Madonna taught us girls how to be fierce, fearless and outspoken. Now we are using those powers to reject her leadership
It’s official. I’ve emancipated myself from Madonna. For a woman who has been a huge fan of “M” ever since I watched her drying her armpits in front of a hand-dryer in the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”, this is no blithe statement.
For many years, I was nothing short of obsessed with Madonna and her music. She was my idol and my inspiration and my female role model when no others could be found. Yet her appearance at the Grammy award ceremony in 2023 made me finally break off the relationship.
Quite frankly, she looked awful. The puffy, swollen, alien-looking face. The unnaturally inflated lips. The ratty, orange-coloured plaits. It was shocking. And it was sad.
The logical conclusion to a long process
For years, Madonna’s attempts to defy age — the yoga, the novel diets, the flings with younger men, whatever — still seemed relevant and inspirational.
What other 50-year-old can look as stunning and as alluring as she did in the “Give It 2 Me” video, her duet with Pharrell Williams? It genuinely made us all rethink what was possible for women as we aged. Look! — 50-something women don’t have to be frumpy and lumpy! 50-year-old women can be fit and confident and powerful and where it’s AT! Believe me, in the past, the message about ageing females was very, VERY different. That Madonna has been at the forefront of changing that is, and will always be, a massive credit to her.
However, since that time, Madonna’s anti-ageing measures have become more extreme and have very obviously involved surgical intervention rather than just a healthy lifestyle, careful nutrition and plenty of physical activity. The Grammy’s appearance was the logical conclusion to that process.
I wasn’t sure what to think
It’s taken me a while to articulate how I feel about it. Of the numerous articles I’ve read on the matter, this one by Max Gordon on Medium was by far the most thought-provoking and well written. It’s long, but full of good points and absolutely worth reading to the end.
I cannot say I’m going to write anything as nuanced or as intellectual as that. But I feel like I’ve settled on my own perspective now.
Right away, I knew I defended Madonna’s right to age in whatever way she pleases. That’s her choice and her responsibility. But the rest of us have the right to say what we think — including about Madonna’s new look. Just as we have been doing since she arrived on the scene in the 80s rocking confirmation service lace and fingerless gloves.
Criticism as emancipation
Thinking more about this question, I realised: as a woman, feeling empowered to express a negative opinion about a fellow female who has been your idol for many years is the ultimate sign of emancipation.
And, for girls of my age, as far as emancipation was concerned — Madonna basically showed us the way. That leadership created a special and emotional bond between the star and her young fans.
And what leadership it has been! During the 80s and 90s when I was a child and a teenager — Madonna was a non-stop fascination. I cannot even begin to count how many hours I spent rewinding my Immaculate Collection and True Blue cassettes, watching her videos so obsessively that I wore out the VHS tape in short order.
Whatever she did, whatever she wore, whatever she sang — we were right there, prepared to love and admire and emulate it. Because it was Madonna.
Madonna, the all-round icon
It wasn’t just her music that had an impact on us. It was her refusal to conform, her willingness to cross boundaries and define herself according to her own wishes rather than those of society.
I clearly recall an older male — when I said as a child that Madonna was my role model — warning me that I shouldn’t want to be like her. She had no friends, he said — the implication being that this was the deserved price she paid for going against the grain of what society expected of women.
That statement rankled then and it rankles now. And it made me love Madonna even more for taking on these outdated and bigoted attitudes every single day. With no compelling female role models in my immediate surroundings, she looked like a lifeboat and I swam towards it.
Body control > face control
I especially loved Madonna’s commitment to fitness: her message was that girls no longer had to be soft, squidgy child-bearers. Women could have muscles, women could be ripped! Look at the pictures of Madonna on her Blond Ambition tour back in 1990. Taking to the stage in those famous Jean-Paul Gaultier corsets, her leg muscles rippling under fishnet stockings. She was physically strong and in charge of her body.
I wanted that too — and I went and got it. I’ve never been ashamed about my athletic physique. I’ve never worried that my muscles were unladylike. They were proof of strength and vigour and that I had worked hard for them. I wonder whether that would have been any different had Madonna not “happened” in the way she did.
For Madonna to go from strictly controlling the way her body looked to controlling how her face looked as she aged seemed like a logical step.
I do not think anyone relishes the visible signs of ageing. At age 40, I can see the first ones — the grey hairs multiplying, the wrinkles, body parts starting to lose their fight with gravity — and I know this is a one-way street. There is no joy to this — the best you can do is to accept nature’s way the best you can.
It’s here that Madonna and many of her fans (myself included) have parted ways.
We thought her leadership would go on forever
I think we kind of assumed that Madonna would just carry on being a compelling role model and show us how to take on the ageing process in a way which would inspire us to follow her as we have done so often in the past.
Yet Madonna has now chosen a path to which many of us say “Hell no, I don’t want to go that way”. It has destroyed that claim to leadership which we happily handed over to her for so long. We trusted her. I feel oddly let down. And disappointed.
I’m so sorry Madonna. Your hold over me has gone. This is a sad, watershed moment — both for her and those who feel like I do.
Yet there is also something really positive about it which I hope Madonna will be able to see: that lifelong fans like me now feel strong enough to stand up and throw off her leadership is the best proof available that her work is done.
With her music, her showmanship, her image, she aimed to show us girls how to be powerful, strong, outspoken and to lead our lives however we wanted. This is the natural conclusion to that process. We don’t need her to light the way anymore — we can do it ourselves.
Madonna — your mission is accomplished.
Photo: Kegfire on Envato Elements