It was the acceptance speech that brought down the house. Noted badass, musician, artist and feminist Madonna was honored with the title of ‘Woman of the Year’ at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music awards, and her words couldn’t have been more timely. In an era where women around America are rallying around the term “nasty women” in fierce opposition to Donald Trump’s values and dangerously-regressive political ideas, Madonna reminded us all that now is not the time to remain silent, and used her own career trajectory as evidence to what it means to stand in defiance of the social and cultural norms.
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer. Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse. When I started there was no Internet, so people had to say it to my face. There were very few people I had to clap back at, because life was simpler then,” she began, exhibiting her signature controversial persona without apologies.
She recalled starting out her career in a time when lots of change was happening socially, as well as her own horrifying experiences, which helped shape her and enable her to become the strong woman she is today, but also reminded her of her vulnerability.
“People were dying of AIDS everywhere. It wasn’t safe to be gay, it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community. It was 1979 and New York was a very scary place. In the first year I was held at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat and I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots,” she said.
It was her self-belief that became her “safety”, and which has guided her to become an undisputed master of artistry for a number of decades – the type of career that many musicians can only dream of, but never manage to achieve. However, that self-belief also evolved to include the self-realization that being a woman in the music industry came with a number of drawbacks.
“I was of course inspired by Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin, but my real muse was David Bowie. He embodied male and female spirit and that suited me just fine. He made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules — if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl,” she said, words which are also echoed in her track ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ off her 2000 album ‘Music’.
She outlines some of the “rules” she constantly came up against throughout her career, nearly all of which she defied wholeheartedly.
“If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. 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 criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio,” she said.
There was a period when society “approved” of her, because she married a man (actor Sean Penn) and the tabloids didn’t hound her much. But then they eventually divorced, she released her ‘Erotica’ album, and ‘Sex’ book, and all of a sudden, she was subjected to the damning “Madonna-whore” binary again (pun intended!).
“I remember being the headline of every newspaper and magazine. Everything I read about myself was damning. I was called a whore and a witch. 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,” she stated.
As she began to look for more support among the sisterhood, the Queen of Pop found herself being attacked by a prominent feminist writer, Camille Paglia, who said the artist set women back because of her sexual displays and narratives.
“So I thought, ‘oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it.’ So I said ‘fuck it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist’,” she recalled. We can clearly see how Madonna’s bold assertion of being sex-positive was an early forerunner to the numerous sex-positive ideas found in intersectional feminism today. The idea that women should be allowed to have agency and control over their own sexuality is still controversial, yet Madonna used her elevated international platform to give public affirmation to the sexuality of women.
Her influence is certainly not lost on anyone, no matter whether you like or hate her. Her presence is undeniable, and that is something she touches on, when talking about her being a “controversial” figure.
“People say that I’m so controversial. But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” she said, to rousing applause from the audience watching.
In his introduction to her, CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper remarked how her ‘Woman of the Year’ title wasn’t all-encompassing enough to sum up her contribution to the world.
“As far as I’m concerned in terms of music and impact and culture, she’s been the Woman of the Year every year since she released her first single ‘Everybody’ in 1982,” he said.
In closing out her epic speech, Madonna reminded all the women watching and listening that this is the time to rise up, own your power, and step out in boldness.
“Women have been so oppressed for so long they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done. And there are some very good men worth backing, but not because they’re men — because they’re worthy. As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by, to support, and enlightened by,” she said.
“To the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not or I must not — your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today. So thank you,” she concluded.
Other important wins of the night were given to Kesha, who gave an emotional speech after being named “Trailblazer” of the year. She had an extremely difficult year in the public spotlight, with her sexual assault case against producer Dr. Luke, the damaging assertions on her career because she dared to speak out against a powerful man in the music industry, the complications with her contractual obligations, and the eventual dismissal of her case by a judge. This is all after her battle with an eating disorder and a stint in rehab.
“I want to especially thank my fans who I love and appreciate more than you guys will ever know. To my peers, your support over the past few years has literally saved my life. It’s mind-blowing to be honored like this after a very public year I’ve had. I feel stuck and I feel sad…This is a huge reminder I can’t give up and I have to keep fighting for my truth and keep fighting for my dreams,” she said. Her case has brought to light the way many female artists are often shamed into silence about their own sexual assault, and how it is a worryingly normalized part of the music industry.