Piers, Madonna, and the Double Standard
By Niamh Middleton
After Madonna’s scary and dangerous fall at the recent Brit awards, Piers Morgan wrote an uncomplimentary article entitled “Falling off the stage, Madonna, is God’s way of telling you you’re too old to cavort like a hooker.” I was surprised that someone of Piers Morgan’s fame and status would publicly kick a woman when she was, literally, down.
Morgan’s casual portrayal of himself as the mouthpiece of the Deity is probably linked to Madonna’s name, and the provocative use she has made of religious imagery and symbolism in her music videos, behaviour that has aroused male religious ire in the past. This latest manifestation of male hostility, however, comes from a fellow celebrity, and the particular form of name-calling it involves is a reminder that, in spite of the strides that women have made through feminist activism, the double standard hasn’t gone away.
Morgan goes on to criticize Madonna for dating and discarding younger men, behaviour that is not uncommon among wealthy and/or famous men of Madonna’s age and much older. Such men, of course, can never be called ‘hookers’; they attract male envy and admiration rather than anger. Did Morgan deliberately use the word ‘hooker’ so that, in conjunction with Madonna’s name, it would evoke the biblical Madonna/whore dichotomy that encapsulates and, some would say, causes the double standard in Western cultures? Whatever about Morgan’s motives, I have no doubt that Madonna has made use of her name both to highlight and subvert the biblical categories; I have always been struck by the ease with which she can move between the roles of provocative femme fatale, demure author of children’s books, and single, maternal mother of four.
Now she is holding up a mirror to the male sex that shows them what their behaviour looks like. Not only that, she is showing them the future; for the rights and freedoms that first and second wave feminism have gained for Western women, in conjunction with medical advances such as the contraceptive pill and reproductive technologies, mean that women no longer have to put up with being taken for granted, double jobbing, and all too often being cast aside when they pass their sell by date. Women can now go it alone, and are starting to assert ever greater levels of independence. This may well also entail ever higher rates of single parenthood, relationship breakdown and divorce in the future, a trend that is already established, and which Madonna also exemplifies.
As a woman and as a feminist theologian from within the Christian tradition I can’t help but feel sad at the male behaviours that have led to this impasse. In leading the charge for her sex – whether consciously or not – Madonna may, however, be highlighting a process that will eventually force men to up their moral game, and inaugurate a new age in which men and women can reach higher levels of maturity in their relationship. In my opinion, the achievement of full equality between men and women will involve a moral component as well as changes in societal laws and policies. This may sound far-fetched, but a revolution in sexual relationships – both same sex and opposite sex – is well underway; ironically, it is gay people who are now teaching the importance of marriage to disillusioned heterosexuals, especially female ones. When the revolution is over, who knows what new paradigms will have emerged? The gay campaign for equal marriage rights also highlights the fact that equality between the sexes cannot be separated out from equality within the sexes, or indeed from the myriad inequalities bred by Western patriarchy in particular.
To return to the question of the double standard and whether or not the biblical Madonna/whore categories have caused or exacerbated it: in my opinion, the very existence of the word and category of prostitute as it is used to stereotype women demonstrates that women are held responsible both for male sexual behaviours that transgress societal norms, and male fear of female sexuality. Prostitution is often called ‘the oldest profession in the world’; it is universal and to belong to it is to be a target of societal contempt in patriarchal societies. Women who are not prostitutes, but who are perceived to fall short of patriarchal norms of how women should behave can, like Madonna, be insulted with terms like ‘whore’ ‘hooker’ or ‘slut’ as a means of making them conform. So, to answer the question raised above, I would suggest that the bible is not the ultimate cause of the double standard; it certainly exacerbates it, however, causing a particularly sharp and vicious polarization of women in Western culture that encourages conflict among women themselves.
Piers Morgan’s insulting comment to Madonna – all the more effective because of the biblical connotations – is both symptomatic and symbolic of the downside of women’s gains in the workforce and in politics. In tandem with the rise of women is the sexualisation of girls at increasingly younger ages and the growth and proliferation of hard core pornography that demeans women. If women won’t be stay-at-home madonnas, then they must be whores. Further, the Madonna/whore version of the double standard is directly responsible for the refusal of religious authority to women in Roman Catholicism, the largest Christian denomination. Interestingly, however – and hopefully from a Christian point of view – Jesus himself radically subverted the norms of his culture and religion by socialising with and defending prostitutes, who were official pariahs in the Judaism of the time and only allowed to enter cities and towns after dark. Again, Jesus’s championing of prostitutes was part of his radical inclusivity towards all whom the culture of his time deemed to be ‘other’; this inclusivity was as seamless as his robe, the one for which the Roman soldiers drew lots.
Finally, the Madonna/whore dichotomy is actually a travesty of the two characters concerned (Mary, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene); yet it is archetypal in its mythological power. Since, in Western culture, the double standard is defined and wielded in terms of biblical categories, it is to the bible that, I would suggest, feminist analysis must now turn as a means of discerning and attempting to understand the gap between the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women, their treatment by the culture of his time, and their treatment in the world that the religion to which he gave his name has engendered. While religion in the West may seem like an optional extra to second wave feminism, I believe that it has the potential to become the catalyst and breeding-ground of third wave feminism. The latter possibility, however, is for feminist theological scholarly analysis to explore. In doing so, feminist theologians may also shed light on the root causes of patriarchal oppression in all of its forms.
Niamh Middleton worked as a primary school teacher from 1979 – 2002. She studied theology in Mater Dei, Dublin and the Pontifical University Maynooth, obtaining her doctorate in 2004. She now lectures in Theology and Religious Studies in St. Patrick’s College of Education, Dublin City University. She has been a committed feminist since reading Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room in her early twenties, and believes that the most innovative Western feminists are now working in the religious/theological domain.