At 50, the Material Girl is Not to be Pitied

Madonna turns 50 this year. Like every wheeze and fart in the entertainer’s life, this one is attracting comment. From some, it sounds like this. “50? She looks 30! If she really was a taboo-breaker, she wouldn’t have smooth skin and pert breasts. She’d be strutting her stuff on the cover of Vanity Fair with a wrinkled décolletage and baggy arms hanging out.”

Like most discussions about ageing in contemporary Australia, this one is confused. On the one hand, baby-boomers can’t stop telling us that 60 is the new 50, that age-related discrimination is rife, and that no one should have to give up what they do or love because others say they’re too old. Stay at work! Keep enjoying sex! Arise and go windsailing! Having only just arrived in middle age I can tell you that exhortations to keep on keeping on are constant.

But don’t attempt to match your youthful activities with youthful looks, or you will be condemned as unenlightened and vain. So what if employers discriminate against older workers or that invisibility for women beyond a certain age is inevitable? Resistance by Botox or surgery is wrong, wrong, wrong. The upshot? We’re forbidden to act our age but required to look it. Where’s the sense in that?

Which takes us back to the material girl. Yes, it would it have been radical for the bare arms emerging from Madonna’s body suit to have been dotted with hair-sprouting moles. Radical for cascading waves of cellulite to have been visible above her thigh-high black boots.

But does anyone really think this would have made middle age “hot”? My guess is that such an appearance would have started a whisper campaign that would have brought Madonna’s long-running reign as a cultural icon to a close. Poor Madonna, look at how old she looks. Poor Madonna, she’s let herself go. Poor Madonna, can’t she see she’s not beautiful any more, and so no longer entitled to the power beautiful women wield?

Pitying Madonna. It gives me shivers to think about it.

No wonder she has refused to age gracefully. No wonder she resists not just in ways we approve (eating well, spending hours in the gym and at dance rehearsals) but in ways we don’t (liquid and surgical lifts, tucks, peels and slathers). Resists received opinion about right and wrong, and the endless rules about how women should live their lives, just as she has always done.

So why are we so quick to judge? Madonna is reticent about her fitness and other age-retarding routines. She never promotes them as liberatory or feminist in any sense.

I think it’s envy and a desperate sense that we can’t keep up. Madonna at 50 looks better than most of us at 30, and this makes some of us feel like failures. We could console ourselves with the fact she has a home gym, a personal trainer, nannies and a travelling chef to support her efforts, but instead we point the finger, and accuse her of letting us down.

I don’t think she has and suspect that Nora Ephron would agree. Ephron, of When Harry met Sally fame, had this to say about ageing in a recent essay in American Vogue: “[Some people say] it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can’t stand people who say things like this.”

Publication history

At 50, the Material Girl is Not to be Pitied  Sunday Sun-Herald