Madonna: should she put it away?

// 20 January 2009


As the chameleon of the pop world, Madge is the queen of reinvention. She can appropriate a new look with more ease than it takes some of us to put a brush through our hair. However, while her capacity to rise like a carefully coiffured phoenix from the ashes was once celebrated, it is now seen as her greatest weakness. Why? Because as a 50-year-old woman she is considered too old by the mainstream press to flaunt her body wearing nothing but tight scanties.

In the promotional photos for her 11th studio album Hard Candy, Madonna is pictured wearing white fishnet stockings, knee-high bondage boots and a white g-string, with a strip of white material resembling a surgical bandage wrapped tightly around her chest, displaying her super toned midriff. Her breasts are not exposed in a glamour-girl type pose, and she is not offering a glazy-eyed, come-hither stare. There is something almost Amazonian about the photos. She has a commanding presence, strong and empowered.

Madonna has never been shy to admit she cares for her body, openly speaking about the gruelling exercise regime she follows to remain super fit. The photos are not obscene, nor are they particularly daring by celebrity standards. In comparison to a lot of shoots capturing female starlets covered in nothing but thin slivers of silk or strategically placed petals, this is quite tame. Physically she is in great shape, with a figure envied by women half her age. While aesthetically she does not look disgusting or unacceptable – if her age was not known she could easily be mistaken for a considerably younger woman – the knowledge that she is 50 has lead to a spate of vitriolic reports across the nationals. The Daily Mail claimed that she has “no intention of growing old gracefully” and asked “will she still be doing this at 70?” Gordon Smart at The Sun run with the headline “Terrafied of Madonna,” remarking that he would use the photos to “promote Saga holidays for the over-50s” before drawing comparisons with the “terrifying Zelda from TV’s Terrahawks.” He also speculated as to where the photo was touched-up during the editing process to get ride of her “crepey boobs.” Daily Mirror columnist Sue Carroll argued that Madonna’s get-up was simply an unsuccessful evil ploy to try and make Guy Ritchie jealous:

If Madonna’s latest pose is aimed at showing Guy Ritchie what he’s missing, I don’t think she’s quite pulled it off. Gladiators might be keen to snap her up, though. She certainly looks a lot more butch than Oblivion.

Nice. Carroll clearly considers Madonna’s visually apparent physical strength as a betrayal of womanhood. Firstly, regardless of age, almost all photographs are photo-shopped, and so it’s not fair to criticise her for that unless every digitally enhanced image of a celebrity is going to be as closely scrutinised. Secondly, what’s notable is that Madonna’s critics assume that she wants to be fancied and objectified; they assume that she has had these photos taken purely to provide titillation for external parties; they assume that to be seen as sexually desirable and, excuse my language, “fuckable” is not just a priority, but the raison de etre for female celebrities. This is why Madonna has been berated because she is not seen to fit the template of what we should desire and aspire to look like. Whether or not this was a consideration on her part is not discussed.

The comments made by these journalists did make me wonder if they had actually looked at the photos, or if they were just swept away by the tide of insults that they did what they thought they were supposed to do; say she’s past it. This is Madonna. These were taken for her album cover. Madonna is an international star. A household name. If she fashioned album covers Blue-Peter-style using old cereal boxes and pipe cleaners they would just as easily fly off the shelves. Madonna’s name sells albums, the cover is negligible. She chose to have these photos taken. Why? Who knows? Maybe she finds it particularly liberating to be photographed? The impression I got from the shoot was that she was deliberately subverting traditional poses by female stars, covering up her breasts, putting forward her strong jawbone, and tensing her muscles. She is in control – an independent woman unfazed by the pressures of youth culture, instead challenging it.

But why is Madonna’s age such an issue? While she is in good shape even if, like a lot of women of varying ages, she was slightly portly or rounded, presumably her choice to strip to her underwear shouldn’t be considered salacious news to be chewed to bits by a greedy press? I’ve never really understood why there is such a direct correlation between tolerance of dress and age. While I can see that it may be inappropriate for a twenty-year-old woman to wear a baby romper for anything but fancy dress, we are quickly educated that once we reach a “certain age” a number of clothes are no longer appropriate. But what age is this? Does it vary from one woman to the next?

The mini-skirt is considered the privilege of the young, as are tank tops (or anything showing midriff for that matter) and low-cut tops. Once one reaches this undefined “certain age,” she is supposed to wear nothing but long dresses, matching jacket and trouser/skirt suits and high-necked blouses. It’s advisable for the very respectable to opt for a pearl necklace to fully exuberate an air of maturity. But from where does this attitude emanate? Is it bore of the belief that while men become distinguished with age, women are traditionally considered to become less sexually attractive and therefore any attempt to wear clothing with confidence is interpreted as a desperate attempt to recapture youth, and thus as unattractive?

