Happy birthday Madonna: please never, ever give in or “put it away”

Another year, another set of birthday candles for Madonna. She turns 59 today. For the 30 or so years Madonna has been putting the cat among the pigeons in the A-list, she’s gone from boom to bust to high to low to tasteful to tacky and everything in between – but she’s always been big.

While most of her indiscretions have been eventually forgiven – or at the very least politely ignored because, hey, it’s Madonna – the one thing Madge is never allowed to forget is one of the very few things in her life she cannot control.

There are plenty of reasons to roll your eyes at Madonna: the slow degeneration of her music material, the ever-increasing cost of tickets to see her perform live, the walking nightmare of problematic hell that is her Instagram account, but Madonna’s crime seems to be the one that most of us commit eventually, if we’re lucky. She got old.

Madonna has always delighted in challenging people’s perceptions of appropriateness. From drying her stubbly armpits in a dirty washroom in Desperately Seeking Susan and flicking herself off on a giant bed while two gay men in conical bras looked on during the Blond Ambition tour to portraying the violence of war in the withdrawn video for American Life, no taboo seemed too small for La Ciccone to overturn.

Aside from a very staid decade or so where Madonna had a misguided, but spirited, go at being a submissive wife to director Guy Ritchie, her frankness, refusal to conform and power to shock have been her lifeblood; they have kept her career ticking over and front-and-centre for over three decades, a feat few other popstars – male or female – can boast.

Almost everyone has an opinion on Madonna, and the criticisms against her stack up like building blocks in a Guinness World Record attempt to reach the moon, but, thus far, Madonna has always been able to count on at least one demographic for continued, unwavering (and some might say blinkered) support – gay men.

Back when Madonna was still young enough to make it on to the higher reaches of those all-important, horrific ‘Sexiest Women’ lists that even the most highbrow of magazines insist on publishing, her stance as an awkward, complaining outsider spoke to the gay community in a way few have managed before.

While some might argue her status as a pioneer may be exaggerated and seriously flawed, she at least gave the impression she was doing something new. She championed gay rights, spoke out in defence of her gay friends and hired gay dancers for her tours, and gay men and women lapped it up, long before ‘Mother Monster’ wobbled along in shoes shaped like an armadillo to tell everyone they were ‘born this way’.

Sex is no longer the sole property of the young. Everyone’s eyes have been opened to the idea of silver shagging. Even Hollywood, the high altar of youth and beauty, has given the nod of approval to the idea of wrinkles as sexual leads, but it seems Madonna’s brand of sexuality is strictly off-message.

While it’s no surprise heterosexual men have zero interest in seeing Madonna in her knickers – they are, after all, force-fed a whole new bevy of beauties to adore daily, all young enough to be their daughters – it’s much more disappointing to see that some of Madonna’s detractors are the very men who gave her a leg-up to her pedestal in the first place.

Trawl any so-called fan forum and you’ll see the same disparaging remarks: outrage at her supposed ‘pussy popping’, refusal to ‘grow old gracefully’ (an awful, po-faced phrase whose retirement should come much sooner than Madonna’s) and complaints that the erstwhile Material Girl is as old as their own mum. I know, right? She has birthdays! And the numbers keep going up and up!

“Ewww” said one forum member, in his late 20s, “nobody wants to see that dusty old vagina any more.”

The irony being, of course, that gay men don’t usually ever want to see a vagina, be it in the first flush of youth or swathed in mothballs.

“God, her scrawny arms are horrible,” noted another armchair model scout, “and her hands are all gnarled.”

Gay men, it seems, are now in charge of what is sexy and what is not. Despite their previous interest in women’s looks usually being limited to slagging off their clothes (another totally ridiculous notion; why the hell do women listen to us?) and cooing over their hair once they’ve finished blow-drying it, all of a sudden these guys are the go-to experts when it comes to what the world should find shaggable, even if they don’t want to do the nasty with her themselves.

The media has long been puzzling over what to do about Madonna’s refusal to put her dress back on. Since she deftly shimmied over that magic line into her 50s, actions previously deemed ‘shocking’ or ‘thought-provoking’ are now rebranded as ‘sad’, ‘desperate’ and ‘attention-seeking’, as if Madonna is in any way unique as a singer to want all eyes to be focused on her.

Vanity Fair scratched its chin over the whole topic of Madonna’s sexiness as she prepared to turn 50 in August 2008: “Madonna made her fortune selling sex–what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?” it mused.

At 2015’s Met Gala – itself a seven-hour love letter to bad taste, filthy lucre and vacuous celebrity – Madonna bared her arse to the baying paparazzi. Out came the usual commentators moaning Madonna had let them down, and why couldn’t she just age gracefully. Why was she trying to be young? All her former allies were present and correct, knitting at the guillotine: gay men, middle-aged women, her peers.

Remember the outcry when she appeared on stage with Canadian rapper Drake and gave him a snog?  What was that really about? The fact he didn’t know it was going to happen? Or her age? (Spoiler: it was her age.)

