Of all the provocative, shocking things Madonna has done in her career, of all the chameleon-like transformations, her most radical act has simply been aging while being female. As the icon now turns 60 (her birthday is August 16), she’s still as polarizing as ever — and as pioneering.
Though I’m a mysticism-obsessed Catholic who falls squarely in the demographic of first generation wannabes, I’ve never warmed to Madonna as an artist. Not that she needs my support, but I’ve always found most of her music unmemorable and her rebel act too measured and calculated. (But “Ray of Light” should be on every workout mix.) Yet after spending my entire adult life under the specter of her celebrity, I can also cop to at least three decades of fierce protectiveness about Madonna as well. Because any woman who makes people angry for the way she chooses to use her body, her mouthiness, her sexuality, or her age is a woman I’m going to be rooting for.
If you were not around in the ’80s, you might not know that one of the very first things that happened when Madonna got famous was that people called her fat. Writhing around in her videos for “Burning Up,” “Lucky Star” “Holiday” and “Borderline,” she wore her distinctively early era baggy, mostly black clothing and flashed peeks of her belly. Much like Janet Jackson, circa “Control” just a few years later, she faced criticism from the brand new video generation for not yet being the sculpted hardbody she would eventually become. And she never forgot that sting. When Madonna thanked MTV on its tenth anniversary, she said, “You believed in me when I was chubby.” In 2006, she reflected that had she come along at a later moment in pop history, “I would have been too fat.When I started out, I was kind of [plump]. I would have had to get anorexia. They would have said: ‘She is way too chubby.'”
In 1985, her body became the center of attention again, when photographer Martin H. M. Schreiber peddled nude modeling photos he’d shot of the now famous star six years earlier. The pics hit both Penthouse and Playboy — one year after Vanessa Williams had to tearfully step down as Miss America under similar circumstances. But Madonna, riding the peak of her “Like a Virgin” success, waved it away — “I’m not ashamed of anything” — and kept right on working.
That’s the thing about Madonna — she keeps going, without shame or apology. She laughed all the way to bank when Pepsi yanked a commercial they’d paid her $5 million for, because of the insane religious controversy around “Like a Prayer.” She fellated a water bottle in “Truth or Dare.” She released an album called “Erotica” and a book called “Sex.” I still think of this mostly as the start of the notorious gold tooth phase, but its defiant pansexuality was ahead of its time. Vanity Fair, meanwhile, called it the latest incarnation of a “onetime pudgy boy-toy.“
She had a baby out of wedlock and said she hoped to raise her daughter Lourdes to be “a good Catholic.” She then promptly got into Kabbalah. She moved to England, had another kid, affected a much-mocked accent. She kissed Britney and Christina at the 2003 VMAs (worth watching the clip for Justin Timberlake’s WTF reaction face).
She went to Malawi and came home with an adopted child, impervious to your scorn and accusations that she’d “bought a baby.” She then started a nonprofit called Raising Malawi, adopted three more children and faced charges of being a “bully” in her charitable efforts with the country. And with every passing year, she has faced increasing public discourse regarding the methods in which she chooses to grow older. For her continued audacious talent for pissing people off, I do have to admire her.
Madonna’s arch nemesis, 53 year-old Piers Morgan, in particular loves to berate for aging. When Madonna took a tumble three years ago at the Brit Awards, Morgan gleefully called for an “ambulance for Granny.” In 2016, the Independent ran the results of an actual study conducted to determine what millennials think of her, and the verdict was “desperate,” “inauthentic” and “embarrassing.” And when, several years ago, the un-retouched images of her Dolce and Gabbana campaign were leaked, the press reports excitedly noted that she’s “not immune to aging.” Well, guess what? No one except Angela Bassett is.
If you’re fortunate enough to get to grow older, aging will hit you in ways harder than you’d ever imagined when you were a 21-year-old god. Especially if you’re a woman and especially if you have ever been known for your beauty and desirability. The world is not a kind place to females no longer deemed beautiful and desirable. I think all the time about Tina Fey’s observation that “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f**k her anymore,” and about Amy Schumer’s follow up “Last F**kable Day”sketch. That’s not to say that men are immune; there’s not a much more tragic example of the quest for eternal youth than Michael Jackson, who was born two weeks after Madonna. But 69-year-old Billy Joel gets to have viable career longevity without much commentary about how wrinkled his hands are, and 68-year-old Bruce Springsteen can appear on a magazine cover and be deemed “extremely hot.” Mick Jagger, in his 70s, is still making babies, which suggests Mick Jagger is still a guy women want to go to bed with.