Madonna: should she put it away?

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!