If you’ve paid any attention to Madonna’s actions over the past several years (and more intensely in the past few months), one thing seems pretty apparent: this is a woman who doesn’t want to get old. Or at least, doesn’t want to be seen as such.
May it please the court—we present the following as evidence:
- Her ripping of Lady Gaga (“She’s not me!”) in 2012 for the apparent similarities between Gaga’s hit “Born This Way” and Madonna’s hit “Express Yourself.”
- Her string of shock-value antics during her “MDNA” tour during that same year, including mooning several European audiences (perhaps an attempt to reinforce her place as a controversial figure).
- Showing off her 56-year-old boobs on the December 2014 cover of Interview Magazine, hot on the heels of calling out Kim Kardashian for her recent nudie attempt to “break the Internet.”
- Again mooning the red carpet attendees at this year’s Grammy awards. (What IS it with the ass?)
- Delivering a stark performance at the Grammys that same night, which didn’t necessarily cross any lines, but also didn’t do her any favors because it was patterned after what she used to be able to do physically, and now likely can’t.
Now, on the eve of her upcoming new album Rebel Heart, Madonna has done an interview with Rolling Stone in which she addresses some of the controversy these recent antics have stirred. Guess how she’s explaining it?
(You know, like racism. Only with age. Prejudice against old people.)
That’s right. It’s not a matter of Madonna refusing to act her age. It’s that we’re all, um, “age-ists?” Classic.
Here’s how she put it to Rolling Stone:
“It’s still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody and talk sh*t. Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect we still live in a very sexist society…No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black or dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being gay. But my age – anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me. And I always think to myself, why is that accepted? What’s the difference between that and racism, or any discrimination? They’re judging me by my age. I don’t understand. I’m trying to get my head around it. Because women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way.”
(Read: I don’t wanna act my age. And I don’t want you to say anything about it.)
So let’s clarify something here: Madonna is absolutely right with some of this. Ageism is a thing, and in many cases it’s particularly leveled against women. It’s not just age—it’s gender, too. In our culture, discrimination against someone because of their race or sexual orientation is no longer tolerated, and when people do it, they pay a huge price socially for it. But women are still admittedly discriminated against constantly, and the people who do the discriminating rarely get called out for it. This is still very much a problem in our culture. On those points, Madonna has hit the nail on the head.
Where’s she’s wrong is in identifying herself as a victim of sexism and ageism—in particular, ageism toward her gender. That’s not what this is about at all.
If we (meaning the public) had a constant tendency to write off as irrelevant all women over 50, I think Madonna would have a point here—but that just isn’t the case. Take, for example, Annie Lennox (age 60), who performed on the same Grammys stage on the same night as Madonna. Compare the two performances. I don’t think a single person was focused on Annie Lennox’s age. Lennox brought down the house, and she has consistently done so the last several times she’s performed at the Grammys.
What was the difference? Lennox wears her age extremely well, and her femininity and sexuality don’t suffer one bit for it. Madonna, on the other hand, seems intent on trying to act 25 years younger than she actually is, and so her age instantly became a focal point for her performance.
Two performances by women over 50—and they left two completely different impressions. One is an older person who is comfortable in her skin (and by extension, her sexuality); the other is an older person acting like a child, and making everyone else uncomfortable in the process.
And that’s the real issue here. It’s not a matter of ageism—it’s a matter of denial. No one’s saying an older woman can’t be sexy. But an older woman can’t be twenty-something sexy, any more than an older man can be twenty-something sexy. Regardless of gender, sex appeal doesn’t have to go away with age, but it will look different.
And that’s the truth Madonna obviously can’t accept. She doesn’t have to act like she did in her 20s and 30s for us to think of her as a vibrant sexual being, let alone a fantastic performer. I’ve said it before in this column, and I’ll say it again: Madonna has nothing to prove. She’s an icon, and nothing’s going to take that from her. Even in the recorded spoken-word prelude to her performance at the Grammys, Madonna monologued about just “being who you are.” She needs to take her own words to heart. Madonna is NOT too old; she’s just not being who she really is. It’s not honest, so it makes us uncomfortable.
It’s understandable that someone with a penchant for rebellion would recoil at the admonition to “act your age” –to “behave a certain way,” as Madonna put it. But really, that’s what this is about. Acting one’s age isn’t about heeding social conventions—it’s about being honest about who you are, and where you are in life, and responding accordingly. There’s no better way to be sexy—man OR woman—than to act one’s age. Trying to hold onto a past expression of sexuality isn’t really sexy at all—it’s just silly.
That’s what Madonna doesn’t get—and that’s why she’s accusing the public of ageism. Only it’s not true in this case. We don’t think she’s too old, and she’s not a victim of ageism, at least from the public perspective. The person in this situation who needs to deal with ageism, more than anyone else, is Madonna herself.