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Madonna’s Face: Ageism and Misogyny Are the Real Issue

Critics blasted Madonna's look at Sunday's GRAMMYs, which proves that society is still ageist and sexist and Madonna is still a provocateur.
The exhaustive number of articles and social media posts bashing Madonna’s face at the 2023 GRAMMY Awards ceremony on Sunday night are a sliced-and-diced reflection of the impossible beauty standard that women face: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And there’s more to it than the typical debate about aging “naturally” that deserves some airtime . . .

As the founder of a nonprofit who serves women of all ages in the music industry, and a certified image consultant who spent 11 years working with women over 40 in male-dominated industries, my thoughts come from years of speaking to women about the challenges of age and gender bias in modern society. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Read More: Grammy Winner Bonnie Raitt Proves She Ain’t Done Yet

Easy for Them to Judge

When you have it, you don’t see it, as Micheal Kimmel said in his eye-opening TED Talk. Most of us have the privilege of not being in the spotlight 24/7 for our entire adult lives. Most of us have the privilege of working in industries where women do not age out of success by the time they reach 30. About 56 percent of us Americans have the privilege of being age 20 to 40, when our physiques are at their peak.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Half of us are men, who have the privilege of a whole different aging standard. Some men in high-profile positions, like Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and KISS tongueman Gene Simmons, admit to having surgery, yet there is very little media hype or blow back from fans or critics.

It’s easy for The Privileged to apply crushing pressure, especially on celebrity women, to maintain the “ideal beauty” standard (which includes youth). Yet a public flogging ensues when women take measures to artificially obtain or hold on to that beauty ideal or take it to the extreme. There’s just no winning.

Madonna Is a Performance Artist

We must remember this important fact. Look back through the decades and see how she has sculpted her face and body in various ways. Bushy eyebrows, blonde curls, straight black bobs, cone bras, corsets, teeth gap to no gap, mouth grills, contorted dance moves (who hasn’t struck a pose?), and the list goes on. She is a master at illusion and body manipulation—all in the name of shocking her audiences, agitating social norms, and entertaining as a profession.

Traditionalists and hypocrites lash out; fans and the fringe defend. Madonna jumpstarts the narrative, and boundaries shake. She takes the hits so the rest of us can inch a little more toward waving our own freak flags, however modest they may be. She’s been rattling cages longer than anyone else and shows no signs of slowing. So why the big fuss over her unexpected—and most likely calculated—look when 30 years ago our generation championed her moxie? My guess: Madonna has not changed. We have.

Madonna has been rattling cages longer than anyone else and shows no signs of slowing.

Much of my time as an image consultant was spent asking over-40 women what their personal image goals were. The #1 answer was “I want to look thinner.” Many of these women were business owners and top professionals in their field, so you would think the top answer would be something along the lines of “look like a power player” or “look intelligent and strong.”

However, appearing lean usually appeared on top of the list, and almost always in the top three, which is why a common client complaint was that they were stuck in all-black wardrobes. Black recedes, hides. Colors project, enhance. For some, wearing color puts them in a vulnerable position physically and emotionally by attracting too much attention. A common question I asked those black-clad clients: How can opportunity find you if you’re invisible?

By planning your visual message with intention, you can attract the opportunities, people, and events you desire. Celebrities spend fortunes on branding and beauty experts, stylists, procedures, and materials for this exact reason.   

It’s reasonable to assume that Madonna sculpts her visual message with meticulous thought and attention to detail. She doesn’t discuss which cosmetic procedures may or may not be at play in her strategy. That’s her right. And yes, everyone has the right to state their opinion and speculate, kind or not. To this I say, “Let she/he who is without sin (or botox or implants or false lashes or fake tans or hair dye or hair plugs or Viagra) cast the first stone #wwjd.”

The Hype Is a Distraction

This is the most important part of the whole phenomenon. Politicians know how to distract better than anyone: Draw attention away from an uncomfortable truth, self-examination, or accountability by metaphorically killing the messenger.

Madonna stood on the GRAMMY stage and gave a powerful message about staying true to yourself, following your dreams, and not bowing to the pressures of conforming. Her visual message aligned with her verbal message. No one was dressed like or looked like Madonna that night.

It’s much easier to dissect a celeb’s wrinkle-free face than take action that may upset the status quo.

These are dangerous concepts for society both collectively and individually. So we sharpen our knives . . .

She doesn’t look like a feminist, so she’s a hypocrite.

She doesn’t act or look her age, so she’s desperate.

She’s a singer—shut up and sing already.

And just like that, we’ve shot down the narrative. It’s so easy. Perhaps that’s part of Madge’s point.

At the individual level, visibility, originality, and spoken conviction require an enormous amount of courage. It’s much easier to dissect a celeb’s wrinkle-free face than take action that may upset the status quo. (Admittedly, I’m guilty of this in the past and will probably be guilty again in the future.)

At the collective level, addressing ageism and gender bias requires major shifts in our systems, the people who govern and profit from them, and those who are governed by them. In order for seismic change to happen, the conversation needs to start somewhere.

Thankfully, Madonna gets everyone talking . . . every time.

Read More: These Female Comics Laugh in the Face of Ageism and Sexism


Thea Wood has more than 30 years’ experience as an author, publisher, public speaker, and image consultant in the corporate and start-up worlds with an emphasis on female empowerment and music. She founded Herizon Music Foundation in 2018, uplifting the next generation of women in music. She envisions a music industry in which any woman can achieve merit-based success no matter her age, appearance, familial status, or orientation. 

By Thea Wood


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