Don't preach to Madonna

She has reinvented herself, over and over again, from her arrival on the New York City club scene in thrifted bustiers, fingerless lace gloves and crucifixes, to her ascension to Hollywood royalty in her Marilyn Monroe “Material Girl” look

By Jennifer Weiner

Published: Thu 9 Feb 2023, 11:55 PM

With blond braids looped over her ears, dressed in a long black skirt and black jacket accessorized with a riding crop, one of the best-selling female recording artists of all time stepped into the spotlight at the 65th annual Grammy Awards Sunday night. Madonna was there to introduce Sam Smith and Kim Petras, a nonbinary performer and a trans woman. She began by referring to her four decades in the music industry, and praised the rebels “forging a new path and taking the heat for all of it.”

Was anyone listening?

Social media’s loudest roars weren’t about her speech, her advocacy or her upcoming world tour. They were about Madonna’s preternaturally smooth and extravagantly sculpted face.

All of Madonna’s features looked exaggerated, pushed and polished to an extreme. There was her forehead, smooth and gleaming as a porcelain bowl. Her eyebrows, bleached and plucked to near-invisibility. Her cheekbones, with deep hollows beneath them. The total effect was familiar, but more than slightly off.

People noticed.

“Madonna confuses fans over new face,” wrote The New York Post.

People posted her picture side by side with that of Jigsaw from “Saw,” or Janice from “The Muppet Show,” and made jokes about “Desperately Seeking Surgeon,” while extremely online plastic surgeons hastened to guess about exactly what procedures she had undergone.

Beyond the question of what she’d had done, however, lay the more interesting question of why she had done it. Did Madonna get sucked so deep into the vortex of beauty culture that she came out the other side? Had the pressure to appear younger somehow made her think she ought to look like some kind of excessively contoured baby?

Perhaps so, but I’d like to think that 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 about the work of beauty, the inevitability of aging, and the impossible bind in which older female celebrities find themselves.

Throughout history, many aesthetic interventions were meant to be subtle, invisible, private, whether it was Cleopatra slipping off to bathe in donkey milk, Queen Elizabeth I patting a toxic mixture of vinegar and lead on her face, or a 1950s housewife discreetly touching up her grays. Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure!

It wasn’t just hair dye. It was an entire industry, a panoply of things women wore and bought and did that no one was supposed to see or sense or know about. Corsets and underwire to snatch your waist and hoist your bosom. Cosmetics to conceal blemishes and blend seamlessly into your skin. And cosmetic surgery, nips and tucks that were meant to leave you looking like you just had great genes. To varying degrees it was artifice, smoke and mirrors and pretense; hours of labor and thousands of dollars, all meant to leave a woman looking effortlessly beautiful — like herself, only better. And, while there were exceptions — Marie Antoinette hairdos that defy gravity (and logic), Cardi B-esque Brazilian butt lifts that leave women with deliberately exaggerated silhouettes — for most women, for most of history, the watchwords have been subtlety, secrecy and shame.

Madonna has always had a complicated relationship to that approach. She has reinvented herself, over and over again, from her arrival on the New York City club scene in thrifted bustiers, fingerless lace gloves and crucifixes, to her ascension to Hollywood royalty in her Marilyn Monroe “Material Girl” look. There was androgynous Madonna, dominatrix Madonna, hippie kabbalah Madonna, designer-chic Madonna, retro-disco Madonna and Madonna as Madge, cosplaying landed gentry while she raised her family in the English countryside. And of course no outfit could be more memorable than the birthday suit she wore in Sex, the book-length photography project she undertook with Steven Meisel.

In the wake of the Grammys, people complain she no longer looks like Madonna, but which Madonna comes to mind? She’s been a blonde and a brunette, butch and high femme. She’s worn castoffs and couture. She’s adopted and abandoned an English accent. She’s shown us her roots and her underwear, deliberately putting the hidden parts on display. Every new version of Madonna was both a look and a commentary on looking, a statement about the artifice of beauty, and about her own right to set the terms by which she was seen.

“I have never apologized for any of the creative choices I have made nor the way that I look or dress and I’m not going to start,” she wrote on her Instagram on Tuesday. “I am happy to do the trailblazing so that all the women behind me can have an easier time in the years to come.”

The latest look is not altogether novel. Back in 2008, New York magazine declared: “Out with the gaunt and tight, in with the plump and juicy. There’s a new face in town — and it’s a baby’s.” The article’s prime example was Madonna herself, whose refurbished face it compared to a restuffed saddle. But fashion is fickle. In 2019, Elle reported that “toddler-round cheeks, tumescent pouts and immobile foreheads” were “officially over.” Last week, “The Cut” called it again, with a feature on how the “sexy baby” look died.

Is it possible that Madonna has been so blinkered by her fame and wealth that she’s lost the ability to see herself objectively, like Michael Jackson pursuing an ever-thinner nose or Jocelyn Wildenstein doing … whatever it was she was doing? Yes, but whatever her intentions, the superstar has gotten us talking about how good looks are subjective and how ageism is pervasive.

In the end, whether she meant to make a statement or just to look younger, better, “refreshed,” almost doesn’t matter. If beauty is a construct, Madonna’s the one who put its scaffolding on display.

- This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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