Madonna's Speech On Ageism Is Powerful

by Loretta Donelan

On Friday, Madonna was honored as Woman of the Year at Billboard's Women In Music Awards, but the speech the pop icon gave eschewed the usual award show thankfulness for sober and wryly funny remarks on sexism in the entertainment industry. Madonna's Billboard speech addressed aging, abuse, rape, double standards, feminism, and more, and her tone made it clear that she meant business.

“I stand before you as a doormat,” she said. “Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer. "Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.” She acknowledged harrowing instances from her past, from the loss of many of her close friends to AIDS to being raped at knifepoint. She also spoke of the toll of sexist double standards regarding sexuality — "You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness" — and the fact that aging is implausibly considered taboo for entertainers, especially female entertainers. "I think the most controversial thing I have done is to stick around," she said, resulting in applause from the previously stoic crowd.

Madonna's powerful words echo observations made by female entertainers before her, that women middle-aged and older are phased-out of the entertainment industry and mocked if they choose to "stick around." Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall has said, according to IndieWire, that older women "disappear, not to be seen, because we are no longer young and beautiful and sexually desirable," while, as the Wrap reports, Zoe Saldana bluntly observed that "by the time you’re 28 you’re expired, you’re playing mommy roles." Men are not held to the same standard; just look at how People's oldest "Sexiest Man Alive" was 59, while Esquire's oldest "Sexiest Woman Alive" was 42.

This isn't the first time that Madonna has spoken out against ageism; in 2015, she tweeted at haters that they were just "jealous" of the energy her then-56-year-old self possessed. Madonna has been the target of cruel internet jokes regarding her pop star playfulness, wardrobe choices, and perceived attempts to preserve her youth, and while her assertions that she's having fun in her later years often take on a playful and unapologetic quality, the somber and emotional tone of her Billboard speech emphasizes that the jokes and criticism have taken a toll.

So next time you make fun of or dismiss a female celebrity for daring to age, Madonna seems to be warning her audience, remember the real women who have endured, and prospered, in the face of sexism and criticism.

More from the Billboard Women In Music event: