A show down between Madonna and Cher.I have been toying with this idea for quite some time. (Almost 20 years in fact.) I imagine a dividing line forming between women. A call to feminists and the revival of feminism. I'm not sure how it might be conceptualized. A media blitz competition for sure, Roller Derby? American Idol? A panel of women discussing more relevant feminist issues and enacting change? Ah, the notion. Women in control taking control of their lives. But not so quick.
It may seem strange to focus on Cher and Madonna, but stay with me. Two weeks ago, I saw Love, Loss and What I Wore on Broadway (or a little bit to the SW of Broadway). There is a line about Madonna and her various phases or resurrections if you will; Desperately Seeking Susan, Like A Virgin, Vogue, and the connection that any woman over or under a certain age has, based on a Madonna-inspired clothing item of her past. I was pleased to be over the designated age to relate, but admittedly enjoyed many a night at Danceteria with my asymmetrical coif and black leggings pre-Susan. Cher's wardrobe has its own connotations and opened the door for many after. But I digress. I am not so interested in the feathers and beads, or the conical undergarments. Two women, inspiring so many. Yes, inspiring, but here is where they differ, who they inspired and how.
The very mention of Madonna tends to infuriate me. My husband gets very concerned about my reaction and in turn, my well being. He doesn’t understand and he’s put off by my intense reaction. He believes women are generally equal to men, at least for the most part. He doesn’t experience the everyday subliminal, coercive, and at times blatant reminders that we are not. So I decided to write my thoughts and lay my feelings to rest or share them with the virtual world at the very least.
I was born in 1963. In the early 1970's I was too young to understand the works of Gloria Steinem or Betty Freidan. Watching The Sonny and Cher Show was amazing to me. Here was a woman, exotic, funny, and taller than her husband. Wow! Through my 9 year old eyes, I was seeing and hearing a woman that seemed to have a voice of her own. She spoke her mind. She was witty and intelligent. She sparred with her husband and he sparred back. He did not humiliate or belittle her for having her own opinion. She sang with him and she sang alone. Here was a role model for girls. The very possibility that a woman could be an equal partner in her marriage was incredible for me to witness. It was truly inspiring. I had no dreams of becoming a movie star or a singer but I dreamed of having a strong voice, my voice and the freedom to use it.
I was raised at a time and in a place where women were not equal, not even close. Myself, and many of my female college friends were the first women in our families to attend college. We knew we had an opportunity not available to our own mothers. Many ambitious and interesting women starting their journeys in the world. For once, a world beyond the kitchen, and the laundry room. Some women were undoubtedly still attending to find a husband, have babies- start, (or end?) lives of their own. My roommate actually had to drop out when her family was no longer able to support her and her brother. Her brother, however, did not have to drop out. These notions surprised me. My own mother was determined to see her daughters complete college and benefit from the possibilities that alone might provide us. It was probably also imagined that we would marry and have children but our wedding day was not promoted as the “biggest” day of our lives. This was the early 1980's. I wanted it all, a career, a family- a husband, or more accurately, an equal partner, and children. I had the absolute belief that I would be sharing the load and sharing the benefits. I would have a voice and it would be used. It would not be used singing Cherokee People, but it would be used.
In the mid 1980's and throughout the 1990's and here and there since, Madonna has inspired. Little girls running around in lacey leggings and fingerless gloves crying about keeping their babies, or being touched for the very first time was not uncommon in the 1990’s. Many of my friends and peers have argued, unconvincingly, that Madonna promoted the concept that women can be strong and sexy, as if this was not already known. We didn’t have to be manly to be powerful, they asserted. Was expecting equality manly? I must have missed that memo. Did we have to look like prostitutes or chamber maids to be powerful?
It seemed that we were being told to stop trying to be too strong and use our sex appeal to get what we wanted. This works if we want sex and some sort of compensation. This works better if we fit some sort of predetermined idealistic physical paradigm. In most sectors of the workforce, it is difficult to gain credibility based on how much desirable sexuality we exude.
Madonna seemed to market toward, and target young girls, tweeners, prepubescent girls. So many ate it up and asked for more. The new feminism. The pretty girls feminism. Where do these sexy, sexualized young girls utilize this inspiration? How do they use their purchased, packaged sexuality for power? Britney Spears was mentored by and followed Madonna, the not quite so innocent tease. Oops, we did it again, we targeted young girls and taught them that being attractive is all we have to offer, that being intelligent is not feminine. We are supposed to believe Britney was able to use her sex appeal intelligently. She sold it, gained millions and with that, power? She got married, divorced and married again. She married someone that enjoyed her wealth, and other women. She divorced him. Partied every night and shaved off her hair. Oh, and her husband got the kids. All that sexuality and feminism, so little power. But wait, she grew back her hair, she lost weight, she may or may not have found her panties and for this we may love her again. We continue to give our daughters the financial means to support and emulate these images and models.
I did not need to be convinced that women can be strong and sexy. Why would this be a surprise, a goal or ambition, in and of itself? I believe we have lost sight of all the other qualities we have as a result of being disillusioned by the notion that stereotypical external sexual characteristics equal power. I have often felt sexy and powerful, simultaneously and separately. I hope these are human characteristics that we all experience. I don’t want my daughter or any girl to believe being sexy is the way to gain power.
In our society 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of 18. Where is the power in that? Where is the power in being blamed for these statistics because of the way we dress, or were taught to behave? More importantly why do we continue to ignore these statistics? How can we educate our daughters about self-respect and boundaries? How do we empower them to take control of their sexuality? Most importantly, when do we teach our sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, and colleagues that they cannot abuse girls and women without dire long term consequences? That it doesn't matter how we look or how we dress, we are not to be treated abusively or dismisively because we are equally important and demand to be valued for more than our appearance, real or imagined.
While it may seem that Cher and Madonna aren't that different, the difference lies in the timing. Cher offered a glimpse at the possibilities. We were just gaining some equality. We were just beginning to enjoy the possibilities held out for us. Girls who watched and idolized Madonna had no idea that having the choice to go to college, have a career, and make their own decisions, was a fairly new concept for masses of women. These girls believed it a birth right. While Madonna probably isn't really the front woman for some conservative, anti-feminist movement, she certainly has not helped to move equality ahead. Why offer so little at a time when we could have gone so much further?
Who will be the role model for the next generation? What will be the important qualities promoted for girls and women? Who will determine them? Let’s value intelligence, responsibility, respect and equality. Intelligence may be perceived as threatening, or gasp, controlling. But let’s go for it anyway. Responsibility, respect, equality. They seem to go hand in hand, balanced and interconnected. These qualities can be promoted to boys and girls alike. No sexy undergarments needed, but please keep that to yourself and your loved one(s).