Madonna at 60: Fighting against society’s bid to define her by gender, sexuality and culture

Madonna has fought her whole life against society’s bid to define her by gender, sexuality, age, and culture. At age 60 she continues to lay out the parameters of her own existence as Suzanne Harrington describes.

Madonna at 60: Fighting against society’s bid to define her by gender, sexuality and culture

Madonna has fought her whole life against society’s bid to define her by gender, sexuality, age, and culture. At age 60 she continues to lay out the parameters of her own existence as Suzanne Harrington describes.

SHE’S had the best physique, the best moves, the best live shows, the best outfits, the best boyfriends — they get hotter as she gets older — the biggest success and the most attitude, yet the world remains set on auto-vilify. What’s our problem with Madonna?


Madonna Louise Ciccone turns 60 this August. We have known her since 1984, when she first appeared on our TV screens, and have been criticising her ever since. Not for her music — any artist who has been around that long will have produced losers as well as bangers — but for her refusal to be what we demand our female artists to be. Pliant, malleable, a bit insecure — and as they age, sexless, before becoming politely invisible. You couldn’t really call Madonna any of these things.

Post-Weinstein, in this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Madonna’s long term stance, her refusal to go quietly, chimes perfectly with the dominant ideology of the day. The problem — for her critics, at least, the Piers Morgans of the world, the Camille Paglias — is that this has always been her stance, decades too early for the rest of us.

And so we rubbished her for it — or at least, we tried, but she proved stronger than the same thing that crushed so many of her contemporaries: the fame backlash. Only in the past couple of years, has she started to speak about it with any degree of vehemence.

“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer,” she told an awards audience in December 2016 when named woman of the year by Billboard. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse…..

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. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio.

As a female performer in their prime, their sexuality must be passive, incorporating vulnerability and a need to please; Madonna has only ever pleased herself. Nor does a female performer get to decide when their prime is over; women are only hot as long as we allow them to be, while men can remain hot forever. Female success is permitted within female success parameters (smile and be grateful, don’t demand too much); female sexuality is permitted within female sexuality parameters (don’t frighten the horses by straying beyond their fantasy of you, rather than embodying your own); female ageing is allowed within female ageing parameters (put your sexuality away now, and take up charity work).

So Michelle Pfeiffer, who turns 60 this year, is ‘still’ hot, but not as hot as Sharon Stone, whose 60th is also this year, on the arbitrary sliding scale of she’s-still-got-it. Kate Bush is 60 two weeks before Madonna, but Bush is all about the music, rather than culture, sexuality and marketing, and has therefore been allowed to age more or less in peace; similarly, rocker Joan Jett is hits 60 and continues touring, but she’s not a global icon so doesn’t come under the same scrutiny.

As a gay woman, Ellen DeGeneres, another forthcoming 60th , doesn’t fall under the male gaze, while Alec Baldwin, Ice T, Gary Numan, Simon LeBon and Kevin Bacon — who all turn 60 this year — are allowed to remain ageless. Rugged. Distinguished. Craggy. Handsome. Those kinds of words.

Madonna has been variously written about as a bitch (“I’m tough and I’m ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.”) and a diva and a slut. The male equivalent of these words would be ambitious, powerful, potent. Speaking about her long term inspiration — David Bowie, the master of transformative reinvention — she acknowledged how “He embodied male and female spirit and that suited me just fine.

He made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”

Yet she has outlived not just her contemporaries Prince and Michael Jackson, who would both have turned 60 this year, but also Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston. She has never been an addict, except to success and being in charge.

Speaking in 2016 to Bad Feminist author Roxanne Gay in Harper’s Bazaar, she talked about how she has “had the shit kicked out of me for my entire career, and a large part of that is because I’m female and also because I refuse to live a conventional life. I’ve created a very unconventional family. I have lovers who are three decades younger than me. This makes people very uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do makes people feel really uncomfortable.”

As well as releasing 13 studio albums, she has embodied the persona of boytoy, material girl, dominatrix, yogini, American cowgirl, English lady, disco queen, M-dolla, MDNA, children’s author, terrible actress, devout Kabbalist, spokesperson for Malawian children, and single parent of six.

Madonna may not be relevant to Millennials — they have relaxed polyamory and Lady Gaga — but for Gen Xers, who grew up alongside her, she remains a symbol of liberation since the days of bra straps and belly buttons on Top Of The Pops. Culturally, she has been part of the shove forward towards women owning their own sexuality.

She broke new ground, harnessing and marketing herself, trademarking her own name back in 1979 when still unknown and living a precariously bohemian existance in New York: “I learned in life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”

Even her die-hard fan demographic — gay men and menopausal women, 10.9 million of whom follow her on Instagram – may not wish to see her turn into a Las Vegas parody of her former self, but it seems unlikely she would opt for this. “I’m traveling the world right now and listening to lots of different music,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2017.

“It’s time for me to take a different approach and really get back down to the beauty and simplicity of music and lyrics and intimacy.”

You can’t imagine the most successful female performance artist of all time ever touring with a greatest hits nostalgia format. At least, not yet.

MADONNA – 0 to 60

1958 Born August 16, Bay City, Michigan.

1964 Mother dies when she is six

1977 Moves to New York City to be a dancer

1983 Releases first album, Madonna, containing first hit, Holiday

1984 First appearance on Top Of The Pops

1984 First number one hit, Like A Virgin

1985 Appears in only good movie she has ever been in, Desperately Seeking Susan. Marries Sean Penn.

1989 Like A Prayer infuriates Vatican. Divorces Sean Penn

1991 Her tour documentary In Bed With Madonna breaks Box office records in takings of $29m

1992 Releases book of erotic photography Sex and album Erotica

1996 Wins awards for her part in Evita movie. Gives birth to daughter Lourdes

1998 Releases Ray of Light album

Madonna and Britney doing the infamous kiss at the MTV Awards in 2002.
Madonna and Britney doing the infamous kiss at the MTV Awards in 2002.

2000 Gives birth to son Rocco with Guy Ritchie

2005 Releases 10th album, Confessions on the Dancefloor

2006 Adopts first of four children from Malawi, David Banda

2009 Adopts Mercy James from Malawi

2012 Superbowl performance seen by 114m people. Releases MDNA album

2014 Guinness Book of Records says she has sold 300m records

2017 Adopts twin girls, Esther and Stella, from Malawi

2018 Turns 60

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