Madonna’s propensity for showing us what’s inside her thong has long been dismissed as an attempt to stay relevant, but if anything her knicker-flashing has led to lower returns when it comes to record sales. The much-hyped Erotica failed to ignite much reaction in the shops, except for “Ewww, she’s got a toe in her mouth”, and she was younger and tauter then. What hope for her now?

The big mistake we’re all making with Madonna is we think she’s doing this so we will find her sexy, that she wants us to desire her, envy her, find her attractive. I don’t think that’s what she’s about. As a younger star she pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom, of what it meant to be a woman unafraid to do what they liked, who weren’t in thrall to any man. Now, at 59, Madonna is making us think yet again. Why do we have to put our bodies away as we age? Who exactly makes these rules? What’s the golden moment the big switch, where one day you are still young enough to bare your flesh while the next you must hide down a well?

While my own interest in Madonna as a popstar wanes with every so-so record, the one thing I do think she’s getting right is saying an emphatic “fuck you” to the ageist brigade.

Ageing is changing. We are living longer and, despite rising obesity levels, a growing number of us are more health conscious. Frivolity and fun and, yes, sex, does not belong to the young. Our bodies are our own, to do with as we wish. I may not find her titillating, and, yes, she’s attention-seeking, but I’m so glad Madonna does what she does. I will not be defined by my age; I will decide my own destiny when it comes to getting older.  And so will Madonna. She still finds her body fascinating, and presents it as art in her stage outfits and photoshoots. Why does this confidence trouble us so? Remember how bored and downtrodden Madonna looked when she pretended to be the perfect English housewife for Guy Ritchie – do we want her back there?

How many of Madonna’s critics would be happy to walk so willingly, with head bowed, to the knackers’ yard once they hit 50 and beyond? And when they reach that era – where young people would have you believe there’s nothing but gummy smiles and osteoporosis, dicky bladders and forebodingly steep staircases – they should remember Madonna: uncompromising, unbroken, unrepentant.

Let’s hope when the naysayers approach their twilight years they still have someone close at hand to tell them they look great in their underwear, that they’re still hot and wanted. An empty bed, free of desire and passion, may as well be a grave.

More like this:
Picking Kylie’s best song? There will be blood
What Jackie Collins and The Stud taught me about the world
Give me death by skinny jeans over bootcut misery any day
Broverload – where have all the men gone?

A different version of this appeared on this blog in 2012.

Most men have had a Prince George moment

From the very first moment babies draw breath, we obsess over children’s behaviour – be it concern for their safety or searching for possible clues about their future. We observe children to find things we recognise in ourselves. Parents are quick to assign character traits to even a three-month-old baby – “he farts all day, just like his dad” – because it reassures them that the circle of life shan’t be broken, that some part of them will remain long after the sandwiches at their funeral have curled up at the edges. More troublesome markers are also exposed from this constant critiquing – violent tendencies, a selfish streak or bullying behaviour can be spotted quite early on. It’s the human equivalent of having CCTV everywhere. We’re watching for your own good; there is no reason to be alarmed. But of course that is not always the truth.

Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge (I know royal protocol prevents it, but Princess Kate would’ve been so much more 21st century a name) and their two children have been touring Europe and, as it was for William and brother Harry, the children have been a source of fascination. I am not one for drooling over the Royals and their offspring, as I’m of the opinion that the most interesting one died in a road tunnel in Paris in 1997, but plenty of people are so, wherever they go or whatever they do, no matter how humdrum, there are photographers waiting to capture every moment.

Take away the wealth, the privilege and the predilection of his parents for dressing him like a ghost off the Titanic, Prince George is much like any other little boy growing up in the UK. And in this last week he’s found himself under the same scrutiny as scores of young boys his age, because of the way he looked in awe at what I believe was a helicopter. You have seen the picture already but here it is again because context.

I saw the picture before I saw the reaction on social media, and my first thought was “uh oh”. I thought “uh oh” because I remembered, all too clearly, what it was like to be Prince George’s age and to have every single facet of your behaviour analysed like it was some great mystery to be unravelled, as if it foretold the future. A dangerous future. To me, the picture looks like Prince George was captured kind of midway through extreme excitement. He was probably jumping up and down in glee or doing that thing children do, which is kind of a crude attempt at a squat, when they’re really happy. In short, HRH Peppa Pig was losing his shit, and rightly so. And yet I saw something that thousands of other men – most of them gay – saw too. I saw myself, and I saw the beginnings of something. I will confess, I was a little worried for him. Time has moved on and attitudes have changed since I was George’s age – 37 years, to be exact – but the crushing, double-threat chokehold of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity is still present and correct and we live in a world where your hands cupping your chin in glee or excitement would be, for a man, seen as very unusual. This is because, from an early age, men are taught that standing that way, or positioning their arms that way, is a feminine trait and this behaviour is wrong somehow and thus not available to boys.

