Madonna, Sexism and Ageism
It goes without saying that the McCartneys, Springsteens and Dylans of the world – admirably unaware of any sell-by date on their ability – at worst suffer a few friendly jibes from the press; a jocular ‘not quite as good as he used to be but good on him for trying!’ Criticisms levelled at Madonna however are often snide and venomous in their refusal to recognise her talent. If a woman’s worth is in youth and subservience, then the aged and defiant Madonna is no good to us; an embarrassment.
I do have one problem with Tuesday’s concert, however. Almost as vexing as people’s inability to discuss Madonna without quipping about her age, is the fact that these days you can’t seem to mention Madonna or Lady Gaga independently of each other. Comparisons in the press and internet warring between fans is rife as ever, yet as recording artists they are really not that similar. That’s right. Or at least, not as similar as legions of beardy male singer-songwriters or hundreds of dirgey Indie rock bands, one truly completely indistinguishable from the next, whose sameness is never addressed. These unfounded comparisons seem to be the burden of female artists only, and should be exposed and discussed for the inequality they are.
- Charlie Alderwick's excellent article 'Smug Criticisms of Madonna and Endless Gaga Comparisons are a Victory for Ageism and Misogyny.'
PopThirdWorld: Apologies, this isn’t about Pop Culture and the Third World, but I think this article beautifully demonstrates how Pop Culture and our reactions to it can shed light on how our society really thinks. Ironically, those claiming Madonna is irrelevant because she is too old, too vulgar and too masculine, are the exact people that demonstrate she’s still necessary.
Philosophy-N-Stuff: That article is really missing the point. People criticize Madonna because she’s desperately trying to hold on to her youth instead of setting a good example and aging with dignity.
PopThirdWorld: I think arguing we should ‘age with dignity’ is a trap. What does this mean? In Madonna’s case, it apparently means you should present yourself as less sexual than you actually feel, cover up your body even though you’re proud of it, retire yourself before you want to, and get out of the way of the young. All this, even though there are scores of men who want to have sex with you, millions of fans who want to see the work you’re creating, and plenty of people who find it empowering to see your 53 year old body do things they didn’t think possible (check out footage of her dancing in her latest tour, it’s incredible!). Why should Madonna throw all this away? When it’s what she wants, and what millions of others want?
I think we shouldn’t yearn for people to ‘age with dignity.’ I think we should yearn for people to age in whatever damn way they want to age. Because they are grown adults and they should be able to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives in their 50s, 60s and beyond.
If Madonna wants to ‘hold on to her youth,’ what’s wrong with that? It’s not at the expense of her being a good mother, or citizen, or artist. And, lastly, as the article states, it’s a bit rich calling Madonna ‘desparate’ now, when she has always been desparate. She’s never been ‘dignified’ in her quest to stay on top, right from the very beginning when she writhed in a wedding dress on the MTV awards stage and flashed her boobs at whoever wanted it.
Philosophy-N-Stuff: I respect Madonna’s right to be a woman who lives life however she chooses, but at the same time I do think it is inappropriate for her to put so much emphasis on fitness & body building (and plastic surgery?) at an age when commonsense-minded people would find it acceptable to be “going downhill” a bit. I think she’s sending the wrong message to young women but at the same time I understand that society’s unreasonable expectations are putting pressure on her to stay at her peak physically.
PopThirdWorld: I don’t think people look to Madonna for what’s appropriate. They look to Madonna for what’s possible. It’s nice seeing that it’s possible to be in your 50s and be energetic, sexual, commanding and adored. Maybe she takes her fitness and body building too far, but Madonna takes everything too far. She’s a performer, and not a very subtle one, presenting her message in the heightened world of video clips and stage shows. So, I think you’re right that she has problematic personal body image issues (which, as you say, are encouraged, if not originate, in society’s perceptions of her/women). But, I kind of think that with Madonna, it’s a necessary evil. That is, she needs to be attractive and thin (via plastic surgery and a crazy workout/dietary regime) to stay afloat in the pop music industry. This keeps her on stage in front of millions. And there, she can spread her message far and wide of what a 53 year old woman can be (more so than an academic feminist who’s more purist in her feminist message but whose work only reaches as far as a handful of already won over academic feminists).
You might not think the trade off is worth it - and you might have good arguments why - but, again, Madonna is a grown up, and she can decide what she’s willing to do to stay in the limelight, and what she is willing to sacrifice.