Madonna was right: there are rules if you are a girl

Madonna

Last week, after seeing a clip of Madonna twerking on an episode of Carpool Karaoke, Piers Morgan pretended to vomit into a bucket.

“Oh she makes my skin crawl,” he announced, before decreeing to the viewers of Good Morning Britain that “you can’t be 58 and prancing about like that”.

Granted, it is a mere drop in the ocean of drivel to have come from the mouth of Piers Morgan (who, frankly, makes my skin crawl) over the years. Over the last few weeks, in fact. But in this instance, his views are shared by all too many. Because to exist as a woman in music, and – more importantly – to continue to do so beyond 30, is a deeply offensive thing.

It’s a fact that Madonna has railed against often over the years, but never with quite such clarity and acerbic conviction as she did on Friday night at Billboard’s Women in Music event. While accepting her woman of the year award (a well-intentioned, somewhat cumbersome honour, but that’s a debate for another day), she announced, “I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer.”

She continued, “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 discussed her muse, David Bowie, who “embodied male and female spirit” and “made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”

Those rules are as follows: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”

It’s impossible to condense all the instances of gender inequality in music – both explicit and insidious – into one speech. But as far as scraping the surface of injustice goes, Madonna’s speech, in all its concise clarity, powered by decades of lived experience, was an important and moving thing indeed.

The music industry has progressed in leaps and bounds when it comes to its treatment of women. Slowly but surely, female artists are being allowed to own their creativity, their sexuality and their artistic agency. Pop acts like Fifth Harmony and Little Mix are no longer held up as mere empty vessels into which to pour your male fantasies, the likes of Christine and the Queens occupy an androgynous, queer space previously only inhabited by men, and Beyoncé, the biggest pop star on the planet, has performed in front of a 20ft sign saying “FEMINIST”. This is progress in which Madonna – for all her flaws – has played, and continues to play, a significant part, but there’s still much to overcome. And her speech reminded us of that in a way that was (as is usually the case with the Queen of Pop) pretty hard to ignore.

Madonna’s flaws, to be clear, are not insignificant. She’s suggested gay rights are “way more advanced than women’s rights”, as if the two are separate, never-overlapping entities in competition with one another; she’s praised Margaret Thatcher; she’s inappropriately compared her album leaking to rape and terrorism – an album she’d used Photoshopped images of black civil rights leaders to promote. She’s tripped up, that’s for sure. But she’s also remained an unapologetically empowered, innovative and evocative entertainer, and continued to joyously exist in a space so desperate to eject her.

“I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” she told the audience at the end of her speech. It’s a tough call, coming from the woman who simulated an orgy atop the Last Supper table during her last tour – but she’s probably right.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alexandra Pollard, for theguardian.com on Monday 12th December 2016 15.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010