Madonna began her speech by thanking Billboard for acknowledging her ability to “continue my career for thirty-four years in the face of blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying, and relentless abuse.” She noted that there was no internet when she began her career, so “people had to say it to my face.” She described the New York she arrived in circa 1979 as an extremely scary place in which she was assaulted, robbed, and suffered the loss of many close friends to drugs, AIDS, and violence. These experiences were actually gifts, she now reflects, which made her strong, but they also continue to remind her that “I am vulnerable, and in life there is no real safety except self-belief.”
As she stands at age 58 as Woman of the Year in the cutthroat music industry, who does Madonna credit with nurturing that Self Belief, which evolved over the years into her own brand of superpower? Not surprisingly, her muse was David Bowie. “He embodied male and female spirit and that suited me just fine. He made me think there were no rules,” and he was a powerful guide. She watched Prince beautifully cavorting in fishnets and high heels and lipstick, pushing every envelope and he was her guide, too. Bowie and Prince did not embody male sexuality, they embodied Sexuality – and it was epic. Yes, she thought, I can do that – that’s who I am.
But of course, Madonna couldn’t. Or rather she couldn’t without being criticized, vilified, and demonized in the eyes of the world. Much of her speech details her struggle as she understood that there were such different rules for her and for Bowie and Prince, that if as a woman, you “owned your sluttiness” and shared your sexual fantasies with the world – well, you would be demonized. People expected her to feel shame when youthful nude pictures leaked out and she was not; this unnerved them and made them uncomfortable. After her “Erotica” album and sex book were released, Madonna paid for that discomfort – and was dubbed a witch and a whore. Feminist Camille Paglia accused her of setting women back by objectifying herself sexually. The realization that women did not have the same freedom as men truly sunk in.
And so, she retreated, taking comfort in the words of James Baldwin, the poetry of Maya Angelou, and the voice of Nina Simone. She rejected the strident feminism of the time, refusing to deny her sexuality. Instead Madonna branded herself a different kind of feminist. And she endured. “People say that I’m so controversial,” she mused, “but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” At the end of her speech, she urged the women of 2016 to throw off their silent oppression and stop believing what men have to say about them, and to seek out and turn to each other for guidance and inspiration. To each other. “As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth ... and to the doubters, the naysayers, to everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not, that I must not, your resistance make me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today, made me the woman that I am today. So, thank you.”
Watching Madonna’s speech, it struck me as especially poignant that she should be given this award in the year which endured the tragic passing of both David Bowie and Prince. I also realized that there are many connections between Madonna and Hillary Clinton, persevering women and role models who have committed the ultimate sin of inhabiting who they are without apology. Perhaps this helps explain some of the boundless hatred they both engender in so many. This power, this ability to own their own lives in vibrancy despite the infinite ocean of demeaning words, false assumptions, judgments and vituperation leveled against them is remarkable. Through waves of bitter attacks, they have endured, transforming our perceptions of expression, power, and personal and professional evolution in the process. They have not been beaten down, neither have they allowed anyone of any sex to ultimately deny their worth. Madonna and Hillary. Go forth, Women of the Year.