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The endless pillorying of Madonna

And what it says about the way women are allowed to age (or not)

Madonna at this week's Grammys

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If you’ve been living, blissfully, under a rock (or have a much healthier relationship with social media than I do) you might not have seen all the recent fuss about Madonna at the Grammy awards on Sunday. I know, I know, it’s Madonna. There’s always a fuss about something. But let me be more specific: the fuss was not about her performance or her music. Of course not. The fuss was about Madonna’s face

There were plenty of other things to talk about, things centred around female achievement: Beyoncé winning her 32nd Grammy and overturning composer/conductor George Solti’s record of 31 awards in his lifetime; Viola Davis winning best audiobook and becoming an EGOT (someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, no small feat. Such a shame the BBC couldn’t tell her and Beyoncé apart… I kid you not); and blues singer Bonnie Raitt winning song of the year for Just Like That at the age of 73 and confusing all the "young people" who couldn't conceive of someone they'd never heard of beating Taylor, Lizzo, Harry and Adele (whose ages just about add up to hers. I exaggerate, obv, but you know…)

But no! Let’s talk about Madonna’s face. Madonna actually took the stage to introduce Kim Petras, the first openly trans person to win a Grammy. But let's not worry about that. Twitter went wild, as Twitter is wont to do, and the media soon echoed its cry: WHAT HAS SHE DONE TO HER FACE?!

And I confess, at first glance, I thought that too. I’m not proud of myself. And after about thirty seconds I thought WTF and gave my internal misogynist (the one who thinks I could do with losing a stone, am way too old to buy that leather mini skirt and should perhaps consider Botox for my excessively expressive forehead) a good slap. Who are any of us to judge what any woman – cis or trans, black, white, brown, yellow, rich or poor, differently abled – does with her own face? But show me a woman over 40 and I’ll show you an avalanche of shoulds. Plenty of them inside our own heads on any given morning.

I am so sick of the whole 'ageing gracefully' schtick. Just as I scream internally every time I hear or read similar rubbish about a woman in the public eye 'letting themselves go'. (I didn’t see this myself, but according to Glamour editor Deborah Joseph, on her Instagram, the ultra-talented actor Sarah Lancashire has come in for stick for having supposedly put on weight since she started playing Catherine Cawood on Happy Valley 15 years ago. I’m sorry but WHAT?! Lancashire is one of the finest actresses working today and the star of one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, but let’s talk about the size of her arse.) 

But I digress. Back to Madonna.

Madonna has been getting this shit for decades. It’s nothing new. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this delightful spread (below), from Smash Hits magazine, circa 1993. And made even worse by the fact it was edited by men whose ages were not far off Madonna’s at that time. What message did this give their young female readers? What did it tell their almost as young female staff? You have until you’re 30, at most, and then...? Remember your place! Get back in your box! It's hardly surprising, is it, if they (we) internalised it. Is it any wonder we’re all so f*cked up?

Smash Hits, 1993. "Grandma" Madonna was 34 (pic via Paul Burston and Darren Etherington on twitter)

Madonna, who has the tenacity of a very tenacious thing (to steal a Smash Hits-ism) is clearly as sick of it as the rest of us are. Who wouldn’t be after thirty years (give or take a decade) of being on the receiving end of endless judgement, while your professional achievements are ignored. 

Uncharacteristically for her, this time Madonna hit back. She wrote on Instagram:

“Instead of focusing on what I said in my speech which was about giving thanks for the fearlessness of artists like Sam [Smith] and Kim [Petras] - many people chose to only talk about close-up photos of me taken with a long lens camera by a press photographer that would distort anyone's face!!

“Once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny that permeates the world we live in.

“A world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 and feels the need to punish her if she continues to be strong willed, hard-working and adventurous.

"I have never apologized for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and l'm not going to start. I have been degraded by the media since the beginning of my career but I understand that this is all a test and I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come. In the words of Beyonce "You-won't break my soul".

"[I look] forward to many more years of subversive behavior - pushing boundaries - standing up to the patriarchy -and most of all enjoying my life.”

Whether or not you’re a fan of Madonna (and, yes, she can be problematic, not that I expect her to give a damn either way) it’s impossible to deny that, in this, she could not be more right. This is about ageism and misogyny and nothing more. Nobody tells Mick Jagger to "put his clothes back on Grandad", nobody looks at Paul McCartney’s forehead and speculates, while Bruce Springsteen gets his top off on tour and gets only praise for the great shape he’s in… (And apropos of nothing, Leonardo Dicaprio has excelled himself and started dating a 19 year old model, 29 years his junior. Despite beating his own record, it's barely worthy of mention. Can you imagine that if it was the other way round? If it was Madonna they’d have a field day.)

What they (the media, the trolls, the sad lonely blokes in their bedrooms, Piers Morgan who somehow manages to encapsulate all three) actually meant, of course, was, what the hell is a 64 year old woman doing out this late and who said she could go out dressed like that? Yes folks, being a post-menopausal woman is not a million miles from being 14 and having to sneak out with your coat done up to hide what you’re really wearing and put your makeup on at the bus stop.

Of course, Madonna doesn’t need me to defend her. She doesn’t need anyone. She never has. (Or if she does, she keeps it to herself and her close friends, like any sane person would.) And that’s why the media – on and off line, new and old – will never stop attacking her. Whether she’s 24, 34 or 64 or, doubtless, 84. Madonna does what the hell she wants.

I think she always will. And boy does that scare them.

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