Why Won’t We Let Madonna Age the Way She Wants To?

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MTV

Helen Mirren’s snowy crop. Patti Smith’s silver locks and crinkly eyes. Charlotte Rampling’s chiseled laugh lines and Diane Keaton’s covered-up chic. These are some of the things people will reliably cite when they talk about “aging gracefully.” Of course, we all know that there’s a very specific social prescription for how to do so, and it usually involves a) embracing your natural hair color, b) an absence of visible “work”, and/or c) being French.

One person who consistently falls on the other end of the age conversation? Madonna. When she strutted into the Alexander Wang show in September with her college-age daughter, Lourdes, in tow, they almost looked like classmates, not mother and daughter. Madonna was flaunting a lace corset and track pants, while her daughter wore a turtleneck. At the after-party, she was having more fun than anyone, even donning a branded beer helmet. But everything about Madonna — the red-carpet flashing, the “new new face,” the string of younger boyfriends — seems to bring out criticism that she’s not aging in the “right” way, which seems to mean that she’s just refusing to settle into a role as a grande dame. Her every move is the stuff Daily Mail caption writers’ dreams are made of, whether she’s “worse for wear” or “attempting to outdo Ariana Grande despite 35-year age gap” or skiing with a “toyboy.” (Have these people not seen that iconic belt?) Then there’s the way she folded an Illuminati-chapter-meeting’s worth of celebrities into her “Bitch I’m Madonna” video, earning cries that she was out of touch, even vampirically siphoning off the talents of younger stars.

Sure, every pop star has his or her legion of haters, but Madonna’s actions sometimes even make her critics literally ill. “You can’t be 58 and dancing around like that,” said Piers Morgan, immediately before stage-vomiting into a bucket on British TV. (The inciting incident: She had the audacity to twerk during her “Carpool Karaoke” segment.) Recently, she’s been on the receiving end of slings and arrows from Camille Paglia, who wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter called “How to Age Disgracefully.” She called out Madonna’s “pointless provocations” and “trashy outfit[s],” while suggesting she be more like Marlene Dietrich.

Three years ago, Out.com columnist Michael Musto wrote an essay for Scene in which he, too, was critical of Madonna’s clinging to youth. He called her Grammys outfit that year “latter-day Mae West impersonating Colonel Sanders,” and he was no fan of her penchant for grillz. Since then, Musto says he has “done a complete flip-flop” on Madge. For a long time, he hoped she’d “do a Peggy Lee tribute album and dress in a sultry, age-appropriate gown,” he admits. But her recent speech at the Billboard Women in Music Awards, where she confronted the misogyny she’s faced throughout her career, changed his mind. Madonna is stuck between a rock and a hard place with her refusal to go gently into that good night, to the tune of “Is That All There Is?”

“We’re all for aging,” points out Musto, “but God forbid someone have a natural wrinkle and God forbid someone Botox their wrinkles … you can’t win.” Unspoken in our paeans to the beauty of aging is the fact that it has to look effortless. Madonna’s “work,” her Botox, and her gym-hardened body, are too visible. We want our pop stars to be forever young, but are uncomfortable reckoning with the kind of labor that requires.

Meanwhile, Musto points out, Mick Jagger — who is 73 to Madonna’s 58 — can dress, dance, date, and reproduce without much outcry. I’d add that he’s hardly under the pressure to reinvent himself that Madonna is. No one seems to complain that he hasn’t explored the world of EDM or brought in some younger, hotter artist for a feature on a “Wild Horses” remix. In Madonna’s Billboard speech, she paid tribute to fellow shape-shifter David Bowie, but also noted that he was far less subject to critique than she was. “He made me think there were no rules,” she said ruefully. “I was wrong. There are no rules if you’re a boy.” She ended by advising her fellow women in pop: “And finally, do not age, because to age is a sin. You will be criticized, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio.” Her morally loaded language is no accident — to be female and age unapologetically is still a venal sin in some quarters.

Still, we can hope that maybe Madonna is creating a new playbook for how to age, a freer one that those a generation younger than she — like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga — are already starting to follow. Think of her as the rocky test case for this new approach. Musto predicts that soon, “it’s going to be ingrained in our society that a woman can be sexy in her 50s, 60s, and so on. And Madonna can be thanked for having paved the way for that.”

Drew Elliott, Paper’s creative director and a judge on America’s Next Top Model, goes so far as to call Madge’s youthful ways kind of punk. “She behaves like a young person in that she’s radical still,” he says, “which I think is fabulous and usually associated with youth.” He cites her in-on-the-joke performance as a clown at Art Basel as a recent example. While many of her contemporaries have settled into placid diva-dom, she refuses to play it safe, and Elliott hopes it stays that way: “The last thing I want to see is Madonna in a muumuu.”

Why Won’t We Let Madonna Age the Way She Wants To?