Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Madonna, Mad Men, and mediated exchanges

The year: 2012
The place: Facebook
The subject: Madonna

Once again I find myself getting up on a virtual soapbox and passionately engaging with people I have never met. Vagner + Madonna = cliché, I know I know... sprinkle a dash of drama and the set up is complete.

The situation started yesterday, when a Facebook friend (a person I've never met but have talked on the phone a couple times, a real life friend of a friend) posted that Lionel Ritchie was #1 on iTunes, followed by Madonna. It is funny or sad (you decide), that I already knew that piece of information, because I had just visited the iTunes store then... I actually was mostly shocked that Ritchie had anything out right now, but good for him for still having an audience.

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As it always happens with Madonna, many derogatory comments about her age and behavior surface. She seems to be notoriously irrelevant to some, which we are all too often reminded of. One particular poster caller her a granny and said she should retire. And that got me going. First because I do not necessarily think that a woman that is 52 years old (Madonna is actually 53 now, but in the discussions the 52 was constantly referenced) is old enough to be a grandmother. My maternal grandmother was born in 1913. She was 30 when she had my mother (who was born in 1943), and 60 when I was born (1973 baby over here). While technically she was a grandmother at 52 (I am the second-youngest grandchild in that side of my family, my mother the third youngest child out of a total 7), my beloved grandmother Zilah was married at age 15 to my grandfather Osório when he was 18. Those were different times. In contrast, both of my older sisters had first kids in their 30s (I believe 35 and 38 respectively), which is not uncommon for their generation and the generation before theirs, most likely unusual in the preceding generations of my mother and grandmothers. Madonna is not a grandmother yet, she will probably be a grandmother "for the very first time" in her 60s, like my mother.

my beautiful grandparents in a digital composite (from the 90s) portrait of the year they married.

I responded to the commenter's post that it is insane to expect any person to retire at the age of 52, that people, and in special creative people, can lead incredibly fulfilling careers for many more decades, and told her to look up Louise Bourgeois (though I completely misspelled her name there) - Bourgeois being, in my view, the patroness saint of all obscure-artists-who-never-give-up-on-the-notion-being-famous-one-day. At 98 her death to me was still untimely. I personally feel like I have something to look forward to in my 80s. 

what is she holding? © Robert Mapplethorpe (1982)

This notion of forced retirement made me think of all the aging male musicians still singing about the girl, their summer times, etc. How come Barry White could still not get enough of your love, baby until the bitter end and beyond? The living ones still seem to be at it (and some of them look pretty scary, the Brits do not seem to age well for some reason), and nobody seems to question their motivation to keep on creating, keep on working, and even keep on marrying people that were born two decades later than them (including Sir Elton John). This also made me think of all the protests in France last Fall when the president changed the date of retirement from 60 to 62, and how people in the US thought the whole thing was absurd. If this ageism in our society will persist, maybe people should indeed retire at age 60 and enjoy their free time doing nothing (no sex allowed either), since there can be no productive life after a certain again (in this day and age, good luck on finding a new job if you are 55). Perhaps the French had it right all along?

Thibault Camus/AP

On Facebook I also said that there is no reason why anyone at 52 should also stop being sexual at that age. My fellow commenter eventually replied (I read it this morning) that perhaps she should act like a 52 year old, and not a 25 year old boy toy hunter (a paraphrase). I then wrote back that a 52 y.o. should decide how a 52 y.o. acts (I have no idea how old the responder is, but she looks to be about my age at most from her small picture, age undetermined). My true belief is that people should have the freedom to lead their lives they way they best sit fit. Telling a woman she cannot be sexual in whatever age is like saying a gay person should act less gay or a Black person sound less Black (whatever those two things are - who makes those decisions?) so that they can better fit into a societal mode that is not theirs. This way of thinking is retrograde and dangerous. We should get used to being uncomfortable as the world moves forward, get used to the changes or get used to not being with our times.

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[since I began writing this there have been two comments posted on that thread, which I will look at when I am finished here and perhaps comment as as post script to this entry, if necessary]

Last night I watched the third episode of Mad Men's Season 5, which I believe to be the most recent. In it we see Betty (the main character's first wife) for the first time, and her looks are very different from her usual 1960s Norman Rockwell perfection. Mostly due because, I suspect, the actress January Jones was late in her pregnancy during the taping, her character's weight gain was a subject of the episode. Her condition was associated with a thyroid tumor, and as someone who has gone through the same situation, I could not but parallel Betty from Season 4 and 5 to myself in the years 2000 and 2001. Without revealing what happens, one scene that stuck to my mind was an interaction between Betty and her new mother-in-law.I could not find the exact clip on youtube, but in it her mother-in-law, who is overweight, says that at her age she does not need to worry about being attractive to men anymore. She had been nullified by society on a default, her age, which then allowed her to nullify herself physically (her view, not mine). What I love about this show is that it reveals the absurdity of their times (to most of us), and yet it still connects to some people who believe we should still live like that.

