For some people, Madonna wrote the soundtrack to their youth; for some, she gave them permission to be as bold and brave as they wanted to be; for some, she was the perfect pop star – outrageous, dazzling, producing era-defining hits. To me, however, she was – and still is – the fishnet tight-clad, leather-jacket-wearing embodiment of defiance.
And, as the music industry paid tribute to her work this weekend, Madonna paid tribute to that defiance. For Madonna, the BillBoard Woman of the Year award recognised “my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying and relentless abuse”.
And so began a speech which revealed the myriad ways in which Madonna has faced misogyny, from the rape she experienced as a young woman in New York to how the press demonised her – calling her a “whore and a witch”. She spoke of how society applied one rule for her male counterparts and another rule for her. “Wait a minute, isn't Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out? Yes, he was. But he was a man.” She spoke of how women have to behave in a particular way: “If you're a girl, you have to play the game. You're allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that's out of line with the status quo.”
There’s no greater acknowledgement that you’ve successfully challenged the patriarchy than when a middle-aged ex-hack starts whining about you
She spoke slowly, calmly, coldly and, at times, with tears. She spoke with the steeliness of someone whose skin was thick with decades of survival, hardened against a world that punished her for her success, her sexuality and her strength in the face of its fear.
And the media and the music industry has left its most callous card for last: “Do not,” Madonna warned, “age. Because to age is to sin.” She continued, “The most controversial thing I have done is to stick around.”
Of course, Madonna is only 58. I know that pop years work a bit like animal years and the media makes out she’s 102, but the point is that, for the press, she’s not 21. And there’s something that society inherently rejects about women who are no longer safely snug in that perfect place between sexy and innocent, untouched by others but still acceptable to touch, their bodies and their skin and their outlook unblemished, without marks, without the scarring of life. Which is precisely why having the audacity to be Madonna – outspoken, sexy, glamorous – at 58 is so “controversial”. She’s fighting against the stubbornly ingrained assumption that women in their fifties should start to fade into the background, start to become invisible, their identity simply lost to society because they no longer serve the purpose of providing pleasure for the thigh-rubbing sneer of the media.
But, of course, Madge is winning. There’s no greater acknowledgement that you’ve successfully challenged the patriarchy than when a middle-aged ex-hack starts whining about you. When the white man on a breakfast TV sofa dramatically starts pretending to throw up in a bin because you haven’t behaved how he believes women over 22 should do, you know you’re doing the right thing. Because he’s just another white man in a suit desperately clinging to antiquated nations of how men and women should behave – because that’s all he has left to feel like he might be relevant.
And that’s the incredible thing about Madonna – she’s still so relevant, 34 years after she arrived on the radio and changed the world. She’s still challenging us; she’s still reimagining how women and their sexuality can be. On her Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, she casually mentions she’s been excommunicated by the Pope three times. For once, Corden is stumped. He literally doesn’t say anything. Cordon’s pop stars normally sing and maybe talk about love interests. They don’t admit to upsetting a global religion because of their visionary expression of female sexuality.
Madonna’s speech was a poignant confession of the battle scars she has from a society that can’t tolerate successful and sexual women, for the heavy price she has paid for her defiance. But, nonetheless, she was still standing there, defiant once again; the misogyny, the abuse and the bullying shrinking into the void, with every powerful line.