You’re a 44-year old man: the Michael Jackson Interview

Catherine Redfern argues that the Michael Jackson interview raises questions about what is considered "normal" behaviour for men and women.

, 16 February 2003

A few sandwiches short of a picnic?

I didn’t intend to watch Martin Bashir’s much-hyped Michael Jackson interview with my feminist “hat” on, but it seems I must wear it more often then I think. As I watched the interview unfold, I was increasingly struck by the realisation that the main reasons Jackson is considered to be (let’s be frank here) a few sandwiches short of a picnic, are rooted in our culture’s view of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women; a view which is often extremely hypocritical.

In the programme, Bashir kept returning to two main issues which he thought patently illustrated Jackson’s “wierdness”: firstly cosmetic surgery, and secondly, his relationship with children.

1: Cosmetic surgery

If asked to name a famous man who’s has cosmetic surgery, most people will name Michael Jackson. I mean, who else is there? He has to be the most famous man in the world who is associated with having had cosmetic work done on his face. This was certainly highlighted by Martin Bashir as one of the really important issues he wanted to get to the bottom of, one of the two issues he came back to in the last segment of the programme. “During my time with him I found out about his life, his money, his children, and” (dramatic pause) “…his FACE.” To the media who report on him, a man who chooses to change his appearance so drastically is something so unbelievable, something so bizarre and freakish, that it demands interrogation and interview techniques usually reserved for politicians on Newsnight. Indeed, Jackson’s face is such an object of fascination that it deserves special interest on its own, like Jordan’s boobs or Beckham’s foot. Channel 5 relaunched itself a few months ago using the documentary Michael Jackson’s Face as a flagship programme. Huge advertising billboards for the show littered the high-street, and in Euston station a giant tv screen next to the destination boards repeatedly morphed pictures of his face so you could watch him change before your eyes as you waited for your train.

Someone who has gone to such lengths must have some serious issues going on

Why should one man’s face cause so much anger? Why should anyone care what one man chooses to do to his own face?

Jackson is often alleged to have made himself “look white”. His cosmetic surgery is usually seen to be an extremely pathetic and incomprehensible betrayal of his humanity and particularly, his racial heritage. It is generally accepted that someone who has gone to such lengths to do this must have some serious issues going on and is probably in need of psychiatric help.

Wacko. Jacko.

In The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer quoted a scientist who claimed that:

“Michael Jackson seems to be a clear case of BDD [Body Dismorphic Disorder – an abnormal obession with one’s appearance]. He has had over 30 cosmetic surgey operations and his ex-wife Lisa Presley has said he would never take off his make-up, even in bed.”

Greer’s comment on this is that “what is [considered] pathological behaviour in a man is required of a woman.”

Although Jackson is pilloried and humiliated because of a few cosmetic surgery operations, women all over the world are preparing to undergo serious invasive surgery for cosmetic reasons and nobody bats an eyelid. When a woman has lethal poisons injected into her forehead, when she has her breasts sliced open and sewed up again in the pusuit of “beauty”, when she has a chemical peel to burn away a layer of skin, when she completely changes her appearance with face lifts to become unrecognisable, is this seen as a sad and slightly sick betrayal of her very humanity/womanhood? Is she immediately interrogated as to why she feels the need to do such a bizarre thing? Is she sent to psychiatrists to get to the bottom of what must be very serious “issues”? Is she diagnosed with BDD?

On the contrary – it’s normal, completely understandable, perhaps even required, in our society that women do the very same thing that Jackson is being attacked for. Women like the late Lolo Ferrari, who change themselves beyond recognition are seen by most people as a bit unusual, but certainly nothing to write home about. Indeed there are thousands of women who have gone to lengths far beyond Jackson’s to alter their face and body. Lisa Jervis in the book Body Outlaws talks about how, in the Jewish Community in New York she grew up in, it was unusual for a woman not to have cosmetic surgery to “correct” the shape of her nose. Although this is arguably a lot more shocking than what Michael Jackson has done, this is not deserving of special interest because it’s women doing it. This is only to be expected from women, one presumes. This is life.

