Last night, Madonna fell down a flight of stairs at the Brit Awards, and the internet went into meltdown.
I wasn’t actually watching the show, so my initial impression, just from scrolling through my Twitter feed, was that Madonna had turned up in a zimmer-frame, and had some age-related incident, which had caused her to fall over. I found that quite surprising, because at 56, she’s hardly geriatric, but the tweets I was reading told a different story. “Is it just me,” one girl tweeted, “Or does anyone else think Madonna should just give up now? She’s too old to be on stage anyway!” “This is what happens when you don’t act your age,” said someone else. More tweets repeated jokes about stairlifts, and smugly asserted that Madonna is just WAY too old to be performing – I mean, what do you expect from someone as old as her, anyway? Obviously she’s going to fall, or do something stupid! That’s what “old people” are like!
Intrigued, I did a quick Google search to see what had happened, and, well, I’m sure you’ve all seen it, but here it is anyway:
I don’t know if I watched a different video from most of the people I follow, but what I see is a (potentially serious) accident, caused by a dancer pulling on Madonna’s cape. It later transpired that the cape was tied too tight, which meant she couldn’t release it on time, resulting in her falling backwards down the stairs. In other words, something that had absolutely nothing to do with her age: just an unfortunate accident, which could have happened to anyone. Well, anyone standing on stairs, surrounded by devils and wearing a giant cape, obviously. And honestly, from what I saw, Madonna was lucky not to have been seriously injured. I mean, that HAD to hurt, right? But she got right back up, and got on with the show, as if nothing had happened. The internet, meanwhile, almost couldn’t handle the hilarity.
“Quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said someone on my feed. “Stupid Madonna,” said another. Oh, internet: why ya gotta be so disappointing?
Look, I’m no Madonna fangirl. OK, I used to be: when I was 12. These days, though, I don’t follow her career at all: I couldn’t even name her latest single. So I’m not saying this from a “don’t you dare criticise my hero!” point of view, and I also don’t consider myself to be particularly self-righteous or sanctimonious either, although I realise I’m probably making myself sound that way. I’m just plain old depressed. Depressed by the fact that people can watch a woman fall down a flight of stairs, and declare it to be the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Depressed by the knowledge that once women reach “a certain age” they’re expected to quietly retire from public life: to give up successful careers, and just accept that they’re “too old” to be of relevance. Madonna didn’t fall because she’s “old” – but a huge amount of people reacted as if she did, and I find it really sad to know that you can be one of the most successful artists of your generation, but if you’re a woman of a certain age, your achievements count for nothing: you’re just “some old woman.”
Would a man have gotten the same reaction, I wonder? If Tom Jones, say, fell flat on his back down a flight of stairs, would people split their sides laughing and go, “Well, that’s what HE gets for being old!” Or say it had happened to Taylor Swift, or Lady Gaga? What would people have said then? I’m guessing a good number would STILL have laughed, because some people are just like that, but I also think that Madonna’s age seems to have lent this a comedic edge that would have been lacking had it happened to a younger person. Her age has allowed them to make jokes about hip replacements and stair lifts, and OMG, isn’t old age just a HOOT?
Not everyone is like that, of course. Once the initial flurry of, “HAHA SOMEONE FELL OVER!” tweets had died down, my feed did start to fill up with people expressing concern, or praising the professionalism of a performer who presumably hurt herself, but who got right back up again. I’m glad I follow those people: they help to balance out some of the rest – some of whom I wouldn’t have suspected of such total lack of empathy, or such breathtaking ageism.
I don’t see myself as someone totally lacking in humour. I’m not particularly PC, and I’m embarrassed to admit that there have been times when I’ve found myself sniggering at something totally inappropriate. I get it: sometimes you see something, and your first instinct is to laugh, even although you know it’s not actually funny. We’ve all been there. (And yes, I totally re-played the video multiple times, and shouted to Terry, “OMG, you have GOT to see this!” I’m not proud.) I think it’s a shame, though, that the internet amplifies those reactions, and makes them seem “the norm”, so people reach a point where they think nothing of posting things that are actually quite cruel, in a bid to say something clever.
And if the sight of someone falling down a flight of stairs really IS the funniest thing you’ve ever seen in your life… well, maybe the joke is on you.