How Madonna Taught Me to Ignore Social Gender Norms
by C.L. Frederick
I used to find it quite frustrating having my masculinity questioned by gay men. Not to say I ever minded being branded as feminine, because to me my feminine characteristics are ones I am very proud of. I assumed gay men would be more understanding of the gender spectrum because we have faced discrimination for years as a direct result of our challenging gender and sexuality norms. The insinuation that femininity is to be viewed as less than or shameful was the root of what bothered me.
I never wanted to cover up or mask my feminine characteristics as has been demanded by gay culture. I have never been one to play into double standards or hypocrisy. With that said, I found myself turning to one person for guidance, and that was Madonna.
Since I was a child, I have viewed Madonna as a role model. From the beginning of her career, she has redefined the gender rules that society has endorsed. She taught me that gender has a range and that some rules are meant to be broken.
Recently, Madonna gave an empowering and devastatingly honest speech while accepting the Woman of the Year award at Billboard’s Women in Music 2016 event. She shed light on the issue of sexism in the social order and how anything labeled feminine is devalued. She stated that “there are no rules if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”
Her words paralleled my feelings about being feminine in the gay world. Every day, effeminate gay men are bombarded with the phrases “masc 4 masc,” “no fems,” and “straight-acting only.”
Derogatory sayings, such as, “Every time he opens his mouth, a purse falls out” and being referred to as “bottoms” are further examples of straight-acting, masculine privilege. The pecking order within the community places masculine at the top and those who are deemed feminine as the butt of every joke.
Madonna went on to say that “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo.”
I related whole-heartedly to this facet of her speech, and this has been my struggle as an effeminate gay man. Following Madonna’s example, which was set for me decades prior to her Billboard speech, I began to live my own gender identity.
Madonna ignored the belief that power equated masculinity. Dealing with the constant condemnations for not being “butch” enough were not experiences I would allow to define who I was. I refused to keep my intellect in check, I wasn’t afraid to objectify my own sexuality and I owned both my feminine and masculine qualities, while never treating them as mutually exclusive. Because of Madonna, I realized that I must be brave enough to be the person I was created to be.
Masculine individuals have used words like “sissy,” “pansy” and “fairy” to describe gay men, which further dehumanizes the female population. It seems out of character for our own community to continue the detrimental and deeply offensive characterization of what it means to be feminine.
Gay men should be fully cognizant of the fact that there is no such thing as gender norms. Gender is, and always has been, a spectrum. No one individual is completely masculine or feminine. We all have special traits that make us who we are; that make us special and unique.
Socially, I have come to realize that women and effeminate gay men are held to a different standard when it comes to appearance and aging. The media allow masculine men to grow older and still be sexually viable. We are witness to some of our favorite male movie stars carrying films while being paired romantically with much younger leading ladies.
Heterosexual men are given permission to age, to have gray hair and wrinkles, and it is generally accepted. In her speech, Madonna stated “to age is a sin. You will be criticized – you will be vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio.” Anyone who embraces their feminine traits and ages naturally is hype-vulnerable to criticism. Society views “feminine” as a sexual object and not as full-fledged human beings. We are told that youth and femininity go hand in hand to appease the male population.
In gay culture, muscles, masculinity and a youthful face are deemed attractive. If you are a bottom, you age out after 30, which shows the inane nature of societal expectations when it comes to embracing one’s femininity.
Madonna’s image and influence have empowered me when it comes to aging and owning it. I now understand that confidence, intellect and bravery are my sexiest attributes.
To give perspective, we can look to the issue of wage equality. Women today make only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent. Women earn less than men in practically every occupation. These are telling insights into the power of sexism and the degradation of femininity.
A lesser-known statistic relating to wage inequality is that gay men make 5 percent less than their straight male counterparts. As a community, we still have barriers to break down and we will never be truly equal until we embrace the feminine characteristics in all individuals.
Madonna ended her speech by saying that “in life, there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
A truthful and touching pearl of wisdom from the world’s most famous woman. She gave me the strength to realize that I am normal and worthy, and that I should never passively allow my humanity to be viewed as less than. Because of her, I have found the will to embrace the entire gender spectrum that my being encompasses.
Madonna has taught me to become a different kind of feminist. She is a trail blazer, and her Billboard speech should not only impact women, but also inspire gay men to love and value their own feminine qualities.