Madonna's Face Is Not Subversive
If she really wanted to be subversive, she’d age.
What the beauty industry won’t tell you, from a reporter on a mission to reform it. Subscribe for free today.
Madonna debuted a new face at the Grammy Awards last week.
Well, new to the 64-year-old pop icon, at least. The look — waxy, expressionless skin stretched tight over exaggerated cheekbones, obliterated buccal fat, and artificially-enhanced lips, with brows bleached into oblivion to emphasize the emptiness of it all — recalls the “succubus chic” aesthetic recently popularized by Bella Hadid and Amelia Gray.
The backlash to Madonna’s beauty choices has been swift and unserious, falling into three (deeply anti-intellectual!) schools of thought:
Madonna’s cosmetic work is bad; “aging gracefully” is better.
Critiquing Madonna’s cosmetic work is bad; commenting on any woman’s appearance is misogynistic.
Madonna is taking a subversive stand against the patriarchy. (This, unsurprisingly, is the response from Madonna herself. And also, slightly more surprisingly, the New York Times?! But I’ll get to that later.)
I spoke with Glamour UK about some of these reactions — you can read reporter Lucy Morgan’s analysis here — but I wanted to address the above points more in-depth here.
1. “Aging gracefully” is a beauty culture psyop.
When my eyeballs came upon this viral tweet, I briefly considered stabbing them out with tapered-tip cosmetic syringe. These side-by-side pictures show two women who have performed significant amounts of aesthetic labor to look the way they do!! (Madonna with obvious surgeries, plus all the more mainstream cosmetic interventions; this woman’s mum with [probably] skincare, makeup, injectables, hair dye, cosmetic dentistry, etc.) If you’re focusing on the look instead of the labor, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The outcome is not the central issue here; the input is.
“Aging gracefully” is a beauty culture psyop. It’s a euphemism for anti-aging. If “aging gracefully” weren’t a euphemism for anti-aging, it would just be referred to as “aging.” What makes “aging gracefully” a particularly nefarious euphemism for anti-aging is that it implies anti-aging should appear to be effortless. “Aging gracefully” is not effortless, though — it demands an incredible amount of effort and then demands even more effort to disappear the evidence of said effort.
We can perhaps understand this concept more clearly through trends like “no-makeup makeup” and the “clean girl look.” In both instances, women are expected to perform the labor of applying cosmetics and then the labor of making those cosmetics seem nonexistent. “Aging gracefully” is much the same. Women are encouraged to participate in the system but also, to make it appear as if they aren’t participating in the system at all.
It speaks to the making of modern femininity, which is “marked by a concealment of the work of body making,” as Susie Orbach puts it in Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism. I wrote about this for VICE last year as well: This work, like all traditional women’s labor — housework and childcare, for example; work that a capitalist society both demands and demeans — is so integrated into the take up of womanhood that it’s hardly thought of as “work.” It’s further divorced from the concept of labor through the beauty media, which recategorizes it as fun, self-care, health, or empowerment.
People are upset by Madonna’s new face, I think, because it exposes this labor. Both her effort and her desperation for youth are on full display, which not only violates the rules of “aging gracefully,” but violates the (false) code of ethics embedded in beauty culture. For example: When plastic surgery is subtle, we call it “good work.” When plastic surgery is obvious, we call it “bad work.” The message is, a “good woman” with “good work” conceals the labor they perform to make the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood seem natural. Madonna is being judged as a “bad woman” with “bad work” for exposing the entangled constructs of beauty and womanhood as unnatural. Of course, a more subversive and effective way to expose these constructs would be to reject the tools of construction (like cosmetic surgery) entirely. As it is, Madonna is propping up the very systems she claims to be standing up against (ageism, misogyny) by refusing to let her aging female body age visibly.
2. It’s fine to talk about Madonna’s face.
“Instead of focusing on what I said in my speech … Many people chose to only talk about Close-up photos of me,” Madonna said in an Instagram caption about the response to her cosmetic work. “Once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny That permeates the world we live in.”
What she should have said: “Instead of focusing on what I said in my speech, many people chose to focus on what I said with my face, because aesthetic communication is arguably a more powerful form of communication — one that has a long and insidious history of seeding oppressive beauty standards throughout society, setting stifling appearance expectations for women, and influencing cultural attitudes toward those who don’t comply. I am once again caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny that I myself uphold by adopting ageist, sexist beauty ideals.”
Unfortunately, the fluffy form of pop feminism that dominates today’s media landscape tells us that when we call out women who perpetuate misogynistic beauty beliefs — like the idea that the unmodified, aging female face is unsightly and should be avoided at all costs — we’re the ones Doing A Misogyny™. This is a tactic employed by people who would like to preserve the aspects of the patriarchy that benefit them.