The clip below refers to Betty is middle-aged (I believe she is supposed to be less than 30 in the show), and the "friend" she mentions is actually her antagonistic mother-in-law. SPOILER ALERT, do not watch if you still have not seen episode 3:

Given the current rhetoric of our times, when women's reproductive rights are yet again being put into question, where only "sluts" have sex, where presidential nomination candidates believe the role of a woman is that to raise kids and support their husbands, where marriage can only be about opposites and procreation (and not about love), where an "other" can be shot and killed for not looking and behaving like the rest of the neighborhood, where we might be strip-searched if stopped for a traffic violation (remember to ALWAYS wear a red jockstrap from here on, no matter your gender, just in case), I find is insane that people still want to control other people's bodies and behavior to fit a particular model nobody is able to fully articulate without sounding like a bigot. Or that best fit the US in the 1950s. But sadly this does not surprise me.

Mad Men reminds me of when I found myself in a coffee shop, in Brazil, about 5 years ago, seated between two pregnant women in a coffee shop in the middle of a hot summer day, my sister and her friend drinking sodas with me. On her 7th or 8th month of pregnancy, my sister's friend at one point pulled out a cigarette and discretely smoked it, while I tried not to let my jaw drop off too much. Later when we were alone, I brought it up to my sister how surreal the whole scene was, and she bit my head off telling me how difficult it was to be pregnant and how I would never know how that would be. True, I will never know the experience of motherhood, but I had quit smoking by then, so I knew all about craving something. And of course smoking while pregnant has been a no no for the majority of my life. Of course I was the villain in the story. I could have asked her where does common sense ends and personal experience trumps it all, but decided to drop the subject. If I followed her line of thinking I should assume that, as a psychologist, my sister needed to have had all sorts of metal disorders in order to truly understand and sympathize with her patients. To what extent is common sense culturally grounded, and not absolute? Does this mean that living in a police state 20 years from now will be socially acceptable? (if that is the case I will probably burn at the stake way before that).

Of course one does not need to have experienced everything in order to understand it, this is where studying, observation and wisdom come into play (which I know my sister has extensively and turned into a successful practice). 

wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier horned skull cap at the gift shop at DeYoung Museum in San Francisco a week ago

Yesterday I also found myself talking to a student I recently met at a conference about his work, via Facebook IM. This is someone whom I barely interacted in person last week, but since then had exchanged a few emails. Yesterday he asked me to give him some feedback on his work, and though I do not find virtual interactions proper or even professional enough, I said yes. The result was disastrous. I thought I was giving him some honest, constructive feedback, but he ended up feeling very wounded, even hurt, depressed he said. One comment that stuck with him was that his work was boring. I do not recall exactly if I called it "boring" (I don't think I did, but I might have, I probably said it was not too exciting), but I did tell him I thought the work should reflect more his age (he is 10 years younger than I am), that it was a bit old fashioned and not dialoguing with today's world. He disagreed with me, which is completely fine, and my only hope is that he will eventually realize that I was trying to help him out. 

This exchange made me consider the paradox I find myself in: how come I have an issue with someone who thinks they know how a 52 y.o. should act, but I have no problem in telling it to a 28 y.o.? Does the fact that I have been 28 y.o., in college, studying photography, allow me to speak from experience? Or perhaps the 11 years of college teaching experience? Or in fact, does the majority's opinion matter more than an individual one? If all the student's professors said his work was crap (his words), is his work then actual crap? If everyone thinks Madonna should hide away and never express herself again, should she?

I have no answers to these questions. What I can say is that most of my closest friends are 10 to 20 years older than I am, and these are the most wonderful, caring, loving, intelligent and accomplished people I have ever had the chance of calling "friend" in my life. They live life to their fullest, they have not stopped being exciting, creative, productive, and dare I say, sexual beings. They live to their fullest potential and will do so for as long as they are able to (which I hope is for ever, because I want them in my life for as long). To each its own may not be enough vis a vis all the bullying and hate crime around the world (god bless you, your family, and your country, Daniel Zamudio). We need to make sure people are allowed to live their lives in their own terms. Each person should go through their own life journey in the best way they deem fit, and our role should be that of a supporting one, to the best of our abilities.

PS: what I can say is that all is good between myself and the aforementioned commenter on the Facebook thread. We will probably send out friend requests soon! What can be frustrating in that forum is what makes is so interesting to me as well. To paraphrase Madonna, "[Facebook] makes the people come together"... Like most good discussions, all involved can disagree with one another and still remain civil and friendly, respecting each persons' opinion.

if you remove all the hot men and the music, and replace Madonna with me, this sort of looks a bit like my videos from the late 90s


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