Category Archives: Opinion

“Gaybrows”, girl talk and the Sunday Times’ brand of smart-casual homophobia

Being gay is very political these days. What with the world and his wife sticking their noses in about whether we should be getting married and Twitter confusing homosexuality with paedophilia in the wake of the BBC sex scandals from the 1970s. Like the unavoidable pink square in a slice of Battenberg or the writing running through a stick of rock, there’s always a constant air of homophobia which lingers around the reporting of such stories, but it’s not just the heavyweight news events we have to watch out for, oh no. Now, casual homophobia has climbed down from the lofty mezzanine of broadsheet opinion columns, put on a pretty dress and has sashayed down onto the pages of a women’s fashion magazine, spiking its stiletto into the very ‘fags’ it used to ‘hag’ for.

Every week, the Sunday Times publishes a supplement named Style, ostensibly a guide to the essential threads no lady should be without. Helpfully picking out key pieces and pretty crockery for its keen readership, the magazine also slings out a weekly barometer, a journalistic tool so lazy it may as well come with a duvet and an animal-print onesie. What’s hot and what’s not, is deliberated over for what must be whole milliseconds by perhaps the office intern or the bored receptionist – different clothes, trends, hairdos, people and ‘things’ are offered up, accompanied by what passes for a witty remark, and divided into those all-important categories. These busy girls-on-the-go aren’t much use at thinking in any way other than the most binary possible, so we must make do with two camps of popularity only: ‘Going Up’ for what we should love, and ‘Going Down’ (there’s a real science to this, isn’t there?) for everything less favoured.

It’s all as lightweight as you can imagine. Last week, Anna Wintour, the Prada-adorned, skeletal editrix of American Vogue, was lauded, and thus ranked top of the shop, for insisting hyper-famous photographer Mario Testino take her passport photograph. In this edition, readers are encouraged to start using Kate Moss’s surname as a verb for getting wasted, presumably on ‘bubbles’ at a product launch of some description. It’s all a bit of harmless fun, of course. Scan the ‘Going Down’ list, however, and we encounter a small problem. At the very end, once Peter Andre, birthday parties for dogs and under-ripe avocados are dispatched to the social guillotine, we come to a trend or phenomenon described as ‘gaybrows’. “What’s a gaybrow?” you may ask. I know I did. Allow me to shine 100 watts on that for you.

A gaybrow, according to Style, is the following: “Overwaxed eyebrows for him, favoured by the Geordie Shore boys.” Geordie Shore, of course, is a reality TV show on MTV (the ‘M’ long having since switched out its original meaning of ‘music’ for ‘mediocre’) and its subjects are the overstyled, permatanned type of fame-hungry charmers you can see on any high street should you look hard enough. The brows, themselves, are quite common too. Shaped, plucked and pointed to within an inch of their lives, the wearers of these unfortunate hairy slivers usually end up looking like a shop mannequin, an alien or – sorry girls – a woman.

Like many grooming trends currently favoured by preening heterosexual men, it is likely to have some foundation among their gay brothers, but didn’t girls start having brows like this first, centuries ago? Why aren’t they ‘ladybrows’? Or ‘nastybrows’ – as they are truly, utterly horrible and make men who sport them look like they’ve had ten facelifts or are midway through turning into a cat. Well, there’s a really good reason: a shortcut for making something seem immediately undesirable to straight men and the women who get boned by them is to label it ‘gay’. Easy when you know how, and, boy, does the world know how.

David Beckham has been shaping his brows for at least a decade, but it wouldn’t do to call them ‘Becksbrows’ – it’s okay to look like Beckham and he’s the sexual ideal for many of Style’s female readers. No, they must make it clear that these brows are horrible, and thus must be associated with something repugnant, and what better way to hammer home to the ladies and their boyfriends that these brows are unattractive? Why, simply fling the word ‘gay’ in front of them! Instant cringe! It’s so sickeningly transparent and automatic that it’s entirely possible they didn’t realise they were doing it. Oh, hang ON, what is this at the end of the description? There’s more!

