Ageism, Misogyny and Madonna

The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (February 12th 2023)

I'd really love to know what you all think...

Dear Queenagers,

Well it’s been quite the week for gendered ageism. No lesser person than Queen Madge, the Madonna herself, has been chiming in with a magnificent blast after her appearance at the Grammys made Piers Morgan (who else) tweet of her new face that he thought: “Halloween was in October”. Madonna replied to the furore which greeted her new look:  “Once again I am caught in the glare of the ageism and misogyny that permeates the world we live in. A world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 and feels the need to punish her if she continues to be strong-willed, hard-working and adventurous. I have never apologised for my creative choices; I have made the way that I look or dress – and I’m not going to start. I have been degraded by the media since the beginning of my career but I understand that this is all a test and I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come.” She finished, quoting Beyonce:  “You won’t break my soul.”

I love it that Madge the Magnificent is talking to the whole world about ageism and misogyny; she has certainly put the whole notion on the map. I wanted to add, that there are places which are celebrating women over 45 – here at Noon, on The Queenager! She could also have referenced the Oscar-nominated Michelle Yeoh, 62, – another sixty something bossing it in showbiz (and shockingly the first Asian actress ever nominated for an Academy Award), or even our own Helena Bonham Carter who said on Woman’s Hour last week that she was “coming into her prime” at 56. I know all of you are feeling happy about that, the Noon Instagram was lit up with likes for her comment.

The reaction to the new face of the Madonna from all of you, though, was more mixed. I’d say the predominant feeling from the Noon community on our socials was:  “You do you”, with a side-helping of ‘if you can’t say something kind, then don’t say anything”.

But while I respect your restraint – I AM going to go a bit further than that, because I think it is important.

As you all know, I am first in line to call out ageism and misogyny – and particularly what I call Gendered Ageism which is where those other two isms meet. But when it comes to Madonna there is a disconnect. Is having so much surgery on your face as a global icon that, at 64, it looks as smooth and round as a baby’s, really owning your age and being content in your ageing body? Isn’t Madonna, by changing herself so much she looks unrecognisable in the pursuit of a younger look, buying into, or certainly playing up to, an ageist and misogynist culture?

The Rolling Stones don’t plump their cheeks up to look 25 – they strut out on stage looking as wrinkly as reptiles, glorying in the centuries they have clocked up between them. Surely if Madonna really wanted to own her age, to combat ageism, to be proud about being 64, she’d sing her record-breaking songs looking proudly and provocatively herself at 64? She has always been a beautiful woman, why can’t she look like a beautiful older Madonna, not a puffy baby?

I am a huge Madonna fan. I love many of her songs – she’s been a soundtrack to so much of our lives, and her cheerful, go-girl, philosophy has endeared her to billions and multi-generations of women (my girls – 17 and 20 – and I will all cheerfully sing along to Material Girl, or Like a Virgin, or Papa Don’t Preach). Which is why I find is so sad that even Madonna can’t, or won’t, let herself age; won’t let herself be her true sixty-something self, but has changed herself to look like this. What kind of message does that send out about self-acceptance, or how to age, to her younger fans??

Isn’t it enraging that the cult of youth and the dread of ageing in our society is so fierce that so many famous actresses, singers, comedians and women in the public eye feel the need to attempt to erase signs of age, even though it is expensive, painful and not very effective? I was talking to a top beauty journalist the other day (who did not want to be quoted on the record) but who said that the cumulative effect of botox, fillers and plastic surgery over the years “was for people to end up looking weird. Not necessarily old, but not themselves.” Talk about the law of diminishing returns. What she also said was that it is all too common for fillers to end up as lumps in the wrong bit of the face, for botox to make your face sag (I had a very famous columnist who couldn’t go anywhere for a month after botox made her face go all wonky), and for the cumulative effect of all the ‘tweakments’ to make you look very strange indeed. And ultimately very unlike yourself.

