Tuesday 16 July 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Madonna scrapes the bottom of fame's barrel'

The queen of pop isn't a feminist icon - she's one of the reasons women feel so bad about themselves, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

IFS AND BUTTS: Madonna and her new bottom performing with her son David
IFS AND BUTTS: Madonna and her new bottom performing with her son David

Eilis O'Hanlon

Madonna's bum is nobody's business but her own. At least that's what her admirers have been insisting after the size of the Like a Virgin singer's rear end drew some less than flattering comments at a recent gig.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Madonna's backside on that occasion was only slightly smaller than the rising moon, no pun intended. Implants were suspected, though others thought perhaps a battery pack and some unfortunate camera angles were to blame.

There's also the possibility that she's just trolling the world into thinking she's gone full 'Kim Kardashian'.

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Either way, we were apparently not supposed to comment on the size or shape of said rear end, except to offer up some hackneyed variant on "you go, sister... girl power... female empowerment, yeah".

Since then, condemnations of "misogynists" and "chauvinists" for daring to make disparaging remarks about a woman's butt have sprung up across the media with predictable regularity, with Madonna herself hitting back to insist that she is "entitled to free agency over my body like everyone else". Indeed she is.

By the same token, though, most women haven't spent entire careers exploiting their own bodies for commercial gain. Madonna's body has never been 'policed' by men. It's been packaged and peddled to them. Madonna can hardly start demanding that what she does with her backside is now a wholly private affair when she's been thrusting it in our faces, metaphorically speaking, for nearly four decades.

A quick trip to Google Images will find multiple pictures of Madonna flashing her cheeks on stage, or on the red carpet. At the Grammys in 2015, she appeared in what was described as an "ass harness", which accentuated her fishnets-covered buttocks. She then hoisted up her skirt so that onlookers - and, more importantly, the photographers - could get a better view.

Appearing on James Corden's Carpool Karaoke the following year, she made a point of clambering on to the seat, bending over and twerking for the camera.

She was just having some fun, that's her absolute right, but it comes within the context of a woman who has sexualised every inch of her flesh for monetary gain, and suddenly we're not supposed to mention it? Madonna never minded the comments when they were sycophantic .

The hypocrisy of female celebrities using their bodies as marketing tools, and then crying foul when it backfires, is bad enough. Couching their resentment of this karma under some phoney guise of feminist self-expression just rubs salt into the wound.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever commented on Germaine Greer's bottom, either positively or negatively, because, unlike Madonna, she has never deliberately sought to lure the gaze of onlookers toward it. Were her rear end to suddenly become the source of unwanted cultural speculation, Greer would have every right to feel aggrieved, because a line would have been crossed.

With Madonna, how can we know where that line should be drawn, or whether there is a line at all?

Indignant female commentators who've come out swinging in her defence are not doing themselves, or women as a whole, any favours.

If they want to talk about how particular versions of femininity are used to disempower and belittle women, go right ahead. There are hard questions to be asked about why women are constantly judged on their looks.

But asking them means acknowledging from the start that women do it to one another all the time. Meeting one another, they'll immediately declare "you look great" or "have you lost weight?" It's meant as a compliment, but it adds to a certain expectation that this is what women want to hear, that this is what they're chiefly thinking about every moment of the day.

Often they are, but isn't that the tragedy? "You look great" usually means you're looking younger than your age, but why is that, rather than looking healthy or happy, deemed to be the ideal?

Sadly, it's no coincidence that the unkindest comments which were reproduced in the media as examples of cruel chauvinism actually came from fellow women. When men blatantly inspect you to see if you're up to scratch, it's maddening. When women do it, it's utterly baffling.

'Internalised misogyny' is a lazy catch-all term, but there's undoubtedly a phenomenon of women being taught to hate their own bodies and to constantly find ways to fight imperfection or ageing as if they should be ashamed of being mortal. There's a rich seam of potential discourse around those intolerable pressures that women are under.

But if we want to go there, then it means holding women like Madonna to account as well, rather than treating them solely as victims, because she's contributed hugely to the culture which makes women feel self-conscious or negative about their bodies.

She has been sculpting herself into a male fantasy object from an early age. That's not a feminist act. It's kryptonite for feminism, but she gets a free pass because she knows the right slogans to spout. Madonna has often been an appalling role model for women. She could have used her considerable power and influence as a cultural icon for decades to challenge all that, even to offer an alternative, but she never has, she's never even tried. All she offers women is face cream at $220 a jar, which, incidentally, she recommends that they also use on their backsides because "the butt has an audience".

It's not about her age. Wanting to look fantastic in your 60s is a joyful thing, but if that comes from perpetuating a puerile version of what constitutes 'sexy', then you're not the solution, you're part of the problem - especially when you're also exploiting women's insecurities by flogging them $250 face serum "enriched with antioxidant-rich resveratrol to help minimise visible signs of aging". This is a feminist icon? Seriously?

It's actually insulting to put Madonna on a pedestal as the answer to the impediments that stand in the way of women's happiness and self-acceptance. She is one of the reasons why they spend their lives obsessing over their flaws. Knowing your enemy is crucial in every struggle.

Women have been calculatedly prevented from doing so by, on the one hand, being flattered by the promise that they too could look a certain way if they tried harder or spent enough money, and, on the other, by being browbeaten into silence by the accusation that, if they don't applaud certain portrayals of femininity, they're "body shaming".

Much younger women with far less power and money are challenging these gender stereotypes. There's no excuse for Madonna still cynically hawking around these travesties of womanhood for cash.

Sunday Independent

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