken’s angel character who has died, so the flings feel like cheating when they’re not? That might explain her relatively calm reaction to seeing him at the end and her resignation to death.

    Either way, to me it’s about a person deeply unhappy with her life for a variety of reasons who is engaging in dangerous, unsatisfying behavior because it’s the only method she’s found for connecting to others. Not so much a cautionary tale about one night stands so much as a warning against self-destructive behavior resulting from depression run amok.

    Other than the dying part, it reminds me a lot of a woman I knew in college who suffers from bipolar disorder. She had a wonderful boyfriend, but would periodically go off her meds and start sleeping around in order to bolster her negative moods with male attention — which she invariably received because she was gorgeous — instead. I hate to think of her ending up like Louise.

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