Look, I don’t know exactly what has happened to Madonna’s face, but like the rest of you I can neutrally observe that most 64-year-olds do not emerge from the back-end of middle age with a brow line as smooth and hard as polished river rock. Earlier this week she appeared at the Grammys looking rather [insert your own kind or unkind adjectives; I’m not going to do it for you], and people noticed in a very big way, and by the next morning news outlets like the Daily Mail had lured in a whole scalpel of plastic surgeons to dissect what they believed had gone into the situation, and into Madonna.
Soon the artist herself responded via Instagram. “Many people chose to only talk about Close-up photos of me Taken with a long lens camera By a press photographer that Would distort anyone’s face!!” she wrote, and no, I do not understand her capitalization rules but I am reprinting them because with Madonna you never know when something is a mistake and when something is a curated message. “Once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny That permeates the world we live in.”
She is right, of course, about the misogyny in particular. The takeaway from President Biden’s State of the Union speech was, his best performance in years, not what is going on with his eyelids? but the takeaway with Madonna — an icon who has been steering culture since Ronald Reagan was in office — was, did Madonna’s face eat Madonna’s face?
Familiar positions were taken. Either it was sad that Madonna had felt the need to undergo youth-preserving medical procedures or it was sad that Madonna was being judged for deciding to undergo youth-preserving medical procedures.
The only decent public response is to accept that whatever happens on people’s cheekbones is the business, solely, of the people who own those cheekbones. Celebrities age in all sorts of ways, and our collective responsibility is to create a society where others make choices based on what makes them happy and not based on our toxic expectations or fears about aging.
I appreciated the novelist Jennifer Weiner’s take on Madonna, which was published Wednesday in the New York Times: “Our era’s greatest chameleon, a woman who has always been intentional about her reinvention, was doing something slyer, more subversive, by serving us both a new — if not necessarily improved — face, and a side of critique.” In short, however Madonna looks, she looks that way on purpose, and she looks that way to provoke us into deeper thought. You think that Madonna Louise Ciccone doesn’t know what she’s doing?
So in the spirit of deeper thought:
I don’t think this discussion is about cosmetic interventions. I don’t think it’s particularly about Madonna, either, though certainly a woman who popularized cone bras, gap teeth, Canadian tuxedos and peroxide hair is going to be disproportionately scrutinized for her aesthetic choices forever and ever.
We are interested in what happened to Madonna’s face because the real discussion is about work, maintenance, effort, illusion, and how much we want to know about women’s relationships with their own bodies.
There’s an obscure passage in “Pride and Prejudice” — hang on, this is going somewhere — that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The Bennet sisters are taking turns playing piano at a social gathering. Middle sister Mary “worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments” and was the best player of the group, but Elizabeth, “easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well.”
The problem with Mary, Jane Austen makes clear, is that she showed her work. She showed the struggle. Her piano-playing didn’t look fun, which made her audience uncomfortable. Guests much preferred the sister who made it seem easy instead of revealing it was hard.
That passage encapsulates so much about the female experience. How we love a celebrity who claims to have horfed a burrito before walking a red carpet; how we pity one who admits she spent a week living on six almonds and electrolyte water to fit into the dress. How “lucky genes” are a more acceptable answer than “blepharoplasty and a Brazilian butt lift.”
Madonna’s societal infraction at the Grammy Awards, if you believe there was an infraction at all, is that she showed her work. She showed it literally and figuratively. She did not show up looking casually “relaxed” or “rested,” or as if she’d just come fresh off a week at the Ranch Malibu. There was nothing subtle or easy about what had happened to Madonna’s face. There was nothing that could be politely ignored. The woman showed up as if she’d tucked two plump potatoes in her cheeks, not so much a return to her youth as a departure from any coherent age.
Madonna’s face forced her uneasy audience to think about the factors and decisions behind it: ageism, sexism, self-doubt, beauty myths, cultural relevance, hopeful reinvention, work, work, work, work.
This is what I think is expected of me, her face said. This is what I feel I have to do.
The more plastic Madonna looks, the more human she becomes. That’s what I kept thinking when I looked at her face. One of the most famous women on the planet and still the anti-aging industrial complex got under her skin.