Whereas the vast majority of men dress for themselves, it is always assumed that women dress for other people. It is always assumed that a woman is like a pretty iced cake in a shop window, waiting to be picked, which may be why people are generally more judgemental about a woman’s choice of clothes because we have to be seen to conform. The same can be said of women who do not appropriate what’s considered to be traditionally feminine attire. Wearing baggy clothes and big boots while sporting a short hair-cut is almost certain to elicit derogatory comments regarding a woman’s sexuality because she is likewise seen as transgressive. First and foremost, clothing has become our outer packaging – the armour we wear to fight from one day to the next. The mass media needs to be more accepting of the idea that a woman does not always dress in order to be deemed attractive and, in response to the Mail’s question, yes, I think Madonna will probably still be doing this at 70, and so what if she is? No-one is being forced to look at the photographs. Go for it, Madge!

Comments From You

maggie // Posted 20 January 2009 at 7:20 pm

well said abby. i too have noticed so much bitter and ageist comments written about madonna since her latest album ‘ hard candy’ was released last year. madonna’s sexiness has always come across to me as saying ‘ i am in control’. She has always been a very tough and strong role model to women and always rebellious. I think its terrible the way society is obsessed with female youth and i hope madonna for all our sakes keeps being as in your face and rebellious as ever.

Gayle // Posted 20 January 2009 at 10:13 pm

One sentence of the above article summed it all up for me: “This is why Madonna has been berated because she is not seen to fit the template of what we should desire and aspire to look like.” And that’s the problem! As a woman it seems you can be sexy but only in a non-threatening, passive way. Images of Madonna have always seemed to say to me “This is my sexuality..if you don’t like it – tough!” but it seems if you go against convention you are pilloried as is the case with Madonna. What really saddens me is when other women are the harshest critics instead of being supportive of women who are resisting the media pressure to ‘disappear’ once they pass the age of 45.

Steeeeeeev // Posted 20 January 2009 at 11:53 pm

Thank God for Madonna. This would have been a much more boring world without her all these years. We are only as young as we feel. If she can beat back the aging process by sheer force of will and 4000 situps like a female Jack La Lanne, more power to her. Show that guy in the cloak with the scythe who’s boss. : ) S

Shadhe // Posted 21 January 2009 at 2:45 am

I might not know much about the ‘certain age’, being only 18, but here’s my two cents:

I think that woman is still incredibly beautiful in so many ways, i’m not sure if reality is just as lovely as the photos, but then again, whose is? I’f i;m going to see an airbrushed model anyway, i’d much rather it be one with a statement (and gonads) like her.

Lauren O // Posted 21 January 2009 at 3:30 am

“will she still be doing this at 70?”

I hope so! The world probably could use a reminder that the elderly are still sexual beings with their own prerogatives.

I just don’t get why that photo offends anyone. Why are people complaining that she looks old? She looks 30, or even younger (not that they should complain even if she did look 50). And that comment about her looking butch – what? She has styled blond hair, makeup, visible breasts, shapely legs…looking pretty feminine to me.

Penny // Posted 21 January 2009 at 8:54 am

“She is not seen to fit the template of what we should desire and aspire to look like” – umm, how, exactly? She looks exactly how a certain kind of person thinks women should aspire to look – blonde, check, skinny, check, sexually available (& submissive – she’s wearing bandages & incapacitatingly high boots), check, young (I know she’s 50, but there isn’t a wrinkle or sag in sight), check. There’s nothing challenging or groundbreaking about this outfit, unless you think women, however successful or good at what they do (and this is MADONNA, let’s not forget) aren’t encouraged to forget that what’s really important is how sexy they look.

emma // Posted 21 January 2009 at 9:28 am

i love Madonna. I have been a fan for many years now. I too think that the sexuality that she represents is more empowering than say what Kylie offers. I think Madonna is fantastic to take all that harsh criticism and still never stop what she is doing or change to fit their notions of female beauty. Think about the scandal of when the sex book came out. Now thats pretty much mainstream culture. I thought it interesting that they banned that book. Essentialy Madonna was exploring her sexual fantasies and it seems mad too me there was such an outrage when you consider there is more explictness in top shelf magazines.

Maia // Posted 21 January 2009 at 12:04 pm

I too think Madonna is fantastic to take all that horrible ageist, sexist bashing and still keep on doing her thing her way. The vitriolic attacks must get to even someone as strong as she is, and to keep standing up to it is really brave. I don’t personally like what she’s wearing in those photos, or some of her music, but she looks fantastically fit and good (for ANY age!), and I totally admire her spirit. It cheers me up and makes me feel empowered just to know she exists!

And why are some people so nasty about her adopting that little boy, David? She saved his life. She has done and still does so much good with her money.

“Terrified”. That sums up most of the negative attitudes towards her. Stuff them, I say. If they’re terrified of such a great, iconic woman, that’s their sad little problem.

Bea // Posted 21 January 2009 at 12:10 pm

I love Madonna. I have been a fan since the mid eighties. Reactions like the ones seen in the press yesterday (not only conservatives Sun and Daily Mail, as The Guardian has also been quite harsh) remind me why I’ve always liked her. Go Girl.

polly styrene // Posted 21 January 2009 at 12:28 pm

I object to the way Madonna appropriates lesbian sexuality with her endless faux lesbian snogging – particularly when she grabbed her backing dancer on stage, which looked like straightforward workplace sexual harassment to me. The dancer did not look like she had been warned what was going to happen, and even if she had objected, could she have said no to a powerful figure like Madonna?

