A Loyola University history professor thinks Madonna and other pop culture icons offer a key to understanding the times in which they live and, by contrast, other eras.
For example, asks Jesse Nash: "Would the early Greeks have liked Madonna?"Nash, 38, who promotes a markedly feminist view of Western civilization, contends in his classes at the Jesuit university that studying the Material Girl may be more valuable than reading Shakespeare.
Her tongue-in-cheek disregard for traditional gender roles defies rules set by the early Greeks, and her style flouts the Romans' standards, he tells his class.
For historians, Nash said, Madonna's obsession with sexuality is an indictment of the traditional view of how men and women should behave.
"I don't really like her music, but I like her critique of society," Nash said. "She has a real historical sense with her costuming and videos that other pop stars don't have."
The scandal that Madonna creates, he said, proves that Westerners still uphold values that subjugate women.
The early Greeks established cultural gender roles more than 2,000 years ago to distribute social power among men, Nash said. He said the Greeks venerated men and considered women little more than child-bearing workers.
The Romans took the rules of protocol a step further, Nash said, creating laws that reduced women to personal property and ordered them to dress and behave in ways acceptable to men.
Nash's class recently considered Madonna's "Justify My Love" video. The video, banned from MTV, depicts a woman fulfilling her sexual fantasy with both a male and a female partner. The two suitors look alike, wear similar clothes and often appear indistinguishable.
Madonna makes people uncomfortable because she refuses to be bound by convention, Nash said. Men are especially unnerved by a video such as "Justify My Love," he said, because they see a male character who is not allowed to take the dominant role in a sexual encounter. The woman - Madonna - is obviously in charge.
Madonna plays all of the masculine roles in the video, Nash noted, while the male characters take on traditionally womanly images as disenfranchised workers.
By expressing and exposing herself, "Madonna, in a kind of gross and crude fashion, is a notion of self-ownership," Nash said. "She said, `I own myself, I will not be anyone's property.' The Romans would have understood this immediately and locked her up. The Greeks would have been intrigued."