Madonna alters female adolescence
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  July 26, 2006

Madonna's "Material Girl" video
Most girls who grew up during the ’60s and early ’70s learned more about their place in society from Barbie than they did from their mothers. Barbie was the madonna/whore complex molded into shapely plastic, a mute ideal of wholesome yet suggestive beauty emphasized in adorable-sexy clothes designed to turn Ken’s head its full 360 degrees. She could be outfitted for a range of glamorous fantasy careers or rewarding helpmate ones. And, having no genitals, she was an archetype of chastity. Of course, the most coveted item in the Barbie wardrobe was a voluminous white lace-wedding gown. So in 1984, when Madonna Louise Ciccone, Barbie’s most apt pupil, posed in a (punky) white wedding gown for the laughably literal madonna/whore cover of her second album, Like a Virgin, the little girls — and a lot of us big girls — understood. Madonna was not out to attack traditional institutions or soil traditional daydreams (how could the glowing romantic-rebirth imagery of “Like a Virgin” have been so seriously misread?). No, she was a staunchly middle-class as the most loyal of her fans; like them, she was shaped by the pop culture that Barbie reflected — parents’ Fab ’50s stability mixed with the fallout of ’60s social change and the trickle-down of ’70s permissiveness. For the young girls who bought Like a Virgin in droves and made her the most popular (and notorious) white female singer of her time, Madonna is the last word in attitude and fashion, the epitome of cool. Madonna is the video generation’s Barbie.

And those girls couldn’t have a smarter or spunkier role model. Madonna injects middle class ideas of femininity with examples of what feminism means to her, and it means simply “equal opportunity.” Instead of Barbie’s teasing aloofness, she offers an aggressive sexuality that implies it’s acceptable for women not only to initiate relationships (and she does in “Physical Attraction,” “Borderline,” “Crazy for You,” “Into the Groove,” etc.) but also to enjoy them. Barbie had the land of make believe carte blanche (not to mention the costumes) to be all things at once, but Madonna does it for real. A singer, songwriter, actress, comedienne, and now — on her latest, nerviest, and most assured album, True Blue (Sire) — a record producer, Madonna exemplifies the women’s-movement slogan that any girl can grow up to be whatever she wants to be (though, not surprisingly, MS. magazine didn’t have the guts to make her its token rocker in its 1985 Women of the Year round-up, favoring instead the nearly presexual and less explicitly feminist Cyndi Lauper); in songs like “Over and Over” (“You try to criticize my drive”) and, of course, “Material Girl,” she asserts that nice girls have to subliminate ambition. Most tantalizing (and controversial) is her insistence that a woman –— even a professional woman — ought to be able to act flirty, sexy, or sentimental without being written off as an airhead. Like (the more buttoned-up) Chrissie Hynde, Madonna refuses to suppress her female sensibilities and urges to make it in a man’s world.

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