Madonna on the rules of the music industry: ‘Be sexy. Be cute. Don’t age’

In a blistering speech, the singer says sexism is rife in the business. And it’s not all men’s fault

Preach it, Madonna. On stage in New York last weekend, where she was awarded Woman of the Year by Billboard, the singer delivered a rousing, blistering, furious, tearful, adrenaline-charged, no-holds-barred, speech about the "sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse" she had experienced throughout her career.

She said she was inspired to take a stand by Hillary Clinton’s US election loss, before going on to make a speech that left you wondering whether, had Clinton been able to channel even a fraction of that kind of passion, the outcome of that election might have been different.

“If you’re a girl, you have to play the game,” Madonna said. “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 criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”

She went on to contrast her experience, particularly after the publication of her book Sex in 1992, to that of David Bowie and Prince. "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.

“This was the first time I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men.”

That, it seems, had been the key to her feminism up to that point: it simply hadn’t occurred to her that she couldn’t do everything a man could.

For my generation of women – a generation young enough to have been able to buy our condoms in the chemist, but old enough to remember teachers telling us we couldn't be a dentist "because that's a man's job" – Madonna was feminism.

Long before we’d properly encountered Germaine Greer; long before the Spice Girls and their saccharine, more parent-friendly version; long before Beyonce and her 20-foot “FEMINISM” sign, it was Madonna with her conical bras, her defiance, her hunger for power, her insistence on doing things her way, who blazed the trail for us.

She showed that being a woman didn’t have to mean being nice, or being passive, or dressing modestly, or being palatable; and that being a feminist was not incompatible with liking men – or bras, or make-up, or image, for that matter.

To a girl growing up in stifling atmosphere of the Ireland of the 1980s and early 1990s – a place that seemed to want to preserve us in a constant state of semi-siege over the dangers of everything from the sexual signals that could be sent by patent shoes, to the importance of being nice, to the life-ending prospect of an unwanted pregnancy – hers was a revolutionary, liberating message.

As Anderson Cooper said, when he presented the award to her, she was also one of the first celebrities who was a true role model for the LGBT community. “As a gay teenager growing up . . . Her music and outspokenness showed me as a teenager a way forward,” he said.

Of course, Madonna’s feminist credentials haven’t always gone unquestioned – over the years, she has been criticised for focusing too much on her sexuality; for wearing a neck manacle and crawling on the floor in one of her videos; for refusing to criticise Sean Penn over an incident of alleged domestic abuse; for praising Margaret Thatcher; more recently, for continuing to try too hard.

Even the feminist writer Caitlin Moran has said that she is a bit disappointed the singer has refused to “just start bloody ageing and stop doing all that weird stuff to her face”.

More recently, as other women began to speak out against the double standards in the entertainment industry – including Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson, Mila Kunis and, most memorably, Sinead O'Connor in her open letter to Miley Cyrus – Madonna's voice was notable by its absence. Or maybe we just weren't listening; as she rightly points out, women become invisible after about the age of 50.

Worse still, they become repulsive to some people, just by virtue of having the cheek to be alive beyond the age at which they are reproductively useful. Just last week, the cretinous former tabloid news hack, Piers Morgan pretended to vomit into a bucket live on TV after watching her dance on Carpool Karaoke. “You can’t be 58 and dancing around like that,” the pathologically un-self aware 51-year-old announced.

He might have said it more obnoxiously, but he was only echoing the words of countless others – from tut-tutting columnists, to those on social media, to people watching at home.

Dance on, Madonna, is what I say. Rage on. We need your fury now more than ever.

She was asked recently why she thought so many women supported Trump. Her response was as provocative and as unapologetic as you might expect. “Women hate women. That’s what I think it is. Women’s nature is not to support other women. It’s really sad,” she said.

“Men protect each other, and women protect their men and children. Women turn inward, and men are more external. A lot of it has do with jealousy and some sort of tribal inability to accept that one of their kind could lead a nation.”

As depressing a view as this is, there is clearly something to her analysis. Fifty three percent of white women voted for Trump. Misogyny, sadly, isn’t only the preserve of Trump, Morgan and their ilk.

Nor is it up to men to help us finally achieve real equality, as Glamour magazine tried to claim recently, when it made Bono its woman of the year. It is other women.

Sing it, sister.