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Natalie Portman's confusion over Jessica Simpson's virginity resulted in an insightful social media exchange

Storm in a teacup?

IN THE LATE 90s and early noughties, the music industry was awash with young, female artists whose supposedly squeaky clean lifestyles appeared to work in juxtaposition to their overtly sexual public image.

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While older generations were used to a ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ vibe from their music idols, millennials were force-fed a decidedly different narrative, and the likes of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson were used as the vehicle with which to do it.

Its motivation appear to stem from a desire to appeal to the conservative US, without isolating those who would be willing to spend their pocket money on posters, albums and concert tickets.

As such, we were regularly reminded that Britney Spears was a virgin while Jessica Simpson was the daughter of a Baptist Youth Minister, and would be waiting until marriage to have sex.

These particular soundbites, generated ad nauseum, accompanied provocative music videos, regular bikini shoots and a healthy dose of cynicism from those looking in.

As an adult, it’s likely you identified it for what it was, but as a child, it was decidedly more difficult to recognise the marketing strategies of a multi-billion dollar industry.

And so, we took it at face value, became used to the juxtaposition and sometimes used it to help frame our understanding of the adult world, which ultimately – and unsurprisingly – threw up a lot of questions.

In a recent interview with USA Today, Natalie Portman made reference to the early days of Jessica Simpson’s pop career, claiming that the disparity between Jessica’s image and her pledge to remain a virgin until marriage ‘confused’ her.

Vox Lux Premiere - Los Angeles Source: Birdie Thompson

Promoting her new film Vox Lux, which depicts the rise of a teenage pop star, Natalie, 37, 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,” Natalie added.

Like many of us, Natalie was vaguely confused by the message; an adolescent at the time she presumably had yet to learn that an appearance or aesthetic doesn’t have to work in direct correlation with an attitude, set of beliefs or code of conduct.

Indeed, Natalie appeared more resolute when it came to her assessment of Madonna. To Natalie, Madonna’s appearance reflected her attitude, and this was something she, as a child, could understand.

I felt really lucky to have her as a little kid, 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.

Hearing of Natalie’s critique, Jessica, 38, used her social media pages to respond to Natalie, telling her she was ‘disappointed’ to hear her assessment.

Beautycon LA 2018 - Los Angeles Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“I was disappointed this morning when I read that I ‘confused’ you by wearing a bikini in a published photo taken of me when I was still a virgin in 1999.” Jessica began her post which has been liked more than 31,000 times on Twitter and 175,000 times on Instagram.

As public figures, we both know our image is not totally in our control at all times, and that the industry we work in often tries to define us and box us in. However, 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.

“I have always embraced being a role model to all women to let them know that they can look however they want, wear whatever they want and have sex or not have sex with whomever they want. The power lies within us as individuals.”

“I have made it my practice to not shame other women for their choices. In this era of Times Up and the great work you have done for women, I encourage you to do the same,” Jessica concluded.

Here’s the thing though; Natalie wasn’t criticising Jessica as such, she was alluding to the mixed messages perpetuated by an industry, which was intent on having its cake and eating it.

She wasn’t assessing Jessica from an adult perspective, but reflecting on her adolescent interpretation.

Clarifying this on social media, Natalie told Jessica:

I only meant to say I was confused – as a girl coming of age in the public eye around the same time – by the media’s mixed messages about how girls and women were supposed to behave.

“I would never intend to shame anybody and that was absolutely not my intention,” Natalie told Entertainment Tonight in response to Jessica’s posts.

I was really talking about mixed media messages out there for young women and completely apologise for any hurt it may have caused because that was definitely not my intention.

“It is a mistake to say anyone’s name. I could have made my message without naming,” Natalie added.

The exchange has been dubbed by some as a storm in a teacup – and to some extent it is – but unlike many of its nature, its outcome was a positive one.

Together, the two women highlighted a common ploy used at the time in question, a marketing tool which they both fell victim to, and with the benefit of hindsight, they are in a position to identify this.

Jessica spoke of a having a lack of control as a teenager in the music industry, while as a teenager looking in, Natalie was left confused and unsure of the message she was supposed to internalise. 

Ostensibly, both women are on the same page, and place considerable value on extending women the right to dress and behave as they choose without judgement – something which was realised through a dignified and diplomatic exchange.

At a time when tensions are running high around matters such as this, the women’s desire to listen and understand is something to keep in mind.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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