Opinion

Why Madonna should rock her wrinkles

If she really wants to regain the limelight, Madonna should take on age, not politics

Madonna is still provocative — just not in the way she'd like to be. 

The singer generated the wrong sort of controversy when she appropriated the images of civil rights crusaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela in an attempt to promote her new record. Entitled Rebel Heart, the album's cover features Madonna's face tied up in ropes while her gaze remains unbroken. The singer encouraged her fans to recreate the image with other great rebels from history, which she then shared with her followers alongside the hashtag #rebelheart. She also used the hashtag to show her support for the victims of the terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hedbo, seen as a crass move by many.

As pointed out in The Atlantic, Madonna's reliance on politics might be because her old tool of provocation, sexuality, is no longer getting her much traction. Following last year's topless photo-shoot in Interview magazine which drummed up little attention, the pop star may very well have realized that her naked body just won't cut it anymore.

She's right. Her body — a living testament to the power of diet, exercise, and surgery to render a person not identifiably old, but not quite young either — is no longer titillating. But what if she didn't do all those bicep curls and let her underarms submit to gravity? What if she turned off the lasers that firm up the soft flesh under her chin? What if she ate carbs? Drank beer? Wore Eileen Fisher?

What if Madonna let herself age — and still used her sexuality as a tool for provocation? How genuinely provocative would that be? (Not to mention appropriation-free.)

I can think of no other woman on the planet in her late 50's (Madonna is 56) that could better expose and dismantle our messed-up ideas about women and aging. We need a revolution that is radical in spirit, but popular in its appeal. We need a leader who has both the attention of the world and doesn't give a you-know-what. Madonna is our best shot.

Here's the problem with aging as a women: It's nearly impossible to do it right.

One must manage to remain young and fresh without looking like you tried. If you pull it off, you get described as "looking great for your age," which is the holy of holies in age-based assessments. Helen Mirren, Sally Field, and Sandra Bullock are examples of women who do this quite well. But if you go overboard with interventions, you'll fare poorly in the court of public opinion. Just ask Meg Ryan, Renee Zellweger, or Kim Novak. And god forbid you do nothing: you'll be accused of "letting yourself go." Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birken and Jamie Lee Curtis have all been indicted.

Part of what makes this so complicated are the associations we have with women's bodies in different phases of life. Men, as evidenced by the regular pairing of older guys with much younger gals on-screen, are assumed to maintain their virility well into their old age. Women, on the other hand, are seen as creatures whose sexuality fades alongside their youth.

What could Madonna do here? She could start by forcing us to contend with a body that is both aging and sexual, a sight that remains nearly unseen.

The latest trend in fashion advertisements is to feature older women. Joan Didion is in the latest Celine campaign, Joni Mitchell is in Saint Laurent, and Dolce & Gabbana's latest features three grandmothers. These ads acknowledge these women's cool gravitas, but they do little to advance the idea that they are sexual. It's not just the absence of flesh either. All of their gazes are inward (with the exception of Didion's whose eyes are concealed by a pair of heavy black frames), insinuating that their wisdom and experience is enough. Nobody looks hungry. Nobody wants more.

I'm not sure what exactly Madonna should or shouldn't reveal. This is where her particular genius comes in, the one that thought to wear a cone-shaped bra, simulate masturbation onstage, and kiss a wedding-dress wearing Britney Spears before millions. All I am sure of is that there are plenty of remaining sexual taboos to shatter when it comes to women over 50.

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