It is not sexist to call attention to the ways in which prominent women are compelled to manipulate their faces — particularly when those women have a track record of influencing popular culture, particularly when the process of mechanical manipulation defies the physical limits of the human body and the financial limits of the majority of the population and comes with a laundry list of potential risks. What’s sexist is furthering the already-impossible appearance ideals that women are disproportionately expected to emulate (or else suffer the social, financial, political, and psychological consequences of non-compliance). What’s sexist is discouraging people from discussing it by co-opting the language of gender discrimination.
Here’s where it would be easy to push back by saying something like, “But Madonna isn’t upholding a standard of beauty! Everyone is saying she looks bad!” This, of course, would indicate complete ignorance re: the mechanics of beauty culture. Consider Kylie Jenner’s obviously injected lips, which were widely mocked… until they set off an injectable boom. Similarly, Madonna’s current look speaks to the emergence of a “post-male gaze” standard of beauty; a standard that instead caters to the “sale gaze,” as I call it — an over-the-top aesthetic signaling wealth, accumulation, excessive product use, and the general funneling of money into one’s face. (See: bimbos, bleached brows, and succubus chic.)
And anyway, beauty standards have never been about actual beauty. They’ve always been about control. They’ve never been about attractiveness. They’ve always been about power. I mean, imagine if women retained the money, time, energy, effort, and brain space they dedicate to physical “beauty”? The force of that power would topple the sexist structures Western society is built upon. That is the political point of beauty culture — to keep women (primarily) consuming and consumed — and on that point, Madonna and the misogynists are in alignment.
3. Madonna’s face is not subversive.
On Instagram, Madonna categorized her “creative choice” of cosmetic work as a “subversive” statement that “stand[s] up to the patriarchy.” The mainstream media seems to be going along with this.
According to the New York Times, the singer’s new face is a critique on “the inevitability of aging, and the impossible bind in which older female celebrities find themselves.” So… she critiqued the “inevitability of aging” by erasing all the inevitable signs of aging? She challenged this “impossible bind” by supporting the very system (beauty culture) that binds us? Hmm. Seems way too fucking convenient to me! “If beauty is a construct, Madonna’s the one who put its scaffolding on display,” the Times continued. But she’s not so much putting “its scaffolding on display” as buying stock in the scaffolding.
“Our society does have a real issue with older women owning their bodies and embodying their sexuality — because if they do, it’s seen as subversive and threatening to patriarchal norms,” one interviewee told Glamour UK. Is Madonna “owning” her body, though? Or is she leasing it to the beauty industry? And is she really “threatening” any patriarchal norms? Or is she benefiting from them? (It’s worth noting that the reward promised by the capitalist patriarchy — the reward promised by physical beauty — is not “everyone loves you and is nice to you.” The reward is proximity to power and wealth. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. These men are made fun of constantly and yet, retain their power and status. With an estimated net worth of $850 million and continued cultural relevance spanning four decades, Madonna is more than reaping this reward.)
Lest we forget: Madonna has her own celebrity skincare brand. MDNA offers a host of anti-aging products: a mask to “visibly renew, lift and firm the skin in minutes”; a serum to “smooth the look of fine lines”; creams to encourage and exploit the feminine fear of aging.
The singer can say she stands against patriarchal beauty standards, but in actuality, she profits from them. She can say her performance of perma-youth subverts expectations, but if Madonna really wanted to be subversive? She’d age.
'Aging gracefully'. I was a ballet dancer for many years and was often called graceful. The word was always used to imply that the way I moved and stood seemed to lack effort, when in fact it took thousands of hours of effort. Male dancers, curiously, were not called graceful to my memory, but things like 'skilled'. Which implies effort, and acknowledges the extraordinary amount of time (and physical pain) one must invest to move like that.
I do think there are tropes of male effortlessness as well, words that reduce their efforts to naught. There is an example of this that I heard recently on the podcast Articles of Interest in which Jason Jules (famously well dressed author of 'Black Ivy') says that he is often called 'cool'. He feels that this term is dismissive, and often applied to POC to imply that if they look good, it's natural. No effort, study, labor, etc. involved. He drew a comparison to the word 'Athletic' often being assigned to prolific black athletes (who obviously aren't just naturally athletic but spend many thousands of hours honing those skills).
Anyway. I think it's really useful to notice these things! How our ideas about effort reinforce our ideas about race, sex, gender, etc. Thanks Jessica. Terrific piece.
I am always grateful for your take on these cultural phenomenons. My guess is that Madonna went overboard w the facial alterations and then decided she would be “subversive” by going even more overboard. It’s not subversive. I agree that it would have been truly subversive for her to age naturally. Every time I see iconic people aging without modification I am so enthralled by their beauty- the complexity of their aging, how it’s unique for everyone, like a fingerprint, and how every bit of age on someone’s face and body represents experiences and expressions. Madonna seems to be erasing herself. I’d love to see some features of ppl aging naturally! Like, just a bunch of pics of actual natural aging.