For Madonna, scandal has always been a valuable currency. From simulating masturbation on stage to burning crosses, she is the master of the kind of exhibitionism that would get lesser beings cancelled (or worse, exiled to a career in reality TV). Not even her brief foray with an English accent could get Madonna annulled from the A-List. Outrage is her brand.
Madonna’s power and influence, and her enduring legacy as a once-in-a-generation mononymous icon, is built on the fact that there is always a message behind the outrage. It’s not about shock for shock’s sake. Rather, she has weaponised scandal to make pertinent comments, not least about a woman’s autonomy and her right to do what she wants, on her terms, with and to her body.
Having made her name on the New York club scene of the 1980s, then ridden the dizzy heights of the MTV and paparazzi-fuelled fame, Madonna the performer was sculpted in a different time. Now, thanks to social media, everyone has the dubious power of being one mistimed, misfired tweet away from cancellation.
And yet Madonna keeps on going – and she keeps on shocking. Not least because of her adamant refusal to ‘act her age’ on Instagram. Cue her latest escapade: posting pictures on her account in underwear, fishnet stockings, a hat and a coat emblazoned with the words ‘God save the queen’. In one shot she writhes on the bonnet of a car, legs akimbo and hat between her legs, head thrown back in apparent ecstasy (who could blame her? She’s still cashing the kind of cheques most of us will never see). In another, she has her (rather excellent) bottom on display. It's not the first time she’s done it, and it won’t be the last.
One semi-notable follower, however, had a problem with it, however. Nelly, the 47-year-old rapper felt compelled to comment: ‘Some things should just be left covered up’. And there you have it, he became the unlikely voice of a million angry Daily Mail commenters.
The ‘problem’ with Madonna’s semi-nudity is not the lack of clothes in itself (we are so used to seeing naked female bodies, but the current crop of willies on TV still feels novel) but the fact that she has the gall to do it at 63. Indicative of the binaries we still expect women to exist in, critics would have her – what? – fade into the tame domesticity of middle age, a nice pie-crust collar and perhaps a line of soft furnishings.
But that is not Madonna, and nor does it have to be you if you don’t want. Fashion is finally catching up with her, and embracing the unapologetic, but all too often hidden, sexiness and sexuality of ‘older’ women. Just look at 57-year-old Kristen McMenamy opening the Valentino show last week in a mini LBD and semi-opaque stockings; or 58-year-old Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu (Emily in Paris’s Sylvie, and easily the best thing in the show) braless in a sheer dress at the AMI AW22 and looking outrageously hot; or 68-year-old Isabelle Huppert commanding the Cannes red carpet in a thigh-slit Balenciaga dress and shades.
It is these women, with the confidence, accomplishment and steely sense of self who really deserve these clothes, not paint-by-numbers manufactured tweens with no opinions, scandals or tastes of their own. The 50+ woman inhabits these unapologetic designs with an irresistible sense of ease and experience that is intoxicating, alluring, and, yes, supremely sexy. They have lived, but they’re not done doing it yet. Put crudely: there is no sell-by-date on f**kability.
Madonna has a freedom - both financially and in terms of status - that admittedly most of us don't have. But her biggest liberation has always been her adamant refusal to care what anyone thinks. That, you can translate to your own life, and clothes (or an absence of them) are the easiest place to start.
Your empowerment might not come via a thirst trap photoshoot, but the next time you waver over wearing something because it's too short/tight/low/long/whatever, ask yourself: what would Madonna do? Certainly she would never question being too old/big/small/tall/whatever for anything. In a liberal democracy, clothes are just one of the places we have the privilege and freedom to express ourselves.
So for Madonna’s next act, here’s hoping for more of the same. More tits, more arse, more sex, more doing exactly what she wants, how and when she wants. Will it upset people? Of course. She wouldn’t be doing her job if it didn’t. But whatever she does, she can rest assured that she won’t, in her own words, ‘give a sh*t’ what you, I or anyone else thinks, including Nelly. It’s Madonna’s world, and we just live in it.