Monday, June 17, 2024

Who’s that girl? Examining our own Madonna complex

Love her or hate her, everyone has something to say about the Material Girl. But like Madge, we’re liable to change our minds.

A couple of months ago I did what I once would have thought unthinkable: I unfollowed Madonna on Instagram. The star who’s kept me hooked since the VMA’s “Like a Virgin” mastermind moment, whose reinventions were like new wallpaper on fame’s most glamorous exhibit, was drained of the artist’s most important ingredient—herself.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not into “Madonna irrelevancy” chatter, in huge part because I don’t believe anyone who’s changed the entire currency of female pop culture can ever be irrelevant (we don’t call The Beatles “over,” do we?), perhaps more so because I’m of the opinion that Madonna’s music is just as good, or better, than it was when her namesake album hit the record stores in 1983. I’ll take “Medellin” over “I Know It” any day.

And as much as Madonna infuriated me with her irresponsible late-arrival performances during the Madame X tour, after generally botching the ticket-buying process, then annoyed the living f*** out of me for supporting demon-sperm doctor Stella Immanuel (has lockdown warped everyone’s mind?), I kept looking at her because, wow, in the Instagram era you no longer had to wait till a new magazine arrived for pics. It was Madonna 24/7…until it wasn’t her anymore.

Somewhere around Madonna’s cotton-candy-pink hair and Heidi braids phase, with oversize glasses, un-natch, the once-most-famous-face-in-the-world became unrecognizable. Madame Tussaud’s would have demanded a re-do. Madonna looked like the last thing you would have expected from the signature star—anyone else. Add a derriere that appears as unnatural as the filters covering her face, and the original package got lost in the mail.

I don’t begrudge people’s cosmetic choices, male or female, even if they disappoint me, nor can I pretend to understand the pressure of growing older in the spotlight, let alone growing older in the spotlight of being the most photographed woman in the world. But I’d grown weary of seeing Madonna transform into another example of our material avatar world. I’m not one to keep up with the Kardashians, but it looked like, if there was any end-game to Madge’s new photos, it was to come across as transient as their pictures make them appear. Thanks for the photographic memories and let me know when the next album drops.

Then I read the rabid, hateful posts on social media about Madonna’s new face, from gay men my age, gay men who call themselves fans, even stans, was a little—no, a lot—repulsed by the unveiled crudeness, and realized, as always, there’s more to Madonna’s reflection than meets the eye (in fairness, many loved her smoothed-out filtered features, usually Madonna-curious millennials, who’ve one-upped us on the desire for re-touching techniques). The provocateur had gotten me, once again, if not watching, then thinking about her relationship with the modern world.

Madonna’s celebrity has more or less always existed as a societal mirror, the star of a million faces playing second fiddle to our desires, sexual and otherwise, our tastes, our rebellious streak.

There’s a knee-jerk reaction to everything Madonna does, because she’s not a friend, she’s a Rorschach test for gay life on Planet Earth.

Why should we care about kicking Madonna when she’s always debatable but entirely unrelatable? If there’s a human being underneath the gloss and never-ending metamorphoses, we’ve never seen it appear.

Right now, the men who grew up with Madonna are getting old with Madonna, and when it comes to choosing how we age, we’re own worst enemies. Party talk, virtual or otherwise, is speckled with rancorous debates about who’s done what to which part of the body and how much, who’s gone too far, who needs more, and why, in everybody’s correct opinion, we don’t stop at the perfect precision point? If there’s a middle ground everyone can agree on, only Jane Fonda fits the bill.

That said, preference is given to the deserving, and Madonna’s never been one of the gang. As I read how awful/gross/disgusting/plastic/horrid Madonna looks/is (same dif), I also thought about how other gay icons are treated in the respect department. People commented that Madonna should see Cher’s plastic surgeon ASAP, a star who’s had such extreme reconstruction over the years that’s she’s become almost a caricature of her 20-something self. Even Cher once called herself the “poster girl for plastic surgery.” But we overlook Cher’s choices (in fact, we applaud her apparent agelessness and her 73-year-old line-free face), because she’s Cher, our girl, the survivor, that cool chick we all wanted to be when we grew up and who finally got that Oscar! Make fun of the ex-Mrs. Bono at your own risk.