Learn the lesson of Joan Rivers, the veteran comedienne who had over 700 surgical procedures on her face and body and as her daughter wrote after she died, “always loathed the way she looked and suffered a constant sense of lack”. Or Monica from friends, the actress Courteney Cox, 60, who bravely said in a recent interview that she’d over-done it and would never get another bit of cosmetic surgery. “There was a time when you go: ‘Oh, I’m changing. I’m looking older.’ And I tried to chase that youthfulness for years. And I didn’t realise that, oh shit, I’m actually looking really strange with injections and doing stuff to my face that I would never do now.” She is now 60 and says, “there’s nothing wrong with being sixty. Time goes so fast. There’s no question that I am more grounded, I’ve learnt so much in life, what to enjoy, what to try to do more of, and what to let go of.”

Letting go of youth, embracing Queenager-hood – that’s what I’d like to see in our global female icons. I think a true sign that we as a society are coming to terms with ageing, truly embracing it, would be women stopping putting noxious toxins and alien agents into their faces. Men don’t. Why should we? As one of you wrote on the Noon Insta: “I’m sorry that women in any walk of life feel they need to distort their faces and bodies because of sexism, ageism, racism, the patriarchy”. I agree. By doing so we are playing into the male lens, agreeing that our faces are our fortune, valuing ourselves by that fanciable/fecund yardstick, of appearance and usefulness to men – rather than as our true and broader selves.

I think of women as being like rainbows. Our physical self is one colour. Our capacity to reproduce another. Our mind and thoughts another. Our purpose another. Our capacity to care and love, another. Our creativity, our kick-ass will, our energy, our striving, our spirituality, our just being able to be ourselves…. Our culture too often ignores the full spectrum of all that we are, seeing only the man-pleasing surface or the womb. Everything I am trying to do at Noon and with this newsletter is to challenge that lens, to help us unpick it. To understand that every time we cause ourselves pain trying to chase the elixir of youth in order to serve the male lens, we do ourselves and our sex a disservice.

We play the patriarchy’s game when we value ourselves on our looks, our youthfulness.  It’s not surprising we do this. We’ve been taught to value the bits which are covetable to men since we were old enough to learn. Little girls are constantly praised for being ‘pretty’ or ‘good’. We are taught to internalise misogyny, to hate and judge ourselves for getting older. To look in the mirror and loathe our wrinkles, worry about how we measure up to other women, judge other women, put each other down. Remember that old maxim: divide and rule?? This is about the exercise of power. Every where women turn we’re exhorted to see ourselves through a male lens; hate our cellulite, worry about not having a beach-ready body or whatever stupid characteristic some woman’s magazine or self-hating female columnist has chosen to make up that week – see Cankles, or Bingo Wings, or worrying about wrinkles, or does my bum look big in this. Believe me on this, I had a front-row seat as it was all going on. Often other women are the most effective enforcers of the patriarchy’s rules.

The other terrifying thing about fear of ageing is how young it starts. I was interviewed by a journalist from Marketing Week yesterday who told me about a friend of 21 who had just gone to have botox with her 51 year old mum. This journalist, who was about to turn 25, said she was already worried about getting old, being past her peak.

This is insane and dangerous nonsense. It makes me cross. The whole point of feminism was for women not to be defined by their biology; how, in 2023, can so many twenty-somethings be having their lips blown up with fillers (so they look like porn stars, more misogyny) or having toxins injected into their lovely young faces to block non-existent wrinkles? The problem with misogyny is it doesn’t go away, it mutates. The current pornified culture makes nearly all young people feel inadequate in their most intimate lives. At least for us it was only paper magazines and the telly; now it’s constant social media scrutiny (and full faces of make-up at all times as a result) and a generation taught about sex by online pornography and its norms. Enforcing even more impossible and pervasive beauty standards.

We need to de-programme ourselves, to stop seeing ourselves through an ageist, misogynistic lens – Madonna is right about that. It just makes me sad that as such an icon and as a person that so many women look up to, she should still be such a victim of the system she despises. Madonna – if you really wanted to combat ageism you would have the courage to look your age, to be proud of it, to accept it, to revel in it. Not to reinforce the trope that women in the public eye have to look 25 – even when they are closer to three times that!

I love Madonna. But I wish she would reconsider. As Polly Beale commented on our Insta: “Let’s just grow old. There is so much beauty in that” . Amen!


By Eleanor Mills

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