Last week I fell in love. I was at a party in an old palace in Florence — lol so iconic I know, it was all expenses paid xoxo Gossip Queen — and I met this woman who literally was my life. Stunning vintage Prada dress, greying hair delicately nipped back in one of those really chic barrette clips, diamond earrings that were definitely real diamonds and not a superglued knock-off from Watney Market, countless tasteful surgical procedures – the list goes on. She effervesced pure diva and, upon a major Google stalk, it turned out the object of my worship was in fact Princess Michael of Kent.
A real-life princess!
Upon more googling, it unfolded that she was possibly the most bigoted of all the royals, if you can believe it. Some choice quotes include: “I am experiencing austerity too”; “Breastfeeding in public is a dreadful practice”; “Animals don’t have rights. They don’t have bank accounts. They don’t vote.”
I had been living for this proverbial queen because she was the epitome of a ‘diva’, a ‘queen’, ‘iconic’. So upon realising her grotesque views, I started to question the way I had instantly applied these terms to this woman. Princess Michael of Kent added to the list of so many women who are, almost inexplicably, deified by the gay male community.
Now there’s an important delineation to make here: I’m not talking about gay icons like Madonna, Celine Dion or Liza Minnelli, who are also glorified and worshipped by a lot of gay men. These women are hugely respected, oftentimes providing a lifeline in the public eye where there wasn’t one before for many people like me. Of course, there’s always an issue of placing women on pedestals but, with these globally noted artists, the relationship between the fan and the icon is much more mutual, much more empowered.
Here I’m talking about a bald Britney circa 2007, and Jocelyn Wildenstein, the Queen of Bad Surgery. I’m talking about Heidi Montag. About Chloe Mafia from X Factor, and Jade Goody. Women with tragic stories, and severe health and addiction issues, who are fawned over by the exploitative media and lived for by the gay male community.
Take Britney circa 2007. One of Britney’s many pop icon formulations, this was perhaps the darkest. After a series of unfortunate events in her personal life, which were savagely reported on by the media, she publicly shaved her head and attacked a car, and some paps, with an umbrella. It’s clear she was going through a nervous breakdown, but so much of the vernacular in my community is built on 'iconising' women like this. “Yaaaas bitch werk”, we’ll post under a Britney meme on Instagram. We’ll share videos of Britney weeping in interviews, with the caption “Me when I get no dick.” We'll dress up as her at parties, and hysterically chuckle as we recount stories of female friends who "pulled a Britney", all with the justification of it being ‘iconic’.
Let’s rewind to socialisation. For many people like me, we didn’t grow up in the knowledge that gender is a construct, built around the damaging binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, tethered further to the damaging cultural codes of feminine and masculine. Gay, femme, and rejected by our male oppressors, the only lens through which people could understand us is through that of the feminine, the female, and as a result it’s how a lot of us came to understand ourselves.
As a young gay person, I was displaced: from society’s expectations of me, from the category of 'male' which violently oppressed me. Many people’s stories are like mine: forced from safety, forced from the idea that the world could ever be kind to you. We are, from the off, failing to fit into our perceived category. And so are these ‘iconic’ women. Society’s misogynist bedrock demands that all women fit into very specific confinements: beautiful, quiet, sexy. While we all know these codes are totally archaic and essentially full-on bullshit, when Britney shaves her head, when Heidi Montag has endless surgeries and then releases a single called "Superficial", we are witnessing these women fully rejecting these expectations, whether they’re choosing to or not. No longer are they perfect; instead they are flawed, and criticised for it.
That, for many gay men, is powerful to see: someone doing to themselves what’s been done to us and, in some ways, owning it better than we ever could.
It’s also, undeniably, misogynistic.
It’s misogynistic on countless counts: placing our own entertainment above the welfare of these women tortured by a heinously judgmental society; putting these women on pedestals they never wanted to be on; fetishising their societal failure; laughing at their sometimes extreme views because, deep down, we think women can’t enact such things.
Speaking to my female friends, many said they’ve felt this misogyny both in the way they have seen gay men treating these women in the public eye, but also in the way they have felt pressure to perform for their gay friends, be 'iconic' for their gay friends, otherwise they feel “boring”, “disempowered”.
As gay people, our culture is very much an amalgam and reinterpretation of dominant cultural codes — we have learned to take what we can from different cultures and genders because we aren't afforded a space, and a culture, of our own. As a result, so much of what makes gay culture special is built on the back of feminine labour: whether it’s the female friends who kept you safe at high school or the women from whom we draw drag references.
Our obsession with these ‘iconic’ women is littered with misogynies, stolen labour, and very little regard for their experience. Our ‘iconicisation’ (just made that word up xoxo) of tragic women can often make women who don’t shave their heads feel like they have to become parodies of themselves in order to be celebrated by us.
What we need to do as a community is spend time thinking about the women we deify and why we do so. We need to shift the lens of what we deem ‘iconic’ and what deserves a ‘yaaaas queen’, instead considering the pain and demonisation of women who, according to society, are a ‘mess’. If we continue to uphold this structure, we are complicit in these women’s torture, even though we have been treated like them our whole lives. Instead we should offer love, support and respect for their situations.
What we must also begin to see as a group of gay men is the subtle ways women who haven’t had nervous breakdowns or an allergic reaction to a lip job work incredibly hard for us. We should return the work, return the celebration, appreciate the culture they’ve shared with us. Remember your female friend who first lent you lipstick, or the woman who listens to all your worries? She is 'iconic' in her own right, and in her own achievements; defined in her own right, not only in relation to how she benefited you. So live for her, ‘iconicise’ her but, most importantly, listen to, platform and support her. Calling her simply ‘iconic’ doesn’t engage with her actual reality.
“Being a woman every day in a male-dominated society is fucking iconic enough if you ask me,” my friend Leyah remarked. And it’s time us gay men saw, and celebrated, that.