It all comes down to Madonna. At the heart of Jessica Simpson and Natalie Portman’s short-lived feud, you’ll find the Queen of Pop’s enduring influence on a generation of women.
In an interview with USA Today this week, Portman said, “I remember being a teenager, and there was Jessica Simpson on the cover of a magazine saying ‘I’m a virgin’ while wearing a bikini, and I was confused. Like, I don’t know what this is trying to tell me as a woman, as a girl.”
Simpson fired back in a statement addressed to Portman on Twitter, writing in part, “I was taught to be myself and honor the different ways all women express themselves, which is why I believed then – and I believe now – that being sexy in a bikini and being proud of my body are not synonymous with having sex.”
Fair enough. Watching the woman famously perplexed by “Chicken of the Sea” out-debate a Harvard graduate was rather satisfying. But the fight ended as quickly as it started. Portman apologized.
“I was really talking about mixed media messages out there for young women and completely apologize for any hurt it may have caused because that was definitely not my intention,” she conceded, adding, “What I said was I was confused by mixed messages when I was a young girl growing up, and there are a lot of messages for how women should be, and women should be allowed to do whatever they want.”
In the late ’90s and early aughts, Simpson was outspoken about abstaining from sex until her wedding night (which, of course, means she ultimately lost her virginity to Nick Lachey). It’s not a common talking point from blonde-bombshell pop stars, but wearing bikinis while abstaining from sex until marriage is hardly an irreconcilable position. Portman’s “confus[ion]” is likely rooted in the cultural stereotype that people who choose to follow Simpson’s route belong to fundamentalist cults that mandate covered ankles. Indeed, it’s a stereotype Simpson was consciously undermining.
That’s actually why the former Mrs. Nick Lachey overreacted. Portman’s admitted confusion is actually what Simpson was targeted 20 years ago by speaking out, and by speaking out as a characteristically hot pop star. She was trying to normalize her decision, which required an acknowledgement that the decision was not the norm.
It’s interesting to read Portman’s comments in the context of her full interview. Right before mentioning Simpson, the actress hailed Madonna. “I felt really lucky to have her as a little kid,” the actress said, “because I saw someone who was brazen and disobedient and provocative and trying to mess with people and always changing – I thought it was a great thing to see in a woman growing up.”
To Portman, who grew up reverent of and conditioned by Madonna’s depiction of sexuality, it’s telling that it was the virginal Simpson who ultimately “confused” her as a teen.
“Madonna,” wrote Camille Paglia in 1990, when Portman was nine, “has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.”
Madge’s legacy is complicated, there’s no doubt about that. But Portman, born in 1981, was joined by millions of other young women in her admiration of Madonna. By the time the late ’90s rolled around, it’s no wonder they would find Simpson confusing. She wasn’t “like a virgin,” she actually was one. But her breathy voice and risqué outfits made that information all the more surprising to acolytes of Madonna, like Portman, whom it left “confused.”
We can save the debates over Simpson and Madge’s relative modesty for another time. But as we digest the unlikely conflict between Portman and Simpson, it’s well-worth noting Madonna’s formative influence over the former.
“I was always very aware of sexual politics, growing up in a Catholic-Italian family in the Midwest, seeing that my brothers could do what they wanted but the girls were always told that they needed to dress a certain way, act a certain way,” Madonna explained to Harpers Bazaar in 2011. “We were told to wear our skirts to our knees, turtlenecks, cover ourselves and not wear makeup, and not do anything that would draw attention. One of my father’s famous quotes — and I love him dearly, but he’s very, very old-fashioned—was ‘If there were more virgins, the world would be a better place.'”
That sets up an interesting dichotomy, as if to say rebelling against conservative dress codes and forgoing virginity go hand-in-hand. Natalie Portman and Madonna are both smart people, but oddly enough, it’s Jessica Simpson’s recognition of the problems with their expectations that look progressive.