I propose a moratorium on jokes about Madonna’s age

So I’m one of those people who can’t deal with watching Big National Media Events without social media.  Take awards shows.  I’m sure some people find them interesting, but I for one view them as little more than excuses for famous people to give each other glitter-encrusted reacharounds while we plebes watch and drool with envy.  But add some Twitter, a little Facebook, and bam!  I’m transfixed by the event, or more specifically, the witty commentary that unspools on my computer monitor.

But there are times when event-driven social media lets me down, and last night’s Super Bowl half-time was a perfect illustration of that.  Here we have Madonna, arguably one of the most successful pop artists of modern times, putting on a huge glorious spectacle of gladiators bouncing on their junk on tightropes and bringing out the magnificent duo of MIA and Nicki Minaj and recruiting Cee Lo Green to sing in what I consider to be one of the most sublimely perfect pop songs ever and just in general turning one of the most macho events in mainstream American culture into a total sparkle-fiesta of queered-out femmedom.  In case you couldn’t tell, I thought it was fabulous.

Yet to look at my Twitter stream, you’d think that Madonna had lurched on stage wearing a flowered muumuu, a pair of slippers and her hair in curlers, and that the only thing keeping her upright was a walker.  The old jokes went on and on and on and on.  (And as my friend Salome noted, not a single peep about Motley Crue, who despite all being in their 50s were rocking like it was 1987 on the Sunset Strip.)

The sadly ironic thing is that people were cracking these jokes while she was dancing her ass off.  I mean, the woman was doing cartwheels in a pair of boots with five-inch heels.  (I’m sure her podiatrist was wincing, but anyway.)  Do you know what happened the last time I tried to do a cartwheel?  I pulled a muscle in my back and couldn’t stand up properly for the rest of the day.  Did I mention that I did that when I was twenty-two?  And I was barefoot?

So I’m thinking that anyone who wants to talk about how Madonna is ready for the glue factory at the ripe old age of 53 should be forced to prove that they too can do a cartwheel in heels without killing themselves before they can crack their oh-so-hilarious and devastatingly clever jokes.

Listen, I understand that old jokes can be amusing for youngsters to make.  Just ask my husband.  He’s 50 and I tease him about that all the time.  (He also happens to be a super-foxy 50, so there’s that.)  But the jokes underlie a really sucky trend in our culture, which is that we fetishize youth to such an extreme that we end up with 25-year-olds questioning whether they’ve wasted their lives (short answer: you haven’t) while ridiculing older people for for pretty much daring to exist in public.

Krista over at Stumptuous wrote this most-excellent rant the other day, in which she sang the praises of older women:

Imagine, younguns, a world where you just don’t give a shit about looking stupid or what your friends think or falling down in public or impressing the Joneses or having to go along with the crowd to do things you hate. Imagine how awesome that would be. The liberation. The joyous freedom. The glorious sense of possibility. Well, if you’re lucky, that’s what getting older is.

I really wanted to excerpt the whole post, which is brilliant, but I won’t so I’ll just encourage you to go read it instead.

I’m not really that old – I’m only 32 – but I can relate to this.  See, when you are a woman and you turn 30, you are inundated with all of these messages that basically suggest that a woman who is no longer in her 20s will be a shriveled up, bitter old crone who hates the world and resents those girls who are younger and juicier than her and will never, ever be desired by another man because she is just that decrepit.  I mean, we ladies don’t freak out over turning 30 for nothing.

But because aging is one of those things we don’t really have much of a choice about, I went ahead and turned 30 anyway, and guess what?  My 30s have been fantastic. I feel better looking, more interesting, more confident, more of everything.  I have more experience in life, which means I am more likely to recognize bullshit when I see it and less likely to be afraid to call it out.  If a dude doesn’t find me attractive, it doesn’t send me into a spiral of self-doubt and self-hate.  I actually – and hold on to your butts, because it’s a doozy – I actually just. don’t. care.

Can I tell you what I think?  I think that our culture, in its  malevolent, person-hating way, recognizes that we ladies become more powerful and more confident and more awesome as we get older, and it freaks out and says, NO THAT CANNOT HAPPEN, WE CAN’T HAVE WOMEN BEING AWESOME, THAT WILL RUIN EVERYTHING.   I mean, what could possibly be more threatening to patriarchy than a woman who recognizes bullshit when she sees it and calls it out?

