Chitra Ramaswamy: Madonna getting old disgracefully

Madonna's tumble at last week's Brit Awards. Picture: AP/PA
Madonna's tumble at last week's Brit Awards. Picture: AP/PA
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IT WAS another excruciating moment for Madonna fans. We watched. We gasped. We shook our heads in sorrow. No, I’m not talking about the moment when the biggest selling female pop star in history fell over at the Brit Awards. I’m talking about the notably less commented on incident about 20 minutes earlier when the 43-year-old British comedian Jimmy Carr indulged in one of the nation’s favourite sports: the age-shaming of Madonna.

“I snuck into her dressing room backstage earlier,” began Carr, who did I mention is in his mid-forties? Anyone who has vaguely followed the Queen of Pop’s career over the last three decades knew what was coming. “There are a lot of drugs in there. Don’t worry, it was just HRT stuff.” As one wise person on my Twitter feed said: “Jimmy Carr just made a joke about how old Madonna is, just like he would do about David Bowie if he was there”.

I note Carr’s age, which of course is a complete irrelevance, because this is what happens to Madonna every time she is mentioned, anywhere, for any reason. Within seconds of her tumble, every report seemed to find it necessary to precede the story with, say, “The 56-year-old... hurtled down three huge steps off the stage” (Daily Mirror). Imagine it. You’re a globally successful artist, producer, and businesswoman. Every time you release another platinum-selling album, perform in another record-breaking world tour, post a photo on Instagram, put on a bum scrunchie and flash your cheeks on the red carpet, speak, smile, show your upper arms, your age comes up. More than that, it’s used as a stick with which to beat your intimidatingly pert bottom.

Madonna is 56. She was born in 1958, the same year as Prince, Michael Jackson, Kate Bush, Joan Jett, Paul Weller, Ice T, and, closer to home, Fish. None of whom are relentlessly defined by their age. None of whose age is even mentioned unless we’re praising their longevity. Madonna’s age is never equated with her endurance in a notoriously fickle industry. When Kate Bush returned to the stage last year for the first time in three decades no-one was fussed that she was in her fifties. Madonna’s 56 years, by contrast, have apparently become the most interesting thing about her. When you’re talking about someone who has incurred the wrath of the Vatican for seducing a black Jesus, this seems farcical at best. At worst? Ageist, sexist, and plain nasty.

The fact is, Madonna has been bravely, brilliantly and sometimes insanely doing whatever she wants since the day she pulled on a pair of lace gloves, snapped a Boy Toy belt around her waist and decided to conquer the world. Unfortunately the world does not take this kind of rebellious spirit lightly in a woman. Especially if she is sexy and knows it. Even more especially if she is over 40, sexy and knows it. And so the reactionaries become ever more shrill as she gets older and naughtier.

But Madonna was always bad to the bone. Back in 1984 she humped the stage in a wedding dress while purring Like A Virgin. She simulated masturbation wearing nothing but a conical brassiere and a devil-may-care attitude. She spent most of the early Nineties grabbing her crotch. She has flashed her Gaultier undies at the Oscars, snogged Britney Spears and sucked Naomi Campbell’s toe. In this context, a tumble down three steps in an Armani cape is nothing.

Meanwhile, the bile spewed in her direction has become so comprehensive we have lost the ability to smell its stench. But sniff again the deluge of “granny” taunts, hip replacement jokes, memes of Madonna on a stairlift with a bleeding face. The bizarre conspiracy theory suggesting her fall might have been a cynical PR stunt to increase sales of her new album. The description of her recent career as a “grey crusade with porn imagery thrown in”. Last week’s piece by Piers Morgan describing her as “an ageing hooker in an Amsterdam red-light district window”. What hating Madonna is really about is hating women. Undress the casual jibes, “hilarious” memes, and moral offence and what emerges is a body of vicious discrimination against one woman and, by extension, an attempt to prescribe what all women can be. This is what’s happening whenever people (usually men, though there are a wealth of female Madonna bashers out there) say she is cynical rather than successful, ruthless rather than ambitious, wily rather than talented, old rather than relevant, and so on. As a lifelong superfan, even through what I quietly refer to as the Guy Ritchie years, I’ve watched this happen again and again. Before Madonna’s age became the problem, it was her sexuality, clothes, body, acting, wealth, religion, choice of men, voice, hair colour, and right at the start, her midriff (too podgy).

Madonna is currently engaging in the most subversive act of her career. She is refusing to age as the world would have her age. What the hell did you expect? For Madonna to disappear off the face of the earth? Turn into Celine Dion? Fall apart? Die? Or worse… get old, wrinkly and out of shape? As if. Last week she spelled it out for those who still haven’t got the message: “I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.” Phew. Madonna is a powerhouse, a trouper and the only woman of her kind my generation has got. That only becomes more clear when she falls on her arse, gets right back up again and continues to sing her rebel heart out. I, for one, can’t wait to see her thrust her way to 60 and beyond. «