Acting her Age: Madonna, Gender and Age in Popular Media

Madonna is a polarising force touching all facets of popular culture. At the time of writing this, Madonna has just released MDNA, her thirteenth studio album and is just about to embark on her ninth multi-national tour. With three greatest hits compilations, two film soundtracks and three official live records, Madonna is an artist with twenty one albums over a thirty year career. Never confined to music, Madonna also dabbles in film both in front and behind the camera, has written a controversial book, Sex (1992) and the children’s book series The English Roses (2003). Madonna is the worldwide best selling female artist of the twentieth century; The most successful solo artist to date; The second most successful musical act, second to The Beatles, to date; Has the highest selling children’s picture book to date; And tops the highest grossing concert tour to date.

ageism and sexism Madonna

Few other celebrities attract as much passionate adoration from fans as they do scathing disapproval from critics, and no other celebrity has done so for such a continuously long time. Love her or hate her, no one can deny Madonna is one of the most potent forces in popular culture, ever, and truly a one of a kind celebrity.

‘Causing a Commotion’ – Madonna, Sex and Ageing

Since Madonna turned 50, and even in the years leading up to the half century mark, a great deal of media commentary has focussed on her age, especially in terms of “acting her age.” Madonna turns 54 this year, and the pop-driven, youthful sounding MDNA is bringing these same comments thick and fast. Here are a few examples:

“No Longer an Upset: Madonna Acts Her Age” NY Times, Feb 6 2012

“Madonna Shocked At a Film Screening Last Night – By Wearing Clothes Befitting a Middle-Aged Woman.” The Sun, March 19 2012

“Is It Finally Time For Madonna To Act Her Age?” Mirror, Aug 20, 2012.

“Too Old For Hotpants? Madonna’s Butt Hangs Out On Stage” Music Fix, 27, March 2012

“YAWN, the only thing that Madonna can do that would shock us all would be to dress and act her age. It’s time for her to retire.” User comment from “Madonna Releases “Superstar” Sneak Preview, Lourdes Leon Provides Backing Vocals!” The Hollywood Gossip, March 2012.

Sex and sexuality are inseparable from the product that is Madonna. From the beginning of her career Madonna has always given her mainstream pop an edge, usually with some kind of sexually provocative theme or image. This escalated and peaked in the early 1990s with the single ‘Justify my Love’ (1990); the controversial book, Sex; her album Erotica (1992). In decades past, sex was the only thing the media saw when Madonna was the topic and now it seems that the earlier public shock from provocative displays of sexuality has been replaced by a shock from her age. And it is typically a negative reaction.

Scores of photographs fill the Internet and the pages of gossip magazines, all with the latest close up of Madonna’s wrinkling skin, her tightening and gaunt musculature, speculation on plastic surgery, her latest young boyfriend, and most recently, her butt cheeks at the Miami Music Festival. Rarely if ever, does the popular media, especially the celebrity rags, make mention of Madonna’s music.

madonna age

Of course it isn’t the age specifically that is upsetting people. What is confronting is a 54 year old woman in hot-pants and leotards, with a string of twenty-something year old lovers, swearing, dancing, thrusting, gyrating, flipping the finger, singing and talking about sex -basically, it’s a 54 year old celebrity doing much the same thing as she has done her entire thirty year career. This popular obsession with Madonna’ age and public image stems from a position where no one knows quite how to react to a 54 year old, still relevant pop star as, quite simply, no other pop star has lasted this distance.

‘Bye, Bye Baby’ – What’s To Be Done With an Aging Female Celebrity

Celebrities in their fifties and beyond, specially female celebrities have a clearly designated space in pop culture. They start appearing in the Movie Mum roles, they start covering jazz and show-tune standards with decade long gaps between albums (here’s looking at you, Cyndi Lauper), that is if they don’t fade into obscurity. This is the culturally expected and accepted trajectory of ageing stars, though there are few clear reasons for it. True, a great many aging and aged female celebrities have remained famous and adored for a long time, Elizabeth Taylor or Cher for example. This kind of legendary status however is largely an effect of nostalgia and occurs when the star’s career is for all intent, over.