The brows are, Style says, “about as hetero as Elton”. Assuming they don’t mean bushy-browed comedian Ben Elton or the flighty vicar from Jane Austen’s Emma, we’re talking about Elton John here. That is how gay these things are. Elton John, with his long-term male lover and civil partnership, is ‘openly gay’, as newspapers are so fond of saying, so the intent is clear here. The brows are awful, not just because they look dreadful, but because they’re not “hetero”. ‘Hetero’ is the ideal, remember; you don’t want men to ‘look gay’ because, well, that would mean what, exactly? Might gay men be interested in them and steal them away? Unlikely if they have a girlfriend; this isn’t TV.

No, the real message here is that the eyebrows make your man look gay, and looking gay is a negative thing, because people will think he is gay, and people thinking your man is gay is massively bad. Why? A variety of reasons – perhaps mainly that you won’t make other women jealous of you if you’re not lugging round a big hunk of male, masculine, cave-dwelling meat for them to salivate after. Is that what all this is about? Another stake in the heart for ‘the sisterhood’?

So with its throwaway comment about something looking gay, which they no doubt think is harmlessly entertaining, the Style editorial team has inadvertently revealed the monstrous, ugly homophobic heart at its core, which no amount of high heels, ‘lovely things’, perfume and designer wardrobe can fully mask. Good call, ladies; now we know what we’re up against. And we thought girls were supposed to be a gay’s best friend. At least that’s one fewer stereotype for us to agonise over.

Why I hope Madonna never, ever puts it away

Even the most noble of queens can expect her loyal subjects to turn against her eventually. Be it a jubilee celebration too far or an over-zealous beheading, every serf has their tipping point.

While not a glorious ruler of any realm in particular, Madonna has had queenly status bestowed upon her for the majority of her career by a legion of gay followers. Having some kind of interest in what, or who, Madonna is doing seems to be a side-effect of being gay.

But now Her Madgesty has displeased her once-devoted flock. But what could it be? The slow degeneration of her music material? The ever-increasing cost of tickets to see her perform live? Her apparent disinterest in her career beyond turning up to the odd interview? Well, perhaps, 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 almost 30 years, 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 – the gays.

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’.

Madonna’s openness about sex, and ability to unashamedly enjoy having it, set a precedent for almost every female pop singer who came after her. And all was well with the world, because Madonna was still young and wrinkle-free.

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. Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson got down to it in Something’s Gotta Give and Meryl Streep got a good seeing to thanks to Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated, but it seems Madonna’s brand of sexuality is strictly off-message.

While it’s no surprise that heterosexual men  have no interest in seeing Madonna in her knickers – they are, after all, force-fed a whole new bevy of beauties to adore, young enough to be their daughters and led by the shampoo ad juggernaut that is Cheryl Cole and pneumatic-lipped Angelina Jolie – 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. The gays have turned.

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 it themselves.

The idea that one’s sexuality is redundant once grey hairs become the ruling majority leaves a much nastier taste in the mouth than any French kiss from Madonna would.

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. Riddle-me-ree, indeed.

Of course, Madonna’s recent ‘nip slip’ and arse-baring during live shows on her MDNA tour have fuelled the moans of those who wish Madonna would stop embarrassing herself, and them, and truss herself up in acrylic turtlenecks. Perhaps lacklustre sales of her last couple of fairly disappointing albums and criticism of her general disconnection from the material she produces have got her thinking more and that’s why she’s reaching around calculatedly to unhook her bra, but I doubt it.

If anything, Madonna’s propensity for showing us what’s inside her thong 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?

Whether the gays have tired of her ‘pussy popping’ (I have no idea what that actually means) or not, Madonna shows no sign of slowing down or capitulating. On the set of Madonna’s her most recent single, 2012’s Turn Up The Radio, she was shown spread-eagled in the back of a convertible, airing her bikini bits to an ever-disapproving world.

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, most of them still young enough to be able to think of their dotage as a far-off prospect, as fantastical as a fairy-tale ending.

But old age does not wait to be awoken by true love’s kiss, nor validated by a handsome prince clambering up the ivory tower by way of a long plait of golden hair. Age is coming for all of you, and no amount of denial or mock horror at Madonna in her scants is going to change that. Madonna is living it now.

How many of her 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, can be just as cold and uninviting as a grave.