It’s hard to be an older female artist. Look at the sexist snark thrown at Madonna | Nancy Jo Sales

It’s hard to be an older female artist. Look at the sexist snark thrown at Madonna | Nancy Jo Sales

I’ll never forget an interview with the singer Henry Rollins that I saw years ago. He was talking about Madonna – he has long been an outspoken fan – and he said: “When you sleep, she works.”

Over the past 40 years of an amazing career, Madonna has earned a reputation as one of the hardest working people in show business. Her intense work ethic was recently seen again when she put the cast of her now-cancelled biopic through a grueling “bootcamp,” which reportedly included training sessions of up to 11 hours a day.

You could say that Madonna is a performance artist more than anything, in the sense that her music (as wonderful as it is) has always seemed like it might just be a device through which she can get our attention and get a response. Madonna is also a disciplined performer – a deliberate one who plans her next moves carefully. When we sleep, she is awake and thinking about how to get us talking about her again.

So, with all of the above, do you really think Madonna didn’t know what she was doing when she posted pictures on Instagram this fall of herself wearing underwear and taking selfies on a hotel bathroom floor? Or when she started styling herself like an alien from the bar scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, with her shaved eyebrows and Kabuki-esque makeup? Or when she twerked on TikTok, again in her underwear, licking her lips and shaking her breasts?

“Someone stage an intervention,” one of the commenters on that post noted.

Stories about fans’ “concern” over Madonna’s “bizarre” behavior have abounded over the last few months. “The woman has lost her mind, time to retire,” another commenter said.

Retire? Over these same few months, perhaps not so coincidentally, Madonna has been preparing for an upcoming world tour (The Celebration Tour, which kicks off in July), which is predicted to be her biggest ever.

But I don’t think Madonna’s recent antics can be attributed to self-marketing alone. She has always been about more than that. As a longtime Madonna fan, I have come to realize that whatever she is criticized for, she asks us to examine. She makes a big dent in our cultural face.

When I was in college (her first album, Madonna, came out in 1983, my freshman year), there were people who criticized Madonna for being too sexual. I remember, in an English class, a professor called her “obscene”. We’ve come so far in terms of sex positivity since then; the endless discussions at the time about Madonna’s alleged “obscenity” now seem Neanderthal.

This is partly thanks to Madonna. She was always about exposing the ugliness in our negative attitudes towards women expressing their sexuality. And their power. When Madonna wore that “boy toy” belt buckle and grabbed her crotch, millions of people got upset. Millions of others felt inspired.

So what is Madonna trying to incite now? What is she doing with all those loopy posts? Look again at what she is criticized for. She is told to “calm down”, to “act her age”. She is told she is too old. 50 Cent actually called Madonna “Grandma” while mocking her “old ass” on social media last year. “LOL at 63 someone tell her to relax please,” the rapper captioned a photo Madonna took of herself sitting cross-legged on a bed in black underwear. “Friends Reveal Why Madonna Refuses to Age Gracefully,” said a headline in the New York Post.

Madonna’s latest subject as an artist is age, I believe. She wants us to be uncomfortable with an older woman being sexual because we are uncomfortable with it. She wants us to look at ourselves and ask what we feel so judgmental about, exactly.

Old age is in many ways the last frontier of alertness. In a time when it’s not okay to judge someone for – well, almost anything – you can still make fun of them for being old. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Hollywood is busy making movies where we can laugh at older ladies for making fools of themselves. (See Diane Keaton, a legend who deserved better, in Poms.)

Madonna says no to all that. She dates men 30 and 40 years younger than her. She goes to nightclubs and dances the night away. She got on Jimmy Fallon’s desk and flashed his audience. But she does it all with a sense of humor – knowing that she doesn’t look like the dazzling young woman she once was, and knowing what the haters will say about her supposedly trying to “reclaim her youth”.

Madonna has always explored the meaning of what it means to be sexual, to be sexual and to sexualize yourself. And now she explores what it all means as an older woman – the ultimate taboo, for many people, who think old ladies should just disappear. She knows those people might not get what she’s doing now, and will slander her again. And she thinks they are squares.

Does it still hurt her feelings? I think it should, which is why she finally asked people to stop “bullying” her. Because it hurts to grow old; it hurts to be told you are too old. And Madonna, a woman who has always expressed “how it feels for a girl”, is now expressing – through posts that she knows sometimes border on the grotesque – the sadness of not being that girl anymore.

But I also think Madonna is having a lot of fun. In one of her TikToks, she posted an old TV interview in which a reporter rather snidely asks: “When Madonna is 50… 60, what will she do?” “Who knows?” Madonna replied. “Hopefully I’ll have fun.” She then ran photos of herself in the present day – looking glamorous, posing, dancing, drinking wine from a bottle, all to her 1983 song “Everybody”.

“Everybody get up and do your thing,” the song says. By that, Madonna has always meant everyone – including, now, older women like herself.

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