Madonna made me do it

Liberator or oppressor? The debate over the meaning of the material girl continues.

Published February 9, 2009 3:28PM (EST)

It's almost Valentine's Day, that magical time of year when every publication in the western world rushes to teach us something about love and human desire in laughably reductive, usually sexist ways. The Times Online (UK) is no exception, offering up numerous iterations of the usual "Men are from Mars, women want money and babies" lessons of the season. Among these, my favorites have to be the two, published three days apart, that hold up Madonna as a role model who A) demonstrates that getting divorced in middle age can be the best thing that ever happens to women, giving them more time to focus on career and other interests, and B) tricked a generation of young women into believing that career and other interests are more important than husbands and kids.

In the first, after invoking Madge, Emma Soames approvingly repeats Jerry Hall's statement that "a career is for life, a man isn't," and goes on to write: "all the people I know who are reaching the same age [fiftysomething] seem to be having a seriously good time. I have friends who are newly single, some in blissful new relationships and just a few still happily hanging on in there with their first model. Compare and contrast with the lives of our own dear parents. In their fifties, they were counting the days to retirement, making their wills and practising near-Buddhist levels of acceptance. Divorce was a rare event and not regarded as an option. Back then, a dark cloak of invisibility descended on women over 45." Soames points out that professional women in their fifties are at the top of their earning power, usually no longer responsible for small children, and "experiencing a giddy sense of freedom that quite often leads to the dumping of long-term partners." Life improves substantially, she argues, when one is finally free to enjoy work, friends, and the spoils of a 30-year career, even -- maybe especially -- if it means hubby gets the heave-ho.

Compare and contrast with the life of Zoe Lewis, who complains that emulating Madonna led her to "ruthlessly" pursue her dreams, become a successful playwright, party with musician friends, and live according to her feminist mother's "great values of choice, equality and sexual liberation." Yes, I said complains. Now 37, single and childless, Lewis feels duped -- she used to believe she had all the time in the world to have kids, that men would flock to a strong, independent woman, and that other women would support her focus on her career, but now she's running out of time, she hasn't found the right guy, and she apparently hangs out with a lot of judgmental mommies. Ergo, second-wave feminists and '80s pop stars sold her a bill of goods, and the career she worked so hard for is worthless. "Somewhere inside lurks a woman I cannot control and she is in the kitchen with a baby on her hip and dough in her hand, staring me down. She is saying: 'This is happiness, this is what it's all about.' It's an instinct that makes me a woman, an instinct that I can't ignore even if I wanted to." Oh, yippee, a nod to evo-psych! Women's primal ladybrains will always be most fulfilled if we follow our "hard-wired" gender stereotypes, er, roles!

Unless, of course, we're happiest when we ditch the husband and kids and focus on our career and friends, as Soames argues and as Lewis chose to do in the first place. So which is it? It's neither and both, duh. These two pieces could not illustrate more clearly that the endless "career v. family" debate sets up a false dichotomy. Articles like these inevitably argue that all women are (or would be) happiest doing X or Y, but they never reveal so much about human nature as they do about an individual author's regrets and resentments. Or, rather, if they do reveal something about human nature, it's not that women universally want one thing or another; it's that there's a reason why "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" is such a well-worn axiom. And maybe that it's way too easy to project our own desires and values onto celebrities like Madonna.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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