Dolly Parton has also had quite the do-overs, but no one says or writes a criticism, because, not only do we love and worship Dolly, but her over-active appearance from the beginning was an announcement of playing the part of cheap tart with a heart of gold. She could attach real bullets to her bras and the applause would bring down the roof. Even Joan Rivers turned plastic surgery into an asset, part of her act, much to the delight of fans across the globe, who seemed to relish each new face. All three of those women are “family,” our kin, and you don’t smack down your sisters in crime.

Enter Madame Ciccone, leave your Woke selves at the door, and join the Twitter world of winning by writing the most offensive comment possible. We don’t protect Madonna because she’s an entirely unsympathetic character. We’re taught to hate things, not people, and Madonna is our thing. She’s aloof, sometimes smug, always detached, cold, and indifferent to our love. While those same qualities are huge factors in her unprecedented success (her ascension arrived as gays were tired of seeing themselves depicted as victims), they don’t an adorable icon make.

Madonna’s also never apologized nor played victim (people called her confession of being raped at a young age a “stunt,” and I’m sure many believed she deserved it), she doesn’t focus group her endeavors, even if that means writing children’s books or singing about middle-age oral sex as “holy water,” and she’s accomplished the unthinkable—made it through the wilderness where pretty much every contemporary, from Prince to Princess Diana—has fallen. B*** doesn’t even have a DUI.

The lady, lest we forget, is also a tramp, and we’re a hell of a lot more judgmental on that front than we’d like to admit. While Janet, J.Lo, Mariah, and practically every female singer under the age of 40 have loved to play the part of bimbo from time to time, Madonna doesn’t keep God in the background as an asterisk. If anything, he’s joined in on the fun. Whitney Houston once said she’d rather kill her children than have them grow up to be like Madonna, backlash never ensued, and public condemnation has rarely been thwarted since.

The face of Madonna is big news today, like it or not, like her or not, and, don’t fool yourselves, if no one had an opinion she’d disappear into celebrity oblivion. The fact that, after becoming the most successful female recording artist of all time, and the most successful female touring artist, among other lofty achievements, we still go at her with knives out, puts us, her fans, as possibly the first set of pre-social-media trolls. As quick as we are to play a song or buy a concert ticket, we’re just as swift in attacking, today, her appearance, yesterday, her myriad playground of sins. Madonna foreshadowed reality TV in Truth or Dare, and perhaps she also led the way to the unfiltered, ill-mannered, and crude social media world witnessed daily. Why tune out Madonna when you can hate-follow instead?

Reading a thread about Madonna, any thread, is a test in keeping your lunch down, and usually ends up with the need to take a psychological shower. Whether it’s the guy who writes about how irrelevant Madonna still is—and spends three paragraphs emphatically telling everyone the reasons (the opposite of hate is indifference, not obsession)—or the comment from the man who says she’s a 90-year-old hag, then goes on to say she’s grotesque for having plastic surgery to make herself look more desirable, it’s always a trip down the worst part of our unfiltered lives—the incessant need to project our own unhappiness onto any stranger who might be having a nice day.

Personally, I’d be thrilled if Madonna aged more naturally, because I think women look fantastic as they get older—their faces take on more depth and personality—but that’s not my choice to make. I can only have an opinion and an “unfollow” option. As for Madonna, I have no idea what she sees in the mirror these days, but I hope it’s something more attractive than what so much of us see in ourselves. If gay men spent more time working on their own self-image, they might not feel the incessant need to shatter the images of another.

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David Toussaint

David Toussaint is the writer of five screenplays (with six film festival awards between them) and four best-selling non-fiction books. A professional journalist since the age of 15, he’s written for such publications as Huffington Post, Queerty, and Conde Nast Traveler. Toussaint is also a professional playwright and actor.

David Toussaint has 24 posts and counting. See all posts by David Toussaint

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