Madonna: sexual and proud

It was on a racy magazine shoot that Madonna met Jesus Luz, 22. Their brief fling appalled many. Get over it, says India Knight, women over 50 have sex too

I conducted an unofficial survey about Madonna on Twitter the other day. She was still dating the 22-year-old model Jesus Luz at the time. She dumped him last month, coincidentally also on Twitter. Madonna, as we all know, is 50, and recently divorced from Guy Ritchie. What did people think, I asked, of the once self-proclaimed "boy toy" (remember those belts?) turning cougar and hunter of toy boys?

Although there were a few approving remarks, mostly from older women who had cheered themselves up in a similar fashion (and see the success of toyboywarehouse.com if you need evidence that the older woman-younger man thing has practically become de rigueur if you're a single female over 40), the general consensus was that Madonna was trying too hard, and that watching her try too hard was faintly embarrassing, even for the legions of fans who have been devoted to her for well over two decades. This seemed to me to be rather missing the point, which is that Madonna practically invented trying too hard. Some pop stars or celebrities seem to emerge fully formed, out of nowhere, already styled up to the hilt, already near the top of their game. The whole thing is carefully engineered to appear effortless, as if it involved not one drop of blood, sweat or tears. Madonna wasn't like that. She was raw, in her cheap downtown clothes, tacky plastic jewellery and home-dyed hair, and she sweated like mad. When she was starting out, she made no secret of her galloping ambition or hunger for fame and money — on the contrary, she more or less defined herself by it. She worked incredibly hard to get to where she wanted to be, and made no bones about it. It was the 1980s, and all those frank admissions of longing for success seemed rather refreshing — and, of course, chimed with the times politically: Madonna was the perfect Thatcher/Reagan product.

There was nothing cool about Madonna's trajectory, nothing like "Yeah, I'm a pop star, I've been laying down tracks in my bedroom for years, I just kind of got discovered because I'm so incredibly talented". She worked at it like the clappers, even though her talent was modest, and willed herself into the public consciousness: pushiness doesn't begin to cover it. This is one of the main reasons why she is often cited as being a feminist role model, or at least why so many women were instantly thrilled and inspired by the fact that she existed (because, on paper at least, Madonna's fans should have been mostly male and sexually frustrated): she was all about self-belief, about taking whatever small talent you have and turning it into gold, about not giving up, about there being nothing wrong with voicing your frankly materialistic ambitions.

Of course, it all worked brilliantly: the rewards of trying too hard were global domination of a hitherto moribund pop market. She got her fame, and her money, and her success, but she was never the kind of person who would stop once she'd reached her goal. And neither is she the kind of person who, several goals later, would consider for a moment putting her feet up, letting herself get out of shape and relaxing at home, thinking: "I've had my moment of glory, now I think I'll just potter about and wait for old age." She's a global superstar. Global superstars rarely think: "Goody, I'm done, let me at the cream buns." So, we have the reputed four hours a day in the gym — and the body to match; the incredibly restrictive macrobiotic diet; the control freakery that comes with the territory. And, when it comes to showing the world that she's still got it, we have the inappropriately young boyfriend, whose name happens to be a headline writer's gift. Trying too hard? You bet. But just look at her.

Madonna is half a century old. She looks amazing — even if you include what looks like some excellent facial work and some Photoshopping. Obviously, photographs of her looking so good raises issues around the whole subject of women not being "allowed" to age gracefully, though I always rather wonder who it is that's supposed to "allow" us to do what we want with our bodies or clothes: surely how you choose to age — to hold back the years, or not — is a wholly subjective decision? But, yes, society has put pressure on women to remain youthful for as long as possible. The thing is that, society aside, most women quite like the idea of remaining youthful-looking. I'm not seeing anyone rushing eagerly towards crone-hood, squealing with anticipation. If you're a woman in the public eye, you can hardly be blamed for taking the quest to extremes. And if you're a person who has traded so heavily on their sex appeal, and who is demonstrably a sexual being — because she's 50, not 92 — well, then, what are you supposed to do, other than keep trying to look your best, stay on top of your game, make people's jaws drop, try too hard? And so what if people make the usual woman-hating "Put it away, Grandma" remarks about your fishnetted legs in that Louis Vuitton ad — legs that would put a 20-year-old's to shame? "F*** 'em," I guess she's thinking, and I can't say I blame her.

I think Madonna so divides opinion now is that she's not as much like us as she used to be: the vulnerability she displayed in her youth — the rounded tummy she once cheerfully gyrated; the mumsy (all things being relative) phase when she wrote children's books and gave interviews about motherhood; the fantasy about moving to the country. All of those have gone, and in their place there appears to be armour-plated perfection: robo-Madge, better-looking than ever, and twice as scary. Some people feel left behind: even if you had the inclination — and who does? — very few of us could stomach the gym marathons, the restrictive diet, the not hugely fun-sounding life led along kabbalah principles. We feel as if she has finally left us for another planet — via those little excursions to Malawi — and it annoys us.

So, we admire her body — and that face — but it causes us to feel dissatisfied with our thighs, which causes us to seek comfort in calling her names, all of them age-related. We forget that, now as always, Madonna remains a trailblazer. Two generations ago, women over 30 were effectively put out to pasture, doomed to fester for ever in some proto version of Country Casuals. And yet, here she is, looking almost inhumanly fantastic, taking part, as she did at the height of her professional success, in louche-seeming hotel setups, reminding us — again — that she's sexy. We forget that, if you think she isn't sexy any more, she doesn't care. And that the man in the shoot found her sexy enough to hook up with her afterwards.

Because, while one part of Madonna was all about the ambition, the second, equally important part was all about the sex. And, let's be honest: the thing that some people find uncomfortable about her is still the sex. Specifically: she may be old enough to be your granny, but she looks like a woman who is having sex, and who is, to use a grim expression, comfortable with her sexuality. Who'd have thought this would — still! — be so disturbing to so many people? We've been here before, of course, with her 1992 book, Sex, but that was a long time ago, when Madonna was in her perky thirties. The fact is, we are still supremely uncomfortable with female sexuality, and specifically freaked out by women over the age of 40 expressing themselves as sexual beings.

Madonna has — at the time of writing — three children. This makes it much, much worse: we exist in a society where the Daily Mail recently paid "a mother of two" to watch the porn that Jacqui Smith's husband had unwisely pay-per-viewed, as though "a mother of two" would never, in the normal course of things, sully her eyes with such unadulterated filth. Newsflash: women — young ones, old ones, married ones, single ones, ones who have children and ones who don't — look at porn, though since so much of it is available free online, they rarely pay for it via cable television. And the majority of those women have sex. And have fantasies about hotel rooms with the likes of Jesus Luz and his friend, I imagine. Unbelievably — and because the traditional media is about 200 years behind the blogosphere on this particular subject — that still feels like a provocative sentence to write, though God knows why it should be, because it's simply true. I know it, you know it — and, of course, Madonna knows it.

There has been speculation about why Madonna agreed to do this shoot. The general consensus seems to be that she was keen to show her ex-husband what he was missing — yet another piece of r eductive pre-feminist nonsense that suggests women are solely motivated by the opinions of men, and that Ms Ciccone really has nothing better to think about than her failed marriage; that, being a woman, she sits around moping about What Might Have Been while Ritchie is out painting the town. I have no idea what motivated her to pose for Steven Klein, but I don't think it's rocket science. If you'd worked that hard to look that good — well, wouldn't you?--


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