I don’t care whether Madonna displays her body or not, though I have to say she looks like she’s just had an operation in the picture. But I don’t think her predictable playing up to porn cliches is exactly ground breaking either – as Penny said.

Anna // Posted 21 January 2009 at 2:15 pm

Personally, I wish she would. Her music sucks and I’d ask any 50 year old male who still thought it cool to writhe about in leotards (or the male equivalent.. topless, or whatever) to do the same.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 21 January 2009 at 5:32 pm

Er… Iggy Pop? At least Madonna isn’t doing insurance adverts.

I’m really uncomfortable with discussing whether a woman “should” or “shouldn’t” dress however the hell she wants.

(p.s. I’m not saying that’s what Abby meant by this post, the opposite in fact).

Kez // Posted 21 January 2009 at 5:45 pm

I kind of agree with Penny, actually… I think Madonna does fairly accurately “fit the template of what we’re supposed to look like” – not an ounce of fat, and insanely youthful. And yes, she does play up to porn cliches including the faux-lesbian Britney-snogging type of stuff.

I’m kind of conflicted about her. I’m not a fan of her music or her image (I can’t name a song of hers from the past 10 years or so), but I have followed her career since the 80s, because you can’t not, really, unless you walk around with your eyes and ears shut. She’s forged an amazing career for herself and seems to have done it pretty much on her own terms, and you’ve got to respect her for that. But it’s hard to see her as a role model as she’s so removed from most people’s reality. She has a level of sustained fame that few people can compete with, and she gets that look and that body by a gruelling regime of several-hours-a-day training that most of us couldn’t and wouldn’t want to emulate.

As to whether she should “put it away”, well, if she really wants to prance around in next to nothing for the next 20 years then good luck to her. There’s certainly no reason to stop doing it just because she’s 50. On a personal level I kind of feel that we’ve all seen so much of every bit of Madonna over the years, that I do rather wish she would give it a rest for a while. But I don’t suppose she will…

Rose // Posted 21 January 2009 at 5:55 pm

To me she looks strong, firm (in more than one way), and like she’d kick your ass if you questioned her rights to her face, lol.

Im 21, and I like to see someone over twice my age that seems to be saying that the female form is something to live in. You want health, strength, standing, comfort in your own image, and fun. There’s no groupie in the background, no submission or tease about her, and certainly no apology.

Sod her music, I think thats a great image!

Kuja // Posted 21 January 2009 at 8:18 pm

It’s her facial expression more than anything that makes me see this as an empowering image – we see lots of pictures of other figures (Britney Spears automatically comes to mind but a lot of singers and models are portrayed the same way) looking submissive through the use of big, innocent doe-eyes, slightly parted glossy lips, powerless pose – there’s none of that here. There is the standard of beauty (i.e. slim, attractive blonde) but we’re a long way from kicking that out of the media. I haven’t always liked the way she’s done it (I agree with the point about faux-lesbianism…) but it seems like Madonna is more inclined to push the boundaries and offend the standards we’re used to than a lot of other famous people are. And that can only be a good thing!

Sabre // Posted 22 January 2009 at 9:45 am

Re. Madonna’s facial expression – I think that at her age she wouldn’t do the doe-eyed submissive look anyway. By playing the powerful, older, sexually aggressive woman she is still fulfilling a female stereotype.

Re. her fitness regime, I’m sure I once read an interview where she said that she did that at least partly to keep her (younger) husband attracted to her.

As for whether she should ‘put it away’ I don’t think she should have to because of what others say. However when I watch her scantily dressed in videos and hear how much time she spends exercising I think perhaps she’s trying too hard to prove something, either to herself or the world. I might be wrong, I like her, but it’s a feeling I get.

Adele // Posted 23 January 2009 at 7:38 am

I actually do think Madonna needs to ‘put it away’, so to speak. In so many of her photos, her genitals seem to be the focus of the image, and she seems intent on showing them to the world. Sure, whatever makes you happy… but I think it’s vulgar. I think it’s vulgar for anyone, of any age, gender or appearance, to flash their genitals around.

Kevin Ramsey // Posted 23 January 2009 at 3:57 pm

It would be nice if Madonna developed a classier style to fit the improved quality of her music.

Falco // Posted 29 January 2009 at 5:59 pm

“they assume that to be seen as sexually desirable and, excuse my language, “fuckable” is not just a priority, but the raison de etre for female celebrities”

Erm, it does seem to have been the “raison de etre” of Madonna over the years.

Kan // Posted 6 June 2009 at 4:05 pm

I admire Madonna,she is is a strong woman who has pushed boundaries for women everywhere over the duration of her career. I think it is wrong to suggest that she has to dress or behave in a certain way just because she is an older woman. We should be embracing the fact that the womans got some balls!

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