Women’s magazines regularly encourage women never to leave the house without make-up

The Doctor’s comment about Jackson wearing make-up in bed is interesting. Whilst in his case this is seen as evidence of BDD, women’s magazines regularly run articles telling them how to wear make-up to wear in bed, and encourage them never to leave the house without make-up. This is normal. This is the hypocrisy of the society we live in. Men who take a vague interest in their appearance are seen as stupid and laughable: there are documentaries called Vain Men about them, because they are unsual i.e. “vain”. For women it it mainstream. Women get programmes like FaceLift Diaries, a 6 part series following the experiences of women as they undergo cosmetic surgery. “Tonight,” says the Radio Times, “a woman has a nose job five weeks before her marriage, while another has a facelift – to make her look ‘less gloomy’.” A few months ago I switched over to the news magazine programme Tonight with Trevor MacDonald only to see a bizarre story about Christine Hamilton getting Botox injections – a “treatment” that was also recommended to women in the dating makeover show Would Like to Meet. Samantha getting a horrific looking chemical peel is a comedy sub-plot in Sex and the City. Marge Simpson is accidentally given breast implants by a doctor in a recent episode of The Simpsons, and she doesn’t really mind.

It is incredibly sad to me that Michael Jackson, a person who obviously does have some issues about his appearance and has struggled with it all his life, will never find freedom from scrutiny. He will never be free of people assessing his face, no matter what he does, simply because of his fame. Arguably, since he was a child, Jackson has experienced a similar level of pressure and scrutiny about his appearance as most women are subjected to all their lives by a culture which demands they look a certain way – and reminds them of it a hundred times a day. Could it be that in this context his actions are an entirely natural and understandable response, just as women’s are when they “choose” to subject their healthy and normal bodies to increasingly extreme procedures for reasons of beauty?

The media who print close up pictures of Jackson on the front page of their tabloids and label him a freak for changing his face should ask themselves why they feel perfectly happy to publish adverts for cosmetic surgery – aimed at women of course – in the back pages of the very same publications.

2: Men and children

The second issue highlighted by Martin Bashir was Jackson’s relationship with children. As I watched Bashir interview him, and listened to his voice-over narration (“I became increasingly disturbed at what I saw”) the thing that intrigued me most was not Jackson’s attitude to men and children but Bashir’s, who presented himself as representing the normal common-sense view. It forced me to question how sensible the “normal common-sense view” actually was.

What was Bashir’s view of a reasonable “normal” relationship between an adult man and children?

There’s no denying that Michael Jackson is a very eccentric person and he seems to have some particularly unusual ideas about children. His relationship with his own children is something that most people feel particularly uneasy about after this interview, and his apparent belief that mothers can be almost incidental to parenting – he has in effect “hired a womb” to provide him with children – certainly feels uncomfortable. However, as other commentators have pointed out, his “anything can be bought” attitude is only the logical conclusion of the consumerism of Western culture. And as Jackson himself argued, there are many single parents out there whose children have no connection whatsoever with the other parent. He argued that women hire sperm from unknown donors to provide them with children, why shouldn’t a man do what amounts to the same thing? This is a question which would probably lead to a lot of disagreement among feminists, and I don’t intend to get into it now. What I am interested in is Bashir’s view of what constitutes a reasonable “normal” relationship between an adult man and children.

It is unfortunate for Jackson that the interview took place at a time when there is undeniably what sociologists call a “moral panic” about paedophilia in the UK. As we know, concerns about paedophilia are higher than ever before, and in this atmosphere any man who expresses any interest in children is immediately suspect (not to mention paediatricians, god help them). Of course, it is completely understandable that the allegations of abuse against Jackson in the early 90s would understandably lead Bashir to more rigorous questioning of his relationship with children today. But despite this, I still get a sense that – even if Michael Jackson was/is completely innocent of anything – society is very uneasy with a man who has so much contact with, and interest in children.

