Singing the praises of women with attitude

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am

Actress and singer Jessica Simpson's new version of Nancy Sinatra's 40-year-old hit These Boots Are Made for Walking - in both lyrics and delivery - shows how far the position of women and its symbolism in pop culture have evolved, at least in the west.

Sinatra's version debuted in 1966, just as the feminist movement was launched and before the 25-year-old star of The Dukes of Hazard was even born. It is aggressive, assertive and matter-of-fact about how to deal with an unfaithful lover.

The song exhibited a raw sexuality, which was to become replicated in other images of the time - most famously, Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC then Jane Fonda in Barbarella. The innocence of a Marilyn Monroe character had effectively been dumped.

By contrast, Simpson's version, which includes some new lyrics, while still projecting overwhelming confidence, also exhibits a coy and teasing tone. It's a style more reminiscent of Monroe, but - after four decades of change - the audience is left in no doubt as to who is in charge. And if there is any innocence, it is intentioned and ironic. It's Monroe with attitude.

No entertainer demonstrates this back-to-the-future trend - but with defiance - more than Madonna, who early on saw herself as a latter-day Monroe. Indeed, her hit album Like A Virgin may have pioneered the trend with its cover of the star in a wedding gown, but satirically exhibiting a haughty and far-from chaste pose and glare.

While television shows such as Sex and the City are analysed ad nauseam for their more sophisticated representations of women's social and professional status - as well as the dilemmas associated with independence - figures such as Simpson and Madonna usually get little analytical attention. They are routinely dismissed along with crass commercialism and light entertainment.

But Simpson and others, such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton (famous for being famous), cannot just be dismissed as 'dumb blondes'. Part of the problem is the fact that none of them fit preconceived ideas about how women should be succeeding, and their success seems to rest on their abilities to cater to fantasies and immaturity. In other words, they seem to be recycling stereotypes of what women should be.

But didn't Monroe - now widely feted - do exactly the same? Her movies, most notably How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch, all pandered to stereotypes.

Simpson seems to have assiduously cultivated the dizzy blonde image. Her gaffes, including compliments to the US interior secretary for decorating the White House, may have reinforced her flaky reputation - but they also lifted ratings for her television show Newlyweds. It is hardly the behaviour of someone lacking intelligence; it's more a sign of an intuitive ability to exploit an audience.

And if Madonna is any example, the lesson now is that such careers have their just rewards: women, some anyway, can be independent and have it all - fortune, fame and family. Having abandoned her raunchy image, the 47-year-old star now lives and dresses the part of the genteel countrywoman and children's writer on her Ashcombe House estate, southwest of London.

Barry Hing is a Sydney-based writer