Suzanne Harrington takes a fan’s approach to hunting out the the elephant in the room. Madonna, she says has highlighted the fact that women after 50 are regarded as cultural castrati and should leave the sexual arena quietly — and to the young and beautiful.
RECENTLY on stage at Coachella, during the performance of a track titled ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, there was an Ageist Kissing Incident. The pop queen of the same name (age 56, album sales 300 million) gave Canadian rapper Drake (age 28, album sales five million) an unscripted kiss — not a peck on the cheek, but an actual snog.
The rapper’s reaction was viscerally ungracious; it was as though he had been licked by ebola, his face curling in disgust as he wiped his hand across his mouth. Afterwards, having realised his epic faux pas, he backtracked on Twitter: “Don’t misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen Madonna and I feel 100 about that forever.” (100? What? Years old?)
But it was not so much the initial cloddish, uncouth reaction of the rapper as the wider response afterwards which howled of ageism and misogyny. Screams of ‘ugh’ echoed around the internet. An older woman had kissed a younger man — not like Mrs Robinson, or anything Oedipal, but just straightforward, age-irrelevant sexual intent — at least, for on-stage purposes anyway.
Piers Morgan waded straight in: “So Drake proves that kissing Madonna is about as ghastly as I always thought it would be.” (To which another tweeter crisply replied, “Stop crying. Nobody wants to kiss you.”)
Madonna was unimpressed, swiftly telling one fan, “Don’t kiss Drake. No matter how many times he begs you to”. Marilyn Manson added some ghoulish gallantry in i-D magazine by suggesting that Madonna “looks hotter than ever. I’d also like to let it be known that I still have a crush on Madonna and I would definitely fornicate with her.” Madonna’s response? “Um, thanks.”
This might all sound like a snog in a teacup, were it not representative of wider social attitudes. Madonna is a menopausal woman (or at least we presume she is, as she is biologically the right age), and menopausal women are cultural castrati. Display overt sexuality at your peril, ladies, and prepare to be tarred and feathered both online and off, with calls of put it away, Grandma go home, stop embarrassing your children, act your age, that’s disgusting, ewwww.
Here’s the thing. We allow a certain kind of middle aged female sexuality. Discreet, implied, covered up — but even by our forties our sexual selves become labelled as ‘cougar’, with all the predatory baggage that word entails.
This does not happen to men. So when Madonna, at a calendar age regarded as clinically dead when it comes to raunch, prances her sexuality the same as she has always done, she incurs that special kind of wrath reserved for women who refuse to yield to what is expected of them.
Interestingly, it’s not just the Piers Morgans or the twitchfork mobs shouting at Madonna to put it away. Some of her most vociferous critics have been feminists. When she got her nipples out — yes, aged 56 — for Interview magazine, Camille Paglia wrote in The Times how Madonna was “putting herself on the front line of an increasingly toxic war between young and middle-aged women. It is a fight she cannot win and she should learn to age well.”
Paglia continued that older women using Photoshop were a disservice to feminism: “The ultimate issue here is the media-fuelled nuclear arms race being waged between middle-aged women and the young women whose dewy nubility they vampirically covet. This is a war that ageing women can never win: cruel time conquers all.”
Or as an online commentator at Billboard magazine said of Madonna’s Interview shoot: “Those who find these ridiculous photos ‘hot’ are necrophiliac.”
Necrophiliac? Yikes. Madonna, as her job requires, looks better than most 36-year-olds, never mind 56-year-olds. Hers is not a typical 56-year-old face and body, thanks to mountains of work, internal and otherwise.
Yet Paglia urges her to follow convention, to “learn to age well”. That she is ‘competing’ with younger women over the prize of youth. What old-school nonsense. Why should you ever retire your sexuality because a calendar says so? Has anyone told similarly aged George Clooney, Lenny Kravitz, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and all the other men we regard as sexy without making vomiting noises because they are over 50?
Or as Madonna herself asked Jonathan Ross in 1992, when she was 34, “Is there a rule? Are people just supposed to die when they’re 40?”, crossly adding, “That’s just stupid.”
Obviously, no matter how hot someone is, age and generation has some influence. Madonna is not on my teenage daughter’s pop radar. BBC Radio 1,which appeals to a pop audience aged 15-30, caused a fuss in February when it refused to play tracks from her new album, based on her age and “relevance” to that age group (she’s not alone — they don’t play Kylie or Robbie Williams either). Her fans are older, and have grown up with her since her 1982 debut.
But this is not about pop, it’s about female sexuality and its built-in obsolescence. We have long decided that once a woman is no longer biologically fertile, she is no longer sexually desirable.
Check out how Hollywood casts female actors the same age as male actors to play their mothers. Older woman sexuality is almost regarded as a perversion (see the “necrophiliac” comment above). And Madonna, putting her best nipples forward, is challenging this clapped-out perception as only she can.
As someone who has long confronted dominant perceptions head on, initially helping to change our view of ‘feminist’ from bra-burner to bra-flaunter, she has always been subversive, operating from inside the corporate poptocracy.
She didn’t just prance about singing pop tunes — she has always been vocal about equality for women and gay men, her greatest fanbase. And now that she is older, she shows no signs of toning herself down until she is ready, rather than acquiescing to society’s wishes.
Could this pushing against the conservative boundaries of supposed end-stage, public, female sexuality (fellow performers Cher and Tina Turner never quite thrust like Madonna), make her a pioneer of the as-yet unknown cultural phenomenon, the hot menopausal minx?
We are all living far longer these days — do women really have to spend the second half of their lives pretending they are not still hot to trot?
“Of course women in their 50s are still sexual, but their sexualities, one would hope, have advanced beyond that professed by 20-year-olds,” writes Meghan Murphy in her Feminist Current blog. “And I wish, in her efforts to (supposedly) push boundaries, that Madonna would push past the conventional, inauthentic, superficial performance of sexuality presented by objectified 20-year-old girls. She knows better, I’m sure.”
Again, the should-know-better argument. We remain conditioned to categorise and pigeonhole anything connected with women, age and sexuality.
“Women are still the most marginalised group,” Madonna told Out magazine. “They’re still the group that people won’t let change.”
Perhaps her most authentic menopausal admission was during a recent interview — again with Jonathan Ross — when she spoke about her feelings of loss when her own teenage daughter moved out. A deeper loss than anything romantic, she said.
She may be world’s most successful female pop star, a cultural phenomenon, who, three decades into her career continues to challenge our ideas of female sexuality (her music is secondary, frankly), but she still acknowledges the ordinary everyday loss of children growing up and leaving.
Of all the incarnations of Madonna, perhaps Menopausal Madonna will help smash the last barriers for women — sex, ageing, and our real place in the world.
Source : IrishExaminer