Madonna is like glitter—she’s flashy, she gets everywhere, and you’ll never quite get rid of her. After a 30-year career, 80 singles, two marriages, and four children, she is refusing to vacate the spotlight as women of her age, 56, are expected to do.
But lately, she’s been paying the price for sticking around.
You can call Madonna “gross” and you can call her a “grandma” but she’s neither. If you really want to see something disgusting that belongs in the Stone Age, look no further than the ageist invective that is being hurled at the queen of pop.
In the span of a week, Madonna’s stand-up comedy set on The Tonight Show and her smooch ambush of the rapper Drake at Coachella have launched her into the viral stratosphere once again, and the backlash this time around has been brutal.
“50 Shades of Granny,” tweeted Piers Morgan, age 50. He tweeted at Drake, too, telling him that he “can’t think of anything worse” than getting kissed by Madonna. Maybe he never watched his own talk show.
On social media, Madonna was quickly painted as some sort of vampiric succubus who drains the life force out of younger stars. It’s the same metaphor that gets trotted out every time Madonna locks lips with a fellow celeb, whether it’s with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAS or with Nicki Minaj backstage on her birthday.
All of this anti-Madonna noise begs an important question. Who’s acting more like a senior citizen in this situation: the woman who can still pull off an extended dance routine without running out of breath, or the crotchety twentysomething who can barely eke out 140 characters of criticism while lying in bed?
The insistence that an aging Madge get out of our sight is due, in part, to a pop-culture cycle that can no longer seem to tolerate anyone beyond their 15 minutes of fame. From “Holiday” to that unforgettable moment when she handed her panties to David Letterman, Madonna enjoyed a whole decade in the public eye as America’s openly sexual pop princess. On one hand, it seems almost cosmically unfair for her to receive airtime alongside, and even instead of, the shorter-lived imitators she helped to spawn.
But the bulk of the vitriol that Madonna faces is the product of a sexist double standard that comes down hard on middle-age women.
Men Madonna’s age are allowed to be sexy despite their wrinkles and graying hair. Sean Connery was 59 and bald when he won People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1989. Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Nick Nolte all took home the same honor in their fifties.
Meanwhile, Esquire has never handed out Sexiest Woman Alive to anyone over the age of 42.
The only way that middle-aged women successfully maintain their sexy cachet past 45 is by obeying certain standards of behavior and decorum.
Dame Helen Mirren, 69, can raise her eyebrow at a younger man at the end of her new L’Oréal ad but if she ever dated someone as young as A-Rod, we would quit calling her “classy” in a heartbeat.
Famous men in Mirren’s age bracket tend to dip a few decades deep into the younger end of dating pool, but women have to choose between younger men and their reputation.
As Ellen Degeneres told Madonna during a recent interview, “Men date younger women all the time and no one says anything about it. What’s wrong with women dating younger men?”
But not only does Madonna date younger men, she publicly fantasizes about it in interviews. She wears thigh-high boots and wields her pelvis like a weapon.
And it’s precisely this brazen sexuality that opens her up to disgustingly specific bodily insults about her “saggy ass” and her “ancient,” cobweb-filled vagina. For women, the penalty for refusing to age according to societal expectations is that society ages you.
You’re allowed to be as young as you feel until you act like it. Age is just a number until that number is 50.
Madonna herself has recognized this ageist resistance to her brand in a recent interview.
“They’re judging me by my age,” she told Rolling Stone in February. “I don’t understand. I’m trying to get my head around it. Because women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules. I never did, and I’m not going to start.”
For a pop star of her years, the difference between being seen as a cougar and being dismissed as desperate is displaying a libido instead of accepting a rapid rate of diminishing returns as a sexual object. It’s the fact that Madonna still wants to, let’s say, express herself in her fifties that makes it impossible for her to remain respectable.
But perhaps it’s the persistent image of Madonna as a succubus that reveals the true root of our reflexive disgust with her escapades. In hindsight, Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful, the 1991 parody of her famous tour documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, has an almost prescient name.
Like Medusa, Madonna has come to symbolize our culture’s fear of active, all-consuming female sexuality.
Freud equated the classical fear of Medusa with the “terror of castration” at the sight of the “terrifying genitals of the Mother,” and it’s hard not to see a similar dynamic at work in our thinly veiled fear of Madonna as an unapologetically sexual, 56-year-old mother of four.
Unlike Medusa, however, it seems impossible to ever defeat Madonna. The more people bemoan her persistence, the more attention she receives, and the more power she accrues. She’s an icon who can subsist forever on the fuel of her own inevitability.
As she wrote on Instagram following the Drake kiss: “If you don’t like me and still watch everything I do. Bitch, you’re a fan.”
So maybe it’s time to give up on telling Madonna to go away and ask ourselves where, exactly, we want her to go and why. Do we really only have the time of day for pop stars in the prime of life, or can we make some room for the sometimes embarrassing, often lascivious, and always interesting queen of reinvention herself?