After Madonna took the stage at the 2023 Grammys to introduce Kim Petras’ and Sam Smith’s historic performance, the media has been abuzz with criticisms about her appearance. With little-to-no commentary on the actual words that the music legend and feminist icon had to say about the incredible moment she was introducing, the public has chosen to instead latch onto the star’s new look.
Nancy Jo Sales, a New York Times bestselling author and award-winning journalist at Vanity Fair, has been a fan of Madonna since her debut self-titled album, and was one of the first people to start a conversation about the criticism the star continues to face from people hell-bent on policing her sexuality and womanhood. When BUST reached out for a comment on the cruel rhetoric surrounding Madonna’s appearance after her Grammys speech, Sales said, “This was one of the worst cases of bullying and cyberbullying of a woman in the public eye that I have ever seen. It reminded me of the vitriol against Hillary Clinton, but this was worse, in a way, because Madonna had done nothing except post some pictures on Instagram and give a speech at the Grammys–stuff all performers do. It was this virulent misogyny mixed with ageism–ironically enough, because ageism seems to be Madonna’s current theme.”
Being publicly judged and examined is familiar territory for Madonna, who is one of the most significant pop-culture figures of all time. The artist is used to her looks being criticized, and has been using her appearance to subvert societal expectations and uproot the traditional norms for women since the beginning of her career. She is the queen of using her personal style to challenge our ideas of sexuality, femininity, and attractiveness.
Her sexuality, in particular, has always been something she consciously and intentionally magnified, and in doing so, owned entirely. She’s kind of an anomaly in America, as there are very few women in the public eye who have been able to manipulate their own sexuality to their benefit instead of it being manipulated for or against them. Women aren’t supposed to know they’re sexy. That takes all the fun out of it for the people that want to consume feminine sexuality without having to fully engage with or appreciate the women behind it. Well, Madonna knows she’s sexy, knows she’s always been sexy, and instead of politely asking the public’s permission to continue being sexy, she’s just gone ahead and done it. And, maybe she got some cheek fillers, too, maybe she didn’t. Who cares?
“Madonna showed up looking different” is like saying “water is wet.” It’s what she does. The pop legend has reinvented herself and her image so many times throughout her career, but something about her continuing to do so as she ages into her mid-sixties is profoundly upsetting to a lot of people, and everyone seems to have something horrible to say about it: Did she get plastic surgery? What kind of plastic surgery did she get? Why is she trying so hard? She should have just “aged gracefully” (when someone learns what the fuck that means, let me know).
In a piece Sales wrote for The Guardian a week before the star’s Grammys speech, she posits that Madonna is in full control of the pot she is stirring. In fact, she was the one who bought the pot in the first place. Sales writes, “As a longtime Madonna fan, I’ve come to see that whatever she’s being criticized for, that’s what she’s asking us to examine. She’s popping a big zit on our cultural face.” Sales reiterated this poignant observation in her later statement to BUST, writing that, “…the haters [are] exposing themselves as having the exact biases that Madonna was smoking out with her provocative behavior.”
People can’t stop speculating on her appearance, and the same is true for other women aging in the public eye or who have ever gone outside before. In a world that expects women to either kick and scream fighting old age or to slip quietly into it, Madonna is instead shouting about how much fun she’s having. That’s not one of the two options she was given by society, and her choice is apparently so disruptive that the public has decided it is their job to punish her for daring to stray outside of expectations. Everyone treating Madonna’s possible plastic surgery like a mystery to be solved or any of their business to begin with is telling on themselves. The misogyny seems to boil over whenever an older woman stakes claim to her own sexuality or alters her appearance even just a sliver past what society deems appropriate.
But here’s the thing: Madonna looks how Madonna wants to look. And she will continue to do so despite how anyone else feels about it. That, in and of itself, is radical.
She responded to the slough of negativity regarding her appearance at the Grammys on Instagram by first congratulating Kim Petras and Sam Smith again, followed by saying, “Once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny That permeates the world we live in. A world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 And feels the need to punish her If she continues to be strong willed, hard-working and adventurous…I look forward to many more years of subversive behavior -pushing boundaries-Standing up to the patriarchy -and Most of all enjoying my life.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
If you love a rule-breaker and need something to look forward to, Madonna is going on a world tour, “The Celebration Tour,” and she’s bringing her decades of hits with her. You can find tickets here.
Top photo is a screenshot from “The Celebration Tour” announcement video on YouTube