Using Pop Culture Images to Teach Students to Relocate the Dislocated Referent


Susan Smith Nash

Helping students become more aware of how images shape meaning is one of the primary objectives of media and popular culture courses.  Online courses provide excellent opportunities to help students begin to understand how images create meaning.  Such knowledge can empower students and help them learn to use images in conjunction with their own work. 

An example drawn from popular culture is Madonna’s 2003 release, American Life.

I'm just living out the American dream

And I just realised that nothing

Is what it seems

            ---- from Madonna’s American Life


Most people watching Madonna's music and video offering, American Life, which debuted in April 2003 on the Internet at,,, and other sites, probably did not recognize the visual allusions she makes in her beret, dark hair, severe expression, single red stars, military stencil distressed type font.

Madonna American Life (2003)

Others surely saw echoes of Alberto Korda's famous 1960 photo in which Argentina-born Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, attending a funeral in Havana, wears a black beret emblazoned with a red star. Korda later complained when the famous image was used in 2000 in a Smirnoff ad to promote vodka sales. Korda, who supported the use of the image to promote such causes as the revolutionary overthrow of elitist governments or repressive regimes, vigorously opposed the use of the image to promote vodka.


Korda’s photo of Che Guevara             The Smirnoff ad based on Korda’s Che photo


Very astute (and probably older) web-surfers probably noticed Madonna's image bears a striking resemblance to that of "Tania," the nom du guerre of Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider, who died in a 1967 ambush in Bolivia at age 29.  Her remains were found in 1998 within a mile of those of Che Guevara.  In the most famous photographs of Tania, she is wearing the same type of beret as Che Guevara. 

Tania” – Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider


Oddly, her photograph resonates with images of a beret-wearing Faye Dunaway as Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde, which was released the same year as Tania's death, 1967.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Later, the "Tania" image was echoed in the 1974 images of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in which the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, was reborn as, "Tania" an automatic weapon-wielding, beret-wearing bank robber and revolutionary.  Although members of the group were implicated in murders, kidnappings, hostage-taking, and bank-robbery, they were serious anti-heroes in some circles, primarily those comprised of individuals who opposed the war in Vietnam.

“Tania” – Patty Hearst – 1974


In these cases, one can make the case that the use of the "Che" beret suggests affiliation with the revolutionary causes that Che Guevara fought for.   The beret is effectively turned into a symbol, or a referent denoting "revolutionary" or "rebel."  When the beret is positioned on the original "Tania" (Haydee) or the Patty Hearst "Tania," the referent is "relocated."  In relocation, it exercises an iconographic function, and essentially "brands" the bearer.

With Madonna, the beret functions in similar ways.  However, given the motives of the artist and the marketing machine behind the publicity, it becomes clear that the beret is a co-opted symbol, a referent "dislocated."  The beret becomes a posturing, or, as Madonna might have put it a decade earlier, a "voguing" of a previous icon.  Madonna's self-invention generally self-referential, and an obviously intentional act.   American Life, however, purports to be more of a contemplation, almost a memoir.

It is not Madonna's first pass at co-opting a "text" that had, in its original version, a subversive message. Her use of the Che image strangely echoes her "remaking" of Lena Wertmuller's classic film, Swept Away.  Wertmuller's original was a potent Marxist critique of elitism, classism, and oppression. In Madonna's hands, the intellectual content eliminated, and it becomes more of a pseudo-violent cartoon of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.  Troublingly, Madonna's Swept Away legitimizes and/or attempts to eroticize violence toward women. It's familiar territory for Madonna, who has borrowed heavily from the gay underground, including the "rough trade" and sado-masochism scene. However, in the original there are true questionings of society, culture, and human nature. Madonna consistently presents a significantly mainstreamed version, palatable to consumers unaware of its provenance.

The beret helps Madonna package a product that promises to be an investigation of culture, gender roles, societal attitudes, cowboys, dance, fashion, and war. However, as the referent, the beret, is dislocated in the service of commerce and pop culture, it becomes not a symbol of affiliation with a revolutionary cause.  Instead, it becomes a symbol of commercially-motivated metamorphosis and self-invention.  American Life illustrates the process of packaging oneself and one’s image.  It also reflects the intentionality of manipulating graphics to show individuals in the process of creating and/or deliberately creating an identity, attempting to control the act of self-invention. 

The taboo is always fodder for commercialization, particularly when it deals with sex and violence.

The photo of Che Guevara, already turned into consumer candy, devoid of any traces -- fervent, ironic, or otherwise -- of Che's speeches which hammered home the message that "consumerism leads to bestialization," has a 40-year history of appropriation. The beret is reduced to a fashion statement or pure "kitsch"  -- not simply for its use in vodka ads, but also by the self-stylings of individuals who claim to be fighting for the people, as they line their pockets with the resources of the poor.  

This is not to say that the "Che beret" cannot be revitalized and used, yet again, to symbolize affiliation with a revolutionary group.  However, what makes or breaks the image is how the person is perceived as they "relocate the referent."  When the person doing the relocating is perceived as a manipulator of icons, a creator of fashion statements and pop culture, there is an automatic self-consciousness, and possible trivialization of the referent.  However, when the icon is used by individuals who then perpetrate violent, criminal acts, then the referent takes on additional power, exerting an almost sinister potency. 

In the meantime, in the world of the Internet, where every image that one sees has been manipulated in one way or another, it is important to help students see how graphics become symbols or icons, and how they build meaning.  As American Life says it (and quite succinctly),

I'm just living out the American dream

And I just realised that nothing

Is what it seems