Don’t believe me? Check out how everyone sits on public transport. Men with legs akimbo, like they’re in stirrups and birthing twins; women with legs together, trying to take up as little space as possible. While it might seem ridiculous and trivial to you, the way man and women sit, speak, stand and laugh is policed from the moment we can crawl or make a sound. This tiny moment, now forever frozen in time, could mean everything, or it could mean nothing. To me, the prince is showing that wonderful lack of awareness of such restrictions and toxic thinking that children enjoy up to a certain age. It shows to me that his parents and extended family may, thus far, be letting George get on with being himself – no mean feat when you are the future King – and, if he is displaying traditionally feminine traits, that they either don’t care or are assuming it will sort itself out at school, as it tends to do. I know little boys who carried round handbags and pushed prams and turned into great hulking rugby players, whose idea of being in touch with their feminine side meant not leaving the room when an advert for Tampax came on the telly. And I believe their lives are all the poorer for this reinvention, to be honest.

I’m sure I’ve had many such Prince George moments in my life, but the one I remember the most is probably the last time I was able to display these tendencies without reproach. Oh, sure, it was a running joke in my family that I was “sensitive” and “not like the other boys”. I pouted if I had to play football and I enjoyed stomping up and down my grandmother’s garden in her high heels, and hanging out laundry on the makeshift washing line she would put up for me. I had a habit – which I still do occasionally, now I come to think of it – of sitting with my elbows at my hips and my arms bent to bring my hands to my chest, like a lovesick damsel waiting for news of her lover and BELIEVE ME there wasn’t one quirk I had as a child that wasn’t commented on in some way, by adults other than my parents. I was nicknamed “Quentin” by my uncles (for Quentin Crisp in case you are too young for the reference) by the time I was 3 and children on the street would call me a “poofter”. But I was still largely shielded from it. School would wrench that protection from me and make me wake up, far too slowly unfortunately, to the harsh realities of growing up as a gay child. And here is that moment below. The morning of my first day, posing in my front garden. I was 4, and my life would never be the same again.

You may think it is strange for me to talk of being a “gay child”, but they do exist. You may equate being gay with sex, and think it impossible to be labelled as gay until you are sexually mature, or even until you make that “decision” (it isn’t a decision btw) for yourself. But gayness is much more than that. It is that “feeling you are different” from an early age, before you know even know what sex is. It is the way you behave, your thought processes, it is your very spirit. It is, of course, hard to explain because it’s more nuanced than our very binary world or my memory of it will allow and, it has to be said, those feelings of being different are not always related to being gay – trans people no doubt experience very similar stirrings they can’t quite put their finger on.

Growing up as the child who feels they are different – for no reason other than any deviation from cisgender heterosexuality is automatically labelled as such – is a confusing, continual barrage of insecurities, criticism, and anguish. As I say, most of the boys carrying around a handbag as a toddler had these eccentricities conditioned out of them as they grew up, whether it was because of peer pressure or a genuine change in desires or character, but for some, it becomes who they are. And society as a whole is only too happy to define them.

I understood the gay men who felt a rush of emotion as they saw the picture of Prince George, who saw themselves and thought his nascent “fabulousness” should be celebrated. I also understood those who were angry a child’s harmless, unconscious actions were being instantly labelled in a potentially damaging way, because despite marriage equality and supermarkets sponsoring rainbows, being LGBT is still seen as something lesser. I also got the ones who shouted them down for wanting to ignore it or cover it up, who maintained it was nothing to be ashamed of. All of them were right in their own way, and as a grown-up who spent most of his early life driving myself mad over every little thing I said and did, in case it either exposed something about me or initiated cruelty and violence toward me, I encourage the debate.

And whatever happens to Prince George in the future, I hope he remembers his big moment for the right reasons – the day on a helicopter, where he had the most fun ever. Because whether you live in a palace or a prefab, there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take that from you.

Let little boys be little boys – whatever that means and wherever it takes them.

This post originally appeared in The Truth About Everything*, my regular mailout where subscribers can receive new writing by me before anyone else. Its not a newsletter;  never have any news. Just writing. You can sign up for it here.

 

Now we are seven

I have always played the long game. Waiting? I’m an expert. Biding your time? First class. Despite outward appearances to people who know me well of being tempestuous and quick to (over)react, I’m actually much more patient than they realise.

I started writing anonymously almost exactly seven years ago, on 30 June 2010, for a variety of reasons, some of them ridiculous and others important.

Me, around the time I started The Guyliner blog. It was my profile pic on Guardian Soulmates for a while.

The main, initial reason was that I was writing about going on dates and didn’t want to be identified. Simple. I was both fearful of recriminations and worried it would mean I could no longer be honest when writing up further dates – “compromise my artistic integrity”, as Madonna would say. Perhaps I would even have to stop altogether. Continue reading Now we are seven

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