Reconceptualizing Gender through Dialogue: The Case of the Tex-Mex Madonna

Article excerpt

For most people in the United States, Selena was introduced posthumously. On March 31, 1995, Selena Quintanilla Perez was shot and killed by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar, in her Texas hometown of Corpus Christi. As Selena was rushed to the hospital, where she soon was pronounced dead, Yolanda Saldivar held police at bay in the parking lot of the motel where she had shot Selena, a gun pointed to her own head. After more than nine hours, she surrendered. Meanwhile, hundreds had gathered to watch the drama unfold, and television cameras arrived that sent images of the standoff to stations all over the country. When Selena's death was announced, images of the tejana singer in her glittering bustiers and skin-tight sequined outfits flashed behind announcers who were relating the news that she had been shot. But who was Selena? This was the question that millions of non-tejanos were asking. Who was the woman who had caused such a sensation?

Many members of the media were also asking this question. Since consumer-based telecommunications blocs abhor (usually self-created) information voids, there occurred a demand for sources that could deliver commentary on tejano music and culture. The media's immediate task was to supply a point of reference that would provide media audiences with an understanding of the slain singer. This task was accomplished with an initial label: Selena was "the Tex-Mex Madonna." This label was handy, easily understood, and totally inaccurate. This label did not reflect the tejano experience or understanding of Selena. As information from tejanos about Selena's life and values surfaced in the popular media, the Madonna-Selena connection became increasingly problematic. Eventually the label was dropped for the more accurate "Queen of Tejana Music." In this article we argue that among the social-cultural repositionings in the aftermath of Selena's death, followers of United States popular culture encountered a reading of Selena that reconceptualized the image of the sexily dressed woman. The movement from the first label to the second represents a brief moment of cultural openness in the otherwise frenzied commodification of the late singer.

Dress, the Body, and Sexuality

A familiar visiting point in most surveys of communication is the topic of nonverbal meaning. We confidently assert what to us is a straightforward axiom: dress communicates. But beyond this, issues are not as confidently resolved. Dress communicates far more than an individual's preference or style. After all, a person cannot choose from what is unavailable. Something is unavailable because it is unmade (unthought), it is unaffordable (unselectable), or it is taboo (undesirable to design/manufacturing centers). In each instance, the factors surrounding what a person chooses to wear originate beyond, and manifest within, the person's social environment. Hence, the wearer's appearance implicates a complex set of social prescriptions and expectations. What Deetz (1990) has observed about technology also holds for dress; it is a "materialized ideology" (p.48 ).

If dress tells us what is preferred in a society, then the wearer communicates an acceptance of or opposition to a society's norms. Arthur (1993) notes that "Dress, and by extension, the body are sites where different symbolic meanings are constructed and contested" (p. 66). Dress is political; it visualizes and makes mobile regions of discord and tension.

Images of Selena invited quick inferences because her typical stage wardrobe included costumes which are generally considered "skimpy" and "flashy". The symbolic meaning often constructed for this type of dress is one of a "loose" woman of low repute who sexually accessible. Arthur's (1993) ethnography of Mennonite women found that their clothing was often used to "control" them, and that clothing was often associated with sexual behavior. One member whom she interviewed noted that "If you're single, clothes are for sexual attraction, but you can't be too obvious. …