Madonna's Face and the Myth of Aging Gracefully

65th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show
65th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show
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Madonna at the 65th Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Arena on February 5, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Credit - Christopher Polk—Variety/Getty Images

Madonna, like her wayback namesake, means a lot of different things to different people. You don’t get to be an icon without being able to contain multitudes. So when she appeared at the Grammys with a face that bore little recognition to her original visage, or any 60-plus-year-old woman’s visage, or, to many, any normal visage at all, people had opinions, and thanks to the glories of social media, we got to hear just about all of them. “Are you ready for a little controversy?” she asked at the show. The audience was indeed ready. Just not for the controversy Madonna expected.

Ostensibly, the star was there to mark a moment in popular music history, to introduce the performance of Sam Smith and Kim Petras, the first transgender singer to win a Grammy. She was reliably Madonna about it, meaning that she first talked about herself, then used words like “scandalous” and “unholy,” and managed to somehow paint Smith, an artist who has graced the cover of such mainstream publications as Rolling Stone, Billboard, and GQ, as someone who “has risen above the critics.”

Critics are to Madonna as football is to Tom Brady — the thing which she can neither live without, nor really engage with much enthusiasm anymore. She has played the role of the petulant tween, showily flouting conventions and taboos as she tries on a horde of different identities, much longer than most of us could withstand. And she has run up against the immovable force that many women her age are negotiating, a lack of room to maneuver, a disinterest in their ideas, and an expectation that they will go quietly into oblivion.

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Going quietly is that thing which Madonna will not do. (She recently announced a world tour, in the most Madonna way possible, with a lewd Truth or Dare contest.) And there are many women for whom that is a mark of courage. They did not endure years of juggling childcare and overperforming at work and casual sexism and lack of opportunity and under-recognition and bearing the brunt of the domestic burden and becoming less likable as they became more senior to just slink off when they reached what Amy Schumer memorably called their last f–kable day. To these people Madonna is delivering on being Madonna, and she has earned the right, what with seven Grammys and more than 300 million records sold, to do whatever she wants.

The Material Girl’s response to the internet commentariat, posted alongside screw-you images of her partying with celebrities, suggests that she looks exactly the way she wants to. “Instead of focusing on what I said in my speech which was about giving thanks for the fearlessness of artists like Sam and Kim- Many people chose to only talk about Close-up photos of me Taken with a long lens camera By a press photographer that Would distort anyone’s face!!” she wrote. “I look forward to many more years of subversive behavior -pushing boundaries-Standing up to the patriarchy -and Most of all enjoying my life.”

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But there are other people for whom Madonna’s Grammys face is a mark of desperation and in no way standing up to the patriarchy or the forces of ageism. The anime-esque hairstyle, as well the riding crop and lacy teddy she showed off on Instagram but didn’t wear on stage, look to them like mutton dressed as lamb, a performative attempt to proclaim one’s immaturity, one’s sexual viability, one’s transgressive bona fides, in a way that seems to play along with what men want women want to be, rather than to stand up to it.

For a subset of those, it’s a shame that Madonna, the highest-grossing female touring artist of all time, feels the need to present herself in this manner. Shouldn’t she, of all people, be bold enough to show the world her authentic self? Abigail Disney, who is about Madonna’s age, summed up these feelings well when she noted on Twitter that she “woke up feeling sorry for Madonna. And I’m pretty sure that’s not the reaction she was hoping for.”

One common criticism when women drink too deeply from the filler/Botox/surgery cocktail is that they should “age gracefully,” a piece of advice that is about as useful as telling novice ice skaters to glide effortlessly. The laws of gravity and biology make it impossible. Nobody glides across ice, or ages, gracefully without a lot of effort, including input from skilled professionals. It’s not as if older female celebrities who don’t look as manufactured as Madonna are widely lauded. Nobody is heaping praise on more or less normal-looking women such as Madonna’s friend 60-year old friend Rosie O’Donnell for aging gracefully. Madonna’s face is not the face many people would choose. But then again neither is Madonna’s life. History has shown that people’s reactions to the way a woman looks is less useful as a measure of beauty than as a measure of the way people feel about women and that woman in particular. It follows then, that people’s reactions to the way older women look are a good gauge of the way people feel about women, older women, that older woman in particular, with some anxiety about their own age and mortality mixed in. The most consistent thing about Madonna is her reinvention. Each time she has reemerged, there have been people who found it too much, until they didn’t. Her use of Christian iconography was too much, and then the Met’s Costume Institute did an exhibition about Catholicism and fashion. Her documentary about her Truth or Dare tour revealed too much, and then we got the Real Housewives. Her book of nudes was too much, and then Kim Kardashian’s sex tape made her famous. So maybe we will just get over it. Maybe the kind-of-face-you-get-when-you’re-puffed-up from-an-allergy-to-new-medication will become the new black. I wouldn’t put it past Madonna to make that happen. If not, at least she got some attention ahead of her tour. Tom Brady has re-retired. That’s not really Madonna’s style.