By Kelsey Duchesne
On Friday, Madonna accepted the Woman Of The Year Award at Billboard's Women In Music event. A true veteran of the industry, 58 year old Madonna was breathtakingly honest and raw about being a woman in the entertainment industry for over 3 decades.
"I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer," Madonna began her speech (did our hearts just stop?) "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."`
It was a sobering message to a hyper audience, who quickly silenced once they realized Madonna wasn't going down the traditional speech route. Madonna shared her early experiences of arriving to New York City in the late seventies, and recounted the painful memory of being raped by knife-point. "In life there is no real safety except for self-belief,” she told the crowd.
Madonna recalled the lesson she learned from late idol David Bowie, who was a friend of hers. “[David Bowie] 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," Madonna said. "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 criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio."
Criticizing Madonna for her sexuality and style has been so apparent in pop culture it’s become a cliché. Last week, Mick Jagger became a father for the 8th time at the age of 73 with his 29 year old wife, but last time we checked, we haven't see any think pieces questioning why he’s still relevant and what type of example he’s setting for young men. This year, Madonna completed a tour that made 170 million dollars, yet people are still questioning if her Met Gala costume choices are appropriate for someone in their 50’s.
Madonna continued her speech and opened up about her marriage and subsequent divorce to Sean Penn, and rediscovering her sexuality after the troubled relationship. “Years later, divorced and single -- sorry Sean -- I made my Erotica album and my Sex book was released. I remember being the headline of every newspaper and magazine. Everything I read about myself was damning,” she said. “I was called a whore and a witch. One headline compared me to Satan. I said, 'Wait a minute, isn't Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?' Yes, he was. But he was a man.”
Madonna, who has been called an inspiration by fellow iconic musicians and groups (there is even a Wikipedia page with a list of all the stars she has influenced!), shared her advice for women. "What I would like to say to all women here today is this: Women have been so oppressed for so long they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done. And there are some very good men worth backing, but not because they're men -- because they're worthy,” she said. As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other's worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by, to support, and enlightened by.” Wise words.
Madonna summed up the her speech by doing what any well-respected diva would do: she addressed her haters, and she did it with humility and strength of a thousand suns (because duh, she's Madonna.) "To the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not or I must not -- your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today. So thank you."
In her 30+ years in the music industry, we can only imagine the aggressive misogyny and abuse she’s faced, and she's continue to reshape her career and capture new audiences while getting ridiculed by the media. Scrolling through the Wikipedia page, it’s astounding to see how many musicians Madonna has influenced, and how her spirit and sound has stretched through the music industry, giving new generations of musicians the confidence to try something new, despite the constant disrespect and undermining.
Presenter Anderson Cooper looked emotional onstage, as he recounted how Madonna was a positive force during challenging times as a gay teenager. “Her music and outspokenness showed me as a teenager a way forward. Through her music, she told me and millions of teenagers -- gay and straight -- that we are not alone. We are connected to each other.”
Connected we are-- each carrying on our piece of one of pops most treasured icons, even when we don’t deserve her.