So it looks for ways to undermine us.  What better way to do that than by glorifying adolescence and making the rest of feel like we might as well go hide  in a cave where we can eat crickets and wear capes made of lichens and not horrify people with our worthless, grotesque selves? (I find the sexualization of adolescence baffling.  I think about myself as a teenager and I was so not at all sexy and just this gawky, sloppy mess in every possible way.  The idea that those years were the years at which I was at my peak is just…really? Really?)

When we glorify adolescence, we are holding up people who are still at the mercy of not-quite-developed brains and whipsawing hormones as the apex of humanity.   Teenagers have a lot of things going for them and I know a lot of fabulous teenagers, so I’m not trying to tear them down to make my not-teenage self feel better.  I’m just trying to put this shit into perspective.

My point – and I do have one – is that with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes power. When you shred on older women who refuse to tuck themselves out of sight like good little old women are supposed to do, you reinforce all of the bullshit ideas out there that say to be a woman is to be weak, to be submissive and to be stupid and you become complicit in a culture that seeks to deny women a very real source of power.

You can be critical of Madonna all you want.  Lord knows she gives us reason enough to do so, with the way she treats the world like her own cultural buffet and fancies herself an expert on anything she dabbles in.  But please, let’s lay off the woman’s age.

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28 responses to “I propose a moratorium on jokes about Madonna’s age

  1. Good post, but, as a dancer (jazz, ballet, modern, dancing 25 years), I’d like to lay down an non-age-related critique: Madonna’s dancing was severely impaired a choice to go with “sexy looking shoes” over something in a 3″ heel that would have allowed her to do more than skip around the stage and “perform” heavily-assisted gymnastics. This would be like watching an athlete sacrifice athletic performance in order to wear corporate-logo gear that looked flashy but in fact hindered performance. Great photo op, terrible performance. As a dancer myself, I know that you can do pretty incredible moves on 3″ heels, but once you get into 5″ boots, you lose the stability necessary to really push your sport w/o risking serious injury. That’s why her performance looked as phoned is as it did. As a dancer and athlete, I’m really bothered that she (or her handlers) chose a particular aesthetic of “sexy” that prevented her from pushing her dance/sport/performance to top levels – as if the photo of her looking sexy had higher cultural currency that actually doing a kick ass, challenging, and impressive dance performance that would also, in fact, be sexy. It seemed for me to be the confirmation that we think a woman is sexy only when she looks a certain way, not by her ability to do/perform certain feats.

    • Thanks for the comment, and also for the totally valid points. I’m not one of those ladies who is really into wearing high heels – mainly because I feel like I’ve hobbled myself when I do, but also because I’m about seventeen thousand feet tall when I do – but you make some really good points about how wearing shoes like that buys into a specific version of Sexy that makes it difficult for a woman to do more than just be a cute ornament.

  2. Most of the “old” jokes that I have seen (and even myself had made snarky comments on) is about the fact that her new single really does not seem to mesh with a 53 year old woman as the vocalist. The misspelling of L-U-V might be cutesy if you are Ke$ha but I can’t deal with it for Madonna. She seems too sophisitcated for that.

    I still think her dancing and stage show were fabulous. That song though… it should have been sold to someone like Miley Cyrus.

    • See, I wasn’t seeing anything like that at all. I remember seeing a joke about Betty White’s great half-time performance – things like that. I’m down with snark, but it just seemed ridiculous that this obviously healthy, strong woman was being treated like she should have been chilling on a recliner in a nursing home somewhere.

    • Which is probably exactly why Madonna did it. She is nothing if not the queen of adopting the latest fads. The trend right now is Ke$ha and Miley, why wouldn’t Madonna release a song similar to their music?

  3. This post reminds me of a quotation that I like very much, and read often right before and after my thirtieth birthday a few months ago: “Aging is not ‘lost youth,’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength. It’s a different stage of life, and if you are going to pretend it’s youth, you are going to miss it. You are going to miss the surprises, the possibilities, and the evolution that we are just beginning to know about because there are no role models, no guideposts, and no signs.” ~ Betty Friedan

  4. I love this. I turned 30 this past summer and have since had a number of (generally older) friends and colleagues tease me about getting old. I don’t mind because they don’t intend to be mean, and my age isn’t really something that bothers me anyway. More than anything, though, I feel like their jokes are misguided. That is, at age 30, this is my very first year where I feel like I know what the fuck is going on with this whole “life” thing.

