I first heard of Madonna in 1983 when I saw the “Burning Up” video. I thought she was just another cheesy, fluffy, airhead pop singer and would probably come and go faster than you could say “Boy Toy!” Obviously, I was wrong. But that didn’t stop me from making up my own word for her: Madogga. I resented that she co-opted her disheveled raggamuffin look from me and all the other punk rock chicks who had been wearing it for years. At the time, I didn’t realize that she too had lived in squalor while waiting for her big break. Being poor tends to force a person to be quite creative with what little resources they have. I should know. There was a time when I was pretty destitute myself and had to make due with what I had.
But Madonna proved me wrong. Hell, she proved us all wrong. Not only was she not a one-hit wonder, her albums sold millions, her tours sold out and she sold us our culture back again and again as she continually re-invented herself by “borrowing” her look from fads that had been forgotten – the ‘30s (“I’m Breathless”), the ‘40s (“Live To Tell”), the ‘50s ( “Who’s That Girl?” It’s Marilyn Monroe!), the ‘60s (“Like A Prayer” – more like Sophia Loren), and the ‘70s (“Deeper and Deeper”). And let’s not forget all the ideas that were copped from famous movies like A Clockwork Orange, Cabaret, Metropolis, Blue Angel, etc. Like most people, as she changed, so too did her image. The only difference between Madonna and the ‘average’ woman is that the whole world was watching her ongoing transformation, therefore, everyone seems to have an opinion about it and thinks famous people are immune to the negative ones. But as a woman, I take offense when some male ignoramus insults another woman just because he thinks his gender is superior to ours. My natural reaction is to stop and defend “my own” and that includes Madonna.
This rant was inspired by an encounter I had with a young male cashier at Tower Records. I went into the store to buy the “Ray of Light” CD single (the one with all the remixes). The smarmy little male weasel at the check-out counter asked me if I’d seen the video for the song. “No,” I replied. “Is it good?” “Ugh!” he huffed. “She looks so haggard!” I looked at her picture on the CD.
“She looks fine to me,” I noted. “Oh, please!” he continued. “It’s not just that she looks haggard. She prances around like she’s still some young disco diva but she’s like, 40 years old! How tired is that? Give me a break!” There were other people waiting in line behind me and I didn’t want to hold them up but believe me, I wanted to give this kid a break alright…starting with his neck before moving onto his legs. How dare that trendy little pierced Goth man-child tell me that Madonna is too old to perform? I didn’t realize that women were supposed to retire from their careers at 40. I didn’t realize that when we give birth, we’re supposed to give up everything else too. Think of all the male rock stars 40 and beyond who are still rocking their hearts out. You don’t hear anyone saying they’re too old. After all these years – all the strides and victories women have accomplished – all we’ve done is make a small dent because sexist attitudes still abound in the world and the entertainment industry is the worst offender. We are still judged on our appearance and still have to fight to be taken seriously. If only that obnoxious little male twit at Tower knew he was talking to a 34-year old woman who doesn’t look her age.
Nobody ever believes me when I tell them how old I am. I guess I’m one of the “lucky” ones who is aging gracefully. And yet I am still insulted and appalled at “ageism” in our society. If I were a man, it wouldn’t even be an issue!
It’s unfortunate that our looks are our one true power in this society because it’s never going to be money as long as there’s a glass ceiling and women like me (and Madonna) who work hard at what we do are undervalued. Women put themselves at risk with breast implants and plastic surgery just so we can beat the competition (other women) to attract the best of the male species with the highest earning potential. Money is power, power is autonomy and men have the most money and autonomy. The more women compete with men for jobs and power in our society, the more the ante is raised on the expectations and/or criteria we have to meet to achieve it. Part of those expectations include our appearance and body image. There was a time when even Madonna bought into this notion.
Her grueling workout and exercise regimen was widely known and publicized. How she found the time with her hectic schedule (tours, movies, talk show appearances, recording, interviews, rehearsals, etc.) I’ll never know. Like all over-achievers and Type A personalities, she too crashed and burned out.
Everyone thought the day of reckoning had come and her “Lucky Star” finally fell out of the sky. But once again, she proved the world wrong.
Exhausted, pregnant and spiritually unfulfilled, Madonna took advantage of the situation and took some time off. “What was happening on the outside was happening on the inside,” she told Vanity Fair in March 1998. “When you get famous and everyone says nice things, you buy into it. Everything you are becomes founded on what people say. When people say horrible things, you start sucking. Then you wake up and realize that it’s all bullshit and you’ve taken away your own power.” So Madonna looked inward for the answers. She studied the Kaballah and Eastern philosophies, took up yoga and meditation, and had a spiritual awakening. When she made her “comeback” everyone shrugged the “new” Madonna off as just another one of her publicity stunts. Why is it so hard for people to believe that she’s changed? The fact that she’s not even trying to hide her wrinkles should be a clue, unless you actually believe that now she’s trying to make wrinkles trendy too! Yeah! It’s ‘hip’ to be old! Sadly, that is definitely not the case…not even for the seemingly invincible Madonna. But if more women stood up and took back the power they have given our patriarchal society – by not buying into the hype, by not competing with each other to get their [men] attention and trying to attain the impossible lofty ideals they hold about physical perfection, and accepting ourselves the way we are instead of they way they try to dictate how we should be – then these threatened male champions of patriarchal oppression (like that misinformed man-child at Tower Records) would stop trying to brainwash us into thinking we must live up to their impeccably high and unachievable standards of beauty.
J. Lianna Ness is a Senior Editor at Boston’s Instant Magazine and she wrote about Vermont hideaway Griffin Grove in Good Citizen #12.