Speaking to GLAMOUR about why youth is celebrated above all else in women, Bhagwandas notes, “We have a society with a strong patriarchal legacy that has dictated that you can only be beautiful and valuable within very narrow parameters, one of which is being young and fertile.
“It’s about ageing with some cosmetic intervention to still be agreeable to the male gaze, but not too much that you seem desperate, or that it’s noticeable.”
“Our value in society has always been tied to our biology, it’s not the same case for men, who we’re told ‘get more handsome as they age’ because men’s societal value is tied to finance and work. Neither of these are good, they’re both limiting and archaic.”
Jessica DeFino echoed this sentiment about the disparities between how ageing gracefully is a far more attainable achievement for men than for women. She explained, “Broadly, men are more valued for things like wisdom, experience, leadership, dominance, and career achievement, which are all associated with age. Women are more valued for beauty, fertility, submissiveness, and compliance, which are all associated with youth.”
She continued, “It’s also no mistake that women are bombarded with anti-ageing messaging in their mid-twenties to thirties — a time when people are generally stepping into their power, gaining more confidence, and earning more money.
“Imagine if women retained the money, time, energy, effort, and brain space they dedicate to physical beauty from age 25 on? The force of that power would threaten to destroy the sexist, patriarchal structures our society is built upon.”
There’s no doubt that Madonna is a powerful woman – and she regularly channels her power into critiquing the “patriarchal structures” described by DeFino. Yet, like many female celebrities who use their platforms to speak truth to power, her appearance is often considered fair game. This is largely due to speculation that they have undergone significant cosmetic procedures – although Madonna has never publicly confirmed or denied these rumours.
“Female celebrities are more likely to have their appearance dissected because they are making obvious changes to their appearance, and often. People are going to talk about that!” explains DeFino. And this isn’t inherently a negative thing: “I hate the idea that discussing women’s looks — particularly when those looks are the result of an intense and potentially dangerous process of mechanical manipulation that defies the physical limits of the human face and the financial limits of the majority of the population — is sexist.”
She adds, “What’s sexist is perpetuating and/or furthering the impossible beauty ideal that women are disproportionately expected to emulate (or else suffer the social, financial, political, and psychological consequences of non-compliance), and discouraging people from talking about it by co-opting the language of gender discrimination.”
“People are upset by Madonna’s new face because it is, on some level, exposing the truth: that anti-ageing is an inhuman goal, and attempting to anti-age — or “age gracefully” actually takes an incredible amount of effort.”
Ultimately, DeFino thinks that “people are upset by Madonna’s new face because it is, on some level, exposing the truth: that anti-ageing is an inhuman goal, and attempting to anti-age — or “age gracefully,” whatever you want to call it — actually takes an incredible amount of effort.”
“With her obvious aesthetic interventions, her effort (and her desperation for youth) are on full display. That not only violates the rules of “ageing gracefully,” it violates the (false) code of ethics embedded in beauty culture. For example: When plastic surgery is subtle, we call it “good work.” When plastic surgery is obvious, we call it “bad work.” The message is, a “good woman” with “good work” conceals the labour they perform to make the construct of womanhood seem natural. Madonna is being judged as a “bad woman” with “bad work” for exposing the construct of womanhood as unnatural.”
She argues that a “more subversive and effective way to expose the construct of womanhood” would be to “reject the tools of construction (like cosmetic surgery) entirely. As it is, Madonna is propping up the very systems she claims to be standing up to (ageism, misogyny) by refusing to let her ageing female body age visibly.”
But as Bhagwandas points out, “If we lived in a truly fair, pro-women society, [Madonna would] be celebrated as a musical icon whatever she looked like, and allowed to just carry on. Perhaps, she wouldn’t have felt so much pressure to look as youthful at all costs – who knows? If she stopped having cosmetic work now, perhaps people would say ‘she’s let herself go’.