What Do Madonna, Susan Boyle and Dubai Have in Common?


madonna.jpgI’ve just finished reading an insightful TimesOnline article entitled Madonna: Sexual and Proud.

In the piece, columnist India Knight comments on the public’s reaction to the recently divorced celebrity’s abbreviated fling with a man less than half her age. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Photo of Madonna)

All I can say is hats off to both the star and the columnist: Madonna for being who she is (and not being afraid to flaunt it), and Knight for getting to the core of what makes some people uncomfortable with “older” women expressing their sexuality (and not being afraid to write about it).

The sad truth is that there’s a great deal of ‘uncomfortability’ in most cultures with women of any age expressing their sexuality. As Knight observes:

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.

This worldwide social discomfort is at the root of horrific practices such as genital mutilation, honour killing, and other forms of culturally acceptable violence against women, which is still as entrenched in the Western world, by the way, as it is in developing countries, though admittedly in less extreme forms for the most part.

More distressing still is the fact that women themselves perpetrate much of this violence against other women and girls, as in the case of genital mutilation for example.

Why are we often our own worst enemies? Could it be insecurity with our own bodies as Knight posits:

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.

Or does it go deeper than that?

Is it Madonna’s unapologetically brazen behaviour, her raw personal power or her unadulterated ambition that cause us to feel uncomfortable? Or is it all of the above?

Overnight Internet Sensation

susan_boyle.jpgA couple of weeks ago, an unassuming and unknown (except possibly to her neighbours), 47-year-old Scottish singer named Susan Boyle stepped onto a stage to sing in a talent contest.

Much to the astonishment of everyone in attendance, Boyle said she wanted to be as famous as Elaine Paige, the first lady of British musical theatre, star of Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Chess, and many other theatrical blockbusters.

(See Paige sing I Dreamed a Dream, the same song Susan Boyle sang, at the bottom of this entry)

Elaine Paige is to British musicals what Madonna is to pop rock celebrity, which brings me conveniently back to how Madonna and Boyle compare. Although they are only three years apart in age, their stories are utterly different – or are they?

Madonna is, well, MADONNA. Sexual. Controversial. Raw. And authentic.

Boyle on the other hand, seems charmingly naive. She lives alone with her cat Pebbles, she’s never been married, never even been kissed, she says.

However, when she sings at the Britain’s Got Talent audition (her first time in front of a large audience), she stuns the judges and the audience, and inspires millions of people around the world with her performance. She is self-assured. Fearless. Humble. And authentic. (Hmmmmm….)

Surprise, Surprise

To everyone’s surprise, she becomes an overnight Internet sensation. It took Madonna years of blood, sweat and tears to become an overnight success, but that was before YouTube.

As I write this, a fortnight after the show, Susan Boyle’s audition videos have garnered about 50 million views. Thousands of people (including myself), watch it over and over again.

But wait.

Like Madonna, Boyle too is criticized. Not for her sex appeal, but for her lack thereof!

“She’s ugly,” they say in countless YouTube comments. Even some of those who are moved by her performance are cynical with respect to its authenticity.

Tanya Gold, columnist for The Guardian (in what was ostensibly meant to be a column supporting Susan Boyle), chides the general public and the expert panel for pre-judging Boyle on the basis of appearance.

Ironically, Gold then opens her piece with an appalling judgment of her own:

Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we? On Saturday night she stood on the stage in Britain’s Got Talent; small and rather chubby, with a squashed face, unruly teeth and unkempt hair. She wore a gold lace dress, which made her look like a piece of pork sitting on a doily.

Excuse me? “A squashed face, unruly teeth and unkempt hair?” “A piece of pork sitting on a doily?”

And this is from a woman who is supposedly on Boyle’s side. It seems to me there’s something wrong with this picture.

Which brings me, finally, to the question at hand: What Do Madonna, Susan Boyle and Dubai Have in Common?

The Commonalities

Let me see, all three of them:

  • started from nothing, and dreamed BIG
  • took the giant risk of publicly stating their bold ambitions up front, without guile
  • pursued their impossible dreams in the face of cynicism, envy and disbelief
  • succeeded against all odds
  • have been unfairly judged

What is it about someone else’s success that some of us love to hate?

I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s time we collectively got over it. When someone dreams a dream, we should do what we can to make sure life doesn’t kill it.

Those who dare to dream deserve our applause, not our derision.

Related links:

Elaine Paige sings I Dreamed a Dream earlier this year: