Joan Smith: Hold the front page! Madonna is a bit older than she was

The popular press in this country really hates women
Click to follow

Shocking news, I'm afraid, for anyone of a nervous disposition: Madonna is getting older. Photographs published last week confronted readers with incontrovertible proof that the singer no longer looks the same as she did in 1982, sending large numbers of fans to lie down in darkened rooms. Personally, I would have liked to see some then-and-now pictures of the Daily Mirror's senior staff - none of whom has acquired a single wrinkle or a grey hair in the past quarter of a century, I understand - but there was no room. A cruel photograph taken on Wednesday, as Madonna arrived at Jean Paul Gaultier's show in Paris, took up too much space, with arrows drawing attention to her chin, teeth and forehead.

The popular press in this country really hates women. The brand leader in misogyny is the Daily Mail which, when it isn't writing about women dying from horrible diseases, goes on and on about cosmetic surgery: is 16 too young for a boob job? Why did this woman spend £25,000 on remodelling her body? I am sometimes asked why, if my theory is correct, the Mail and other big-selling dailies have so many women readers. The answer's simple: they have their fingers on the pulse of female anxiety. They present women readers with images of impossibly slender celebrities, making them feel aspirational and envious, in between revealing hidden messages in the Bible. The Mail is always promoting the next big diet, while revelling in exposing how miserable famous and successful women secretly are.

Often this is done under the guise of expressing legitimate concern, as in "friends of X say she has become worryingly thin after the death of her dog and being dumped by her millionaire boyfriend". This is code for suggesting that the woman in question has anorexia, in which case an element of bullying is involved; the paper hopes that the victim will issue a denial, thus keeping the story going, and that more "friends" will come forward to dish the dirt. I'm not sure how many readers recognise this device but it is unwise to take expressions of anxiety about someone's health or emotional state in the popular press at face value.

Last week, the Mirror got so carried away with its spiteful coverage of Madonna (front page splash calling her "Sadonna", followed by double-page spread) that it even devoted a leader to the subject. "As Tammy Wynette once sang, sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And Madonna is clearly finding holding the years back tougher and tougher," the paper pontificated, telling a greater truth than it realised. Neither the Mail nor The Sun even pretended to be anxious about the 47-year-old singer, the former asking whether her hair was receding after years of using dye and the latter comparing her with Joan Rivers - 25 years her senior.

I suppose it's fun, if you like that sort of thing, to feel you're bringing famous women down a peg or two. What the popular press never acknowledges is its dishonesty in endlessly promoting stick-thin women such as Victoria Beckham and Kate Moss - not to mention sending out a message that it's virtually a moral failing to show signs of ageing - and then mocking anyone who tries to stay young and slender, especially if she fails. Thus the Mirror announced last week that Madonna was "showing all the signs of a face and body pushed too far and too hard", without examining the question of who in this youth-obsessed, misogynist culture does the pushing. Given her athleticism in her latest video, maybe the singer was just having a bad day on Wednesday. But if her "quest for eternal youth" really is taking its toll, I think I know who to blame.