Madonna and child-rearing

Posted: Sep 22, 2003 12:00 AM

In these times of heightened discord and possible tectonic upheaval, there's little reason to linger on a culture-blip like the publishing launch of a series of kiddie books by Madonna. No doubt there are contrasts to be drawn between the semi-retired pop queen's latest and most dubious incarnation as a tea-sipping sort of Mrs. Miniver who writes children's books, and her extremely sordid, extremely lucrative career as a pop-exhibitionist. (Said career in pop-exhibitionism includes one prior publishing lark as a porno-spread subject and author of a book called "Sex.") Still, anyone who has successfully parried the thrust of all the recent media hoopla -- equal parts pretentious and nauseating -- over Madonna and the kissing pop-tarts on MTV will understand the reflexive instinct to shield the eyes from all Madonna news.

But the pop-ostrich in me just couldn't resist something Madonna said -- a real mouthful -- to the Times of London Sunday magazine. It was about her seven-year-old daughter, Lourdes, and Madonna's long career of mass-marketing her own vulgar sexuality. Quoth Madonna (given her current and slavish pursuit of English foppishness, she's bound to do a lot of quothing): "I protect her from sex full stop. She's not aware of sex, nor should she be. You know, we've had little conversations about where babies come from, but sex is not, and should not be, part of her repertoire right now."

Full stop? Given that Madonna is one of the preeminent despoilers of youthful innocence, this, as her new compatriots might say, is a bit cheeky. It's Madonna who first shredded virginity and wedding dresses into pop mega-hits, displaying a leave-us-alone exhibitionism that wreaked havoc on girlhood. Well and good that Madonna has had "little conversations" with her daughter about where babies come from; but what about the conversations about where Mommy's riches come from? Later, Madonna says. She says she someday plans to tell Lourdes her career as a sexual provocateur was all an act, which may or may not be comforting. "I'd explain that's me putting on a show. I'm playing a character, it's not really me. I'm being an actress."

This may work for Madonna-the-delusionist. Indeed, the 45-year-old wife and mother may have moved on permanently to floral prints, matching pumps, and a kiddie book that is rooted, Madonna is quick to emphasize, in her seven-year study of Jewish mysticism. The rest of us, meanwhile, remain stuck among her true spawn -- little girls and big, Baby Britneys and Madonna-wannabes, who believe that exhibitionism is liberation, that the birds and the bees equal "hooking up," and, almost worst of all, that bra straps and navels are outerwear. Thus, has sexuality -- to borrow a phrase from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- been defined down, down, down. There's little mystery in it now, let alone mysticism.

No wonder Madonna hopes to protect her wee one. Which is precisely what many of us spend our own children's early years trying to do: We resist the extent to which sexuality, particularly female sexuality, has been snatched from its traditional time and place in human development -- as a rite of passage to adulthood, to marriage, to having children -- and grafted onto girlhood. The sexualization of childhood may not have started with Madonna, but under her pop influence, and under that of her pop descendants, it became pretty irreversible.

Madonna says she has no regrets. But neither does she appear to understand her own leading role in coarsening the culture against which she now guards her daughter. She does admit that what was cast as a crusade for sexual honesty in the 1980s and 1990s was really something of a scam. "Was I really trying to liberate people?" she asks rhetorically. "Or was I just being an exhibitionist and basking in the glory of being able to do what I wanted? I think that probably was mostly what it was."

So do I. But while she exhibited and basked and did what she wanted -- and grew wealthy beyond exaggeration -- she could always take shelter in an impervious cocoon of wealth and cultural influence. (The multitudes she influenced to bare all and do all, alas, had no such protection.) Now that she has moved on a little bit, wearing specs and writing children's books, maybe she is finally trying to hide her tracks. We know for sure she is trying to hide her daughter. Not that she can, of course. Which is too bad, because the real Madonna -- the notorious global persona -- isn't too savory an influence on anybody's growing girl.