    If folks want to gently tease for that… well, okay… I guess… but why?

    • It’s weird because it IS like this accepted joke trope, that when you are a lady and you hit 30, you are suddenly just a cardigan away from crazy cat lady-hood, and so even when people tease you in a light-hearted way, they are still basically transmitting that exact same message, just without being mean about it.

  5. I totally get what you’re saying. I was watching the halftime show last night and squeeing because it seemed so very cool and put together. I too was watching the whole thing with Facebook signed in on my lap, and I couldn’t believe all the negative comments about how she can’t sing, can’t dance, has no reason being there, is really just a dinosaur trying to keep up with the new superstars (quoted as being Miley and Selena, which made me gag), and a million other comments. This woman does incredible things to keep her body in the shape it needs to be so she can continue doing what she loves. That should be an ideal for other women to look up to, not a fear we dread. If I could look and feel like Madonna when I’m 40, let alone over 50, I will thank the stars and make sure everyone knows it.

    • Seriously! If I am half as fit and strong as Madonna when I turn 35, I’ll be stoked.

      And the new superstars are Miley and Selena? Two singers who got their start with the tween audience?!! Talk about the fetishization of youth! WHERE ARE ALL THE GROWN-UPS?

      • No lie: Every time I stop to listen to Miley Cyrus (which is not often), I tell her voice on the radio, “You know, I used to listen to your dad.”

  6. The irony is that, at 53, Madonna is the 3rd YOUNGEST Superbowl half-time show headliner since 2005. (The other two? Black-Eyed Peas, average age 35 at the time, and Prince, who was 48 at the time.) The other acts being Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, The Who, and Bruce Springsteen, all in their late 50s or early 60s at the time. I mean, ffs, The Who are literally half-dead. And yet I don’t remember anyone acting like they could barely walk upright, much less do cartwheels. I don’t remember anyone saying that they did or didn’t look good “for their age.” I don’t remember anyone cracking about their ages compared to one’s own parents’ ages.

    The sound was weird for Madonna’s show (her vocal tracks should have been louder and strong, imo), and the new song kind of sucks, but neither of those things are because of her age. There were complaints that her act wasn’t “relevant” (like any of the above named artists played recent songs in their sets); but including current artists like LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A. and Cee-Lo is “desperate.”

    Fuck our sexist, ageist, hypocrite bullshit culture.

    • I mean, ffs, The Who are literally half-dead.

      I literally laughed for a full half-minute after reading this. OMG.

      You know, your mention of the Rolling Stones reminds me of the way people were all horrified at Mick Jagger and how his stomach was visible during the Stones half-time performance. I mean, you’d have thought he’d run around bare-ass naked on stage, the way they clutched their pearls. It’s like they forgot that it’s Mick fucking Jagger, and that’s what kind of what he does. But I guess Mick Jagger walks a line as someone who is pretty effeminate while being aggressively heterosexual at the same time, and so maybe people feel like he has to be policed pretty strictly as well.

  7. I missed Madonna last night, but I did see The Who a few years ago, and yeah, they looked OLD. So what? Are you only relevant or cool as a musician before you can vote?

    My mother always told me that adult life really starts in your 30s. She’s always been proud of her age, and because of that, I have always thought that getting older would be cool.

    But thanks for calling out the ageism/sexism.

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  9. I have no problem with Madonna. She is in rocket shape and yes, the shoe choice hindered her mobility, but all in all, she kicked that half-time show’s ass.

    That being said….What I do have a problem with is that she appears to be someone who has become a slave to the “fountain of youth” (ie injections and fillers) and as such, it is sad to watch because rather than watching a woman who is owning 53 I felt like I was watching a woman who had let the media win and succumbed to trying desperately to hold on to every inkling of youth she can. Which is fine, it’s her life, but it’s also a bit unsettling to watch. I wanted to root for her, and at the same time I wanted to hug her and tell her to stop trying so hard. Let yourself gain a few lbs and go easy on the hyaluronic acid injections. It’s OK to look like a really damn hot 53 year old! They have facial movement and lines. It’s cool.

