“I can confirm, women with long grey hair can make people anxious.” (Mary Beard, 2021)
Madonna Ciccone does not have long grey hair (currently), but she does make people anxious.
I’m not here to sway your opinion on whether Madonna’s music is good, bad or evil, even. I don’t care if you think she’s gone ‘too far’ with facial aesthetics and plastic surgery (each to their own, I say).
However, her recent appearance at the Grammy’s stirred the hornet’s nest (again), and I find I’m rolling my eyes (again) at the fresh pile of misogynistic vitriol being spewed online.
There appears to be genuine anxiety (still!) about what to do with an older woman who relishes living her life unafraid to explore creative expression with a subversive narrative.
I’m beginning to realise Madonna’s fiercest critics would prefer her to have no narrative at all. She should just quit, sit and be quiet.
The fear of female agency is nothing new, of course.
“In the ancient Greek and the ancient Roman world they worried that old women were sexual predators. We’ve inherited many of their anxieties and these still fuel the insults...” (Mary Beard)
Older men provoke and peacock onstage well into their seventies and eighties.
Often, those who criticise Madonna the most do it for clicks. Desperate for virality and relevance, they use her name, image and discourse she generates to their benefit. Her success and ability to break the internet (as a sixty-four-year-old woman) clearly enrage them. A quick Google news search will bring up the worst offenders (I refuse to give them any more oxygen); a favourite headline was something along the lines of loyal fans being “so confused” by her recent appearance.
I’m sorry, are we talking about the same person?
For decades, Madonna’s physical appearance has been interwoven with her art. New music, new lewks—a deliberate, curious extension of herself, the artist.
Madonna becomes her art; she is the art.
The perverse desire to disempower and punish a woman (over the age of forty-five) who refuses to conform to societal expectations is exhausting.
I believe Madonna knows exactly what she is doing, what and why she is creating, and whose reactivity she is manipulating.
Responding to the furore following the Grammy’s, she shared her thoughts on Instagram:
“I have never apologized for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and I’m not going to start. I have been degraded by the media since the beginning of my career but I understand that this is all a test and I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come.”
Calling out ageism and misogyny, in her comment, she rails against a world that refuses to celebrate strong-willed, hard-working and adventurous women (over forty-five). A world that is:
“threatened by my power and my stamina. My intelligence and my will to survive.”
And to that, I say, yas, queen!
Speaking of queens, before the Grammy’s ‘uproar’, I’d scrolled upon a still of Madonna from her recent film feature, “Madonna X Vanity Fair – The Enlightenment”, created by Madonna and Luigi & Iango for the February 2023 issue of Vanity Fair.
The image reminded me of portraits of Elizabeth I (red hair, crown, beads etc.).
From her accession to her death and beyond, Elizabeth’s portraits were essential to her, dare I say, brand?
To assert her strength and legitimacy and to be seen as an equal to her male peers, Elizabeth used portraiture as a form of propaganda. In doing so, she was seen as a powerful leader more than capable of defending her realm from threats of invasion.
Having refused to marry and with no lineal heir, her youthfulness was a propagandistic reminder to keep faith in her Court and country as she weathered the tide, unlike many Kings and Queens that ruled before her.
Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’, became an inspiration and icon.
Interestingly, Elizabeth chose not to commission her portraits (I believe only four were painted from life). Instead, they were created and re-created using a ‘face-template’ that portrait artists were commanded to adhere to.
Think of it as pre-Instagram face filters for the Elizabethan era.
“Portraits became a key method of maintaining the myth of the queen’s youthful beauty.” (Lucy Davies)
In fact, in 1596, there was an order to the Privy Council by her secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil demanding that public officers seek out ‘unseemly’ portraits of the Queen.
Kind of like us, editing our social feeds.
“You could compare her use of portraits with that of the modern-day social influencer, using photos (portraits) to convey a version of themselves they want people to see and believe.” (Charlotte Bolland)
It seems managing one’s personal image to stay on brand is hardly a provocative, unexplored concept (one can only imagine the number of trolls Elizabeth unearthed during her time).
The sense of timelessness was essential to the mythologising of Elizabeth. Throughout her reign, she became an icon of national integrity and unity, and thanks to the careful management of her image, her presence is still felt today.
End of an Era
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, has resigned.
Upon announcing her departure, the army of online orcs arrived to mark the occasion. Most had nothing to say about her (successful) tenure or dedication to the post and front-line politics at large (for twenty years plus). Instead, they preferred to focus on her appearance.
Nicola Sturgeon deserves to put her feet up, read plenty of books (one of her passions), spend time with her family and enjoy coffee with friends without the constant rage of tribalist misogynistic trolls braying for her—literal—blood.
As for Madonna? Well, as far as I’m concerned, she can fill or filter her face as she pleases and continue to wield a mirror that reflects societal hypocrisy.
The Gammons won’t like it, but she’ll have the last laugh; she always does.
Ready for the weekend?
I’ll be recording something acoustic on Sunday, which I’ll share soon, along with the pre-order information for my new (soon-to-be-revealed) cover song with singer-songwriter Djana Gabrielle.
Look out for an update in your inbox…