In 1982, an unknown 24 year old dancer appeared on the US Dance Charts with a single, ‘Everybody.’ A self-titled album came a year later peaking at number seven on the US Charts after a slow rise. Since these beginnings, Madonna has consistently released new and high-selling material. With the exception of Michael Jackson, no other pop star has remained consistently culturally relevant for such a long time, remained at The Top with new material that not only changes with the appropriate zeitgeist, but forms it as well. I’ve no doubt Michael Jackson would have continued in his career as the King of Pop if it weren’t for his tragic death.

Madonna can’t be relegated to these put-out-to-pasture ranks of the ageing female celebrity because, as MDNA has recently proven, praised or condemned, she’s still relevant and has never been otherwise.

‘Like it Or Not’ – Madonna is Acting Her Age the Only Way Madonna Can

While other provocative female pop/dance artists over forty do exist, Alison Goldfrapp (46) and Merrill “Peaches” Nisker (46) for example, these artists don’t make quite the same type of pop music as Madonna and more importantly, they aren’t in her same rank of uber-celebrity. As such, they can’t really operate in this context of controversial ageing. Madonna is the only 50+ year old female celebrity acting like she is because she’s the only 50+ year old woman in history in the position to do so. Madonna’s music keeps charting, records selling, concert tickets outselling, and the magazines keep taking pictures of her. It’s not just a matter of Madonna not retiring, it’s a matter of popular culture still wanting her to continue.

‘What it Feels Like For A Girl’ – Age and Gender

Michael Jackson was the same age as Madonna (13 days younger to be exact) but comments of Jackson’s age rarely, if ever, came into an analysis of his music or performance. Even if Jackson had lived to perform his ‘This is It’ tour, it is doubtful he would have received the same age based scrutiny. Is it because he is a man?

Is it because Madonna is more sexually provocative and uses sexuality as part of her cultural image and thus too old to be “sexy” in the popular definition of the word? Tom Jones, the Sex Bomb himself, is 72 and still thrusting about in front of crowds of screaming women. Granted those crowds of screaming women have aged along with Tom Jones, whereas Madonna performs to a predominately young demographic. But it’s not the age of the audience in question here. Mick Jagger struts around, Keith Richards too are both 68. Again, the question presents itself – If Madonna was a man, would her age be as relevant to her public and media presence, or met with such general hostility as it currently is?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, sexually explicit pop music was a shock. In the 2010s, Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’, a clip banned by MTV in 1990, pales in comparison to the sexual exhibits of some contemporary music videos. Pop music culture managed to grow accustomed to graphic sexual displays, and it’s possible that, should another woman come along as the next contender for the Queen of Pop’s throne and last as long as Madonna has, they will have a much easier time in the media as an ageing female pop star. Madonna is currently blazing that trail, as she has blazed so many before it, not only threatening the status quo but rewriting it. Any man who might follow Michael Jackson as the next King of Pop with a thirty plus year relevance won’t have a difficult time of it al all as an ageing male star.

‘Beat Goes On’ – Longevity in Pop Music

Through overuse, cultural commentators have squeezed all meaning out of the word “re-invention” as the answer to Madonna’s longevity. Re-invention is only a small part of the Madonna Power. Relevance is the major factor. Madonna’s cultural relevance has continued which has enabled her reinventions to work and continue to be accepted, continue to sell albums, tickets, and continue to break her own numerous pop music records.

So, if Madonna is going to keep making music, should she hang up the cheerleader act of ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’’’ (2012) and start singing of the sexual maturation and the later years with the likes of Marianne Faithful? Perhaps, this is Madonna, Pop Chameleon, after all, but then it wouldn’t be pop music, it wouldn’t be relevant to a pop music culture, and it wouldn’t be part of the Madonna product. Pop music itself is youthful and pop music of Madonna’s ilk is a relatively young genre. That the artist who has continued to define pop music for almost as long as pop music has been around, is no longer young is a strange and somewhat culturally incongruent situation. As such, there is little wonder Madonna’s age has attracted such focussed attention from popular media.

Regardless of what the media and public might argue against appropriate behaviour for a celebrity in her mid-fifties, Madonna is undoubtedly going to keep on keeping on for as long as she is able, or as long as she needs to. At this stage in her career it looks as though her continued longevity will be a matter of her own physical ability, not her cultural relevance. Perhaps when (if?) Madonna hangs up her head-mic and moves to the wings, popular media will allow her music and the other facets of the Madonna product that have nothing to do with either sex nor age, to stand and be judged on their own.

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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