If she 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.
I work on a college campus where there are any number of young women who look, due to their age, like it seems that Madonna wanted to look. They are fresh-faced and supple and dewy and EIGHTEEN FREAKING YEARS OLD. They also display all the other attributes of being 18. They are often clueless, lack common sense, and are a touch narcissistic. (They are also any number of wonderful things. Don't let me be accused of hating on young people.) But I just can't quite wrap my head around the bizarre expectation that we somehow look like them but not act like them. Or maybe the culture doesn't care if we act like them as long as we look like them?
Madonna seems to be trying to offer a caricature of that dewy youthfulness while claiming the wisdom of age, but it's just not working. She's not wise, she's, as you say, complicit.
From my perspective, the look of being young and behavior of being young seem inextricably linked and there's no amount you could pay me to go back to *being* 18, so I'll just get old over here, thank you very much.
Well this just led to me going down a weird rabbit hole of reading all of the product descriptions on the MDNA site. Her Reinvention cream says it "helps... promote a look of resilience" and "protect the skin’s moisture barrier from external aggressors for a strengthened appearance." What is a look of resilience? Who are the external aggressors????
I love this thought: “She can say her performance of perma-youth subverts expectations, but if Madonna really wanted to be subversive? She’d age.”
I saw a post about this where someone was saying “body shaming someone for plastic surgery is no different than body shaming someone for aging” re: Madonna which I found totally mind blowing. It’s not that I’m promoting “shaming” but discussing a public figure’s actions and statements is…not shaming. And it’s wild to conflate aging and cosmetic surgery in this way. First, plastic surgery is a choice and aging is not. Second, getting/promoting cosmetic procedures contributes to the collective shame against aging, while people just aging (aka living) doesn’t affect anyone else…! It’s this type of mainstream feminism where the most important consideration is whether someone’s feelings get hurt instead of any kind of meaningful feminist political analysis. Thank you Jessica, love your work!
your points about how our beauty labor should be invisible to be "good" ARE SO RIGHT ON.
I would love your take on what a feminist, anti-capitalist version of “aging gracefully” might look like and whether it is possible. That’s what got my wheels turning. The religious concept of grace seems like a beautiful gift to me. It’s a shame the word has become so gendered to refer to a specific kind of feminine self-discipline.
Thank you for writing this. I’m a few years younger than Madonna, and I remember my friends and me in our twenties watching Madonna’s career. In the 1980s, she strove to be subversive with her art. As she continued to create new projects and expand her career in the 1990s (we remember her book and movie roles) and experiment with new styles in her music, we watched with hope.* Was she going to change the norm of women aging in pop music?
Seeing the photos of her today just makes me sad, for all the reasons you’ve discussed. The discourse focused on either her bodily autonomy or mocking her just makes me sadder.
*Please don’t read this as an endorsement of everything she’s done!
Brilliant synopsis of the whole women aging and societal norms and expectations complex. Your article is so spot on, so well-written -- you have an extraordinary ability to cut through all the clutter and give us crystal clear insights into what's really happening here.
You're so good at articulating what frustrates me about modern discourse regarding these topics. I think people tend to defend women targeted by misogynistic comments (like some of the comments about Madonna aging/her looks) by arguing that the woman being criticized is ACTUALLY being feminist, but a woman doesn't have to act in a feminist way to be targeted by misogyny. Everyone gets targeted by misogyny for anything at all; it doesn't make the misogyny ok, but it doesn't make every single thing women do a feminist act, either. Two things can be true at once!
I’m so glad you wrote about this. When I read that NYT piece my head almost exploded. JFC.
Oh my God that last line. If Madonna really wanted to be subversive she would age. Yes!
As a lifelong Madonna fan, I struggled with this so much, until my friends and I mutually and grudgingly decided that we ,,lost" her. It sounds melodramatic, but she lifted my whole generation up to be better, stronger, more capable women - and by now, her path is one that we don't understand and certainly don't want to follow. Of course, her reply would be f* you, I'll do what I want. Okay, fine.
The wildest part of Jennifer Weiner's op-ed in the Times was when she used Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, and 1950s hair-dye as examples of "invisible beauty." Three of the most brazenly (and purposefully) artificial beauty trends! Clearly coming from a person who isn't actually aware of this history.
THIS! “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.” Amazing piece, thanks for your work Jessica.