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Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and our expectations of men and women

The Guardian logo The Guardian 05/12/2018 Hadley Freeman

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Why are people upset about the photos of Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran performing together? Michael, by email

Ahh, to see a world in a grain of sand, as William Blake wrote. Just possibly, he was not referring to Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, but also he possibly was. Who are we to impose limitations on genius? Anyway, last weekend, two of the biggest pop stars in the world, Beyoncé and Sheeran – Sheyoncé? Beeran? – performed Sheeran’s song Perfect together at the Global Citizen festival: Mandela 100 in South Africa. To use a rather au courant phrase, the optics were bad. There was Sheeran, looking as he always does, as if he just got out of a lock-in at the student union, and there was Beyoncé, looking as she always does, like a magical fairy queen from the land of Oz. She was wearing an extraordinary couture dress by the Lebanese label Ashi Studio that was really more ruffle than gown, on which the low-key part was the multi-layered extra-long train behind her. But, in case you are worried that all this frill and fabric meant Bey’s body was covered, allow me to put your mind at rest: beneath the ruffles was a mini-dress that was left frill-free at the front, so we could gaze upon Beyoncé’s thighs and cleavage. On top of that, there were the obligatory high heels, makeup and hair that looked as if it took at least four hours to style, and giant earrings. She looked, as ever, absolutely amazing.

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And then, standing next to her, warbling away, was Sheeran, who looked like he had just about managed to brush his teeth. So, while most of us accept to the point of no longer even noticing the absurd differences between what men and women have to do to look acceptable, the disparity here was so ludicrous that it verged on satire.

Beyoncé and Sheeran have, if possibly unwittingly (although, again, far be it from me to impose limitations on genius, let alone Beyoncé) done us a favour. The two of them represent the extremes of their gender norms: he is the slob and she is the fantasy of ultra-high-maintenance femininity. By putting these two extremes together, they reveal a larger truth about the sexes. Let’s stick with the entertainment business for a moment, but go to what the kids might call a more basic level: British reality TV.

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As you might have heard, Holly Willoughby is standing in for Ant McPartlin and presenting this series of I’m a Celebrity ... with Declan Donnelly. Well, I say “presenting”, but what she is actually doing is modelling: every night, Willoughby wears a different cute little dress and funky boots combo (it’s the jungle, see), and cheerfully posts a photo on Instagram, whereupon the clothes instantly sell out. That she is standing in for a male presenter who is her professional equal provides us with a very convenient point of comparison. Ask yourselves: do you remember a damn thing McPartlin ever wore? Do you remember what Donnelly wore last night? Clearly not, because the clothes are not the point with them. But with Willoughby, the clothes are very much the point.

“But these women make money from their clothes by getting modelling gigs. And it’s their choice,” is the general response to any complaint about female celebrities being turned into clothes horses, all of which wildly misses the point. The baseline for what is acceptably attractive requires so much more effort for women than it does for men, and if Beyoncé and Willoughby didn’t make this kind of effort, they wouldn’t have the careers they have. Meanwhile, Sheeran and Donnelly – to say nothing of Eamonn Holmes – rock up in clothes that are comfortable and warm, with hair that hasn’t been tortured for hours, and no one blinks. Looking at Willoughby – primped to perfection – next to Donnelly is to realise how little we have moved on from the days of the lovely Debbie McGee and Paul Daniels, with the woman expected to look like a Barbie and the man allowed to look however the heck he wants.

The truth is, Sheyoncé looked like most heterosexual couples out on a Saturday night, albeit in exaggerated form. I remember going on a date in my early 30s, for which I did the pre-date bare minimum: I blow-dried my hair, had my eyebrows threaded and applied some makeup. Then, when I met up with the guy, I realised he hadn’t even brushed his hair. Women choose what they wear, and many love to dress up. But when the rules for what constitutes acceptable beauty are so fixed, and the pressure to look good is so overwhelming, where does choice end and obligation begin?

Gallery: 18 Photos That Prove Holly Willoughby Has Nailed Sexy Red Carpet Style [POPSUGAR]

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