In the programme, Bashir gave the impression that any man who takes as much of an interest in children and childhood as Jackson does is just plain weird, full stop. The tone of incredulity in his voice after Jackson said he enjoyed climbing trees and riding on fairground rides – “you enjoy this more than making love??” – reveals a lot. Presumably if Jackson spent his time watching porn and ogling lap-dancers this would be a very good sign of his mental health (he’d be a “normal” bloke then, right?). It was implied in Bashir’s question that a man who said he had more interest in other things than shagging is particularly odd, possibly even mentally unstable. In a culture where men are encouraged to remain mentally as teenagers for as long as possible (i.e. laddism), it seems an inconsistency that a man who chooses to remain mentally in childhood (which is what Jackson appears to be doing) should be viewed with such hostility.

A woman who was living her life in the same way as Jackson – focusing her life around children, inviting them over to her house, letting them sleep over, expressing a desire to adopt more – would perhaps be thought of as slightly eccentric and probably obsessed but not a possible danger and sicko. If a woman expresses a lifelong vocation and passion for caring for and loving children, she is applauded. If Michael Jackson does the same he is a freak and possibly dangerous. Witness the myriad comments from Bashir in the interview (and from others in discussions afterwards) asking why a “44-year old man” would be behaving this way – with the emphasis in that question on man.

Men can and do have very strong feelings and love for children

The fact that men can and do have very strong feelings and love for children is only just beginning to be fully expressed in our culture – watch the heartbreakingly sad Marion and Geoff on BBC2, for a prime example. Yet at the same time there is a kind of collective spasm against this as society adjusts to this new role for men. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that at a time in history when some men are tentatively beginning to take more of a role in childcare, there is a kind of backlash going on against them. No wonder the number of male primary school teachers has dropped; they are scared of even touching the children in their care lest they get accused of being a paedophile. No wonder fathers report experiencing cold hostile stares when they turn up at the school gates to collect their children.

Martin Bashir appeared to believe that it is impossible for a man to sleep in the same room as a child and not feel some kind of urge to sexually violate them (and Jackson holding hands with a child was implied to be proof of this). Whatever the truth, and we will probably never really know what went on, I feel this immediate suspicion says a lot more about Bashir’s view of things than Jackson’s. It seems unimaginable for Bashir that a man could have any interest in children that isn’t sexual (or any innocent caring feelings at all for children that aren’t his own flesh and blood). Imagine Bashir interviewing the men of Marge Piercy’s utopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, who take as much a role in child care as the women do for children that are not biologically their own, even to the extent that they breast feed. The men of Mattapoisett are able to express an completely un-selfconscious and natural physical affection with children that would be completely suspicious today. It would blow Martin Bashir’s mind.

Of course, paedophilia is a terrible and truly awful thing. And I’m not arguing that Jackson is a model father; it’s possible that the suspicions may be true. Calling Jackson “the male Mother Teresa”, as one writer to The Metro did, is probably going a bit too far…

If we do not encourage men to take an active and equal role in childcare, how will women ever be free?

But, my argument is that we must be careful that we don’t succumb to a simple knee-jerk reaction against men who honestly and genuinely do care for children, and thus drive a wedge between men and children even more. Men must begin to defend their interest in caring for children and feminists should support them in this, recognising their struggle as our own. Otherwise the cause will be taken over by the Men’s Movement people, and we’ll just end up regressing to a time when women were naturally seen to be not just the primary but the only gender responsible for (and capable of) caring for children. This has to be seen as a step back. If we do not encourage and allow men to take an active and equal role in childcare, how will women ever be free from being given responsibility (by default) for child care whether they want it or not – and how will men ever be free to experience the joys of loving and caring for children? I suppose the most difficult question is, how do we protect children against the small minority of men who would do them harm, without alienating men altogether from relationships with children? Balancing these two opposing yet valid concerns will be the really tricky part.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I feel that the two issues I’ve discussed above which arose in the Michael Jackson interview seem to be a good illustration of Greer’s comment that what is normal behaviour in a woman is seen as certifiable in a man.

Could it be that Jacko is considered Wacko because he is a man who acts like a woman?

Catherine Redfern is editor and founder of the The F-Word.

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