  10. As ever, great post, and some really good comments. I wouldn’t even think of including “too old” as part of the critique of Madonna’s show, but I made some of the same observations about her costuming choices as they constrained her performance. Hell, I’d never dance to a Madonna song in boots like that – I’d kill myself. Why should we expect her to? She’s Madonna, and should be in no doubt that she is awesome and talented and sexy yadda-yadda. It was an odd choice and I hope she didn’t make it because she felt she had something to prove.

  11. It’s the double standard you mentioned that really bothered me. Older men being described as a “silver-fox” has a sexy cultural cachet, but the somewhat equivalent older woman label of “cougar” is primarily a joke to denigrate them as lacking sex appeal. Too often in our society sex appeal is considered the main value that women have, and the accepted definitions are very narrow.

    • Older men may be described as “silver fox” or “distinguished’ but it’s usually the ones with money and power that attract the younger women. The ones that don’t have money, usually go to Asian countries and find a housekeeper/cook/sex slave/nurse, I know of a few cases like that. Personally, I do not find men my age (I am 50) and older attractive at all, maybe it’s because I have been in a bad marriage for too long. I would rather die alone than have to have sex with someone that repulses me. Throughout my marriage I had to have sex against my wishes and I don’t want to be in that situation again. I don’t know how to get over the EEWWW! factor. I feel safer and more comfortable as well as more attracted to younger men – even if they are not particularly handsome.

      Even if there was a magic pill that I could take that would make me instantly attracted to older men, I don’t think I would take it. The feeling is mutual I think, on dating sites 50 year old men want to date women in their 20s and 30s.

  12. I read you all the time and this is the first time I’ve commented – this post is superb. The section on how the patriarchy wants women who have gained confidence and bullshit-detectors to fade into the shadows – really great insight. Love it.

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  14. Totally right on all points. I’ve personally never liked Madonna’s music (although she has improved her voice, a good point for her) and I find her fitter-than-thou thing a bit too much :-). But at least she’s trying, and doing basically fine, and all this outpouring of hatred is disturbing. It’s like people are really upset that she isn’t drugging/drinking herself into an early grave like proper female stars should. Here is another good article on the topic http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/feb/06/madonna-hating-we-superbowl which I think you’d enjoy..

  15. The main issue here is women’s oppression. Standing up for women’s value as equal human beings calls for exposing cracks about Madonna’s age as prejudiced expectations that women’s worth declines with age/sex appeal. Even though it would also be wrong, we all know men are not held to the same expectation. Gisselle’s right to respond when heckled by reporters and have an opinion about a football game should be defended for the similar reasons that women should be respected for their minds instead of their sex appeal or merely as a man’s wife. The objectification of women damages, among other things, the ability of the working class to unify across all artificially fabricated divisions (racism, sexism, nationalism, etc..) and struggle effectively for humanities emancipation.

  16. Pretty much most age jokes are lame. Why? Because they’re easy shots, obvious and stale. They’re about as unfunny as saying Boy George should be Girl George or women with muscles are chicks with dicks. How dare someone not conform. “Just because I don’t have the courage to do something different then I’ll ease my shame by trying to cut down someone who does”.

  17. It seems that society expects women over a certain age to dress “appropriately”, and to sit on the couch waiting for the grim ripper – when they are not baking cookies! I have just turned 50, I work out and in good shape. I usually wear skinny jeans with tank tops or blockout gymwear with tank tops, in the summer, its denim shorts with tanktops. A lot of people, mostly other women, hint that my clothes are inappropriate.

    In the case of Madonna, it’s sheer jealousy, nothing more. Let’s face it, how many people do you know who look like and are physically fit like Madonna at 53? Not many , I m sure. I may not always like her songs but I bow to her for screwing social conventions. Not all young women are fit with perfect bodies. I see a lot who are overweight, underweight, skinny fat, no muscle, poor posture, drinking, smoking, roasting in the sun, and eating rubbish, take a look at these young women in 10 years and I am sure you get the picture.

    A woman I work with, who the about the same age as me but obese said to me one: “why do you bother working out and eating healthy, when you get older people will be able to tell your age by looking at your hands”. Thing is, my wrinkly hands will be gripping the barbell and the pull up bar while hers will be gripping the zimmer frame.

    People have nothing else to pick on Madonna so they point at her hands!

    I think I would rather hang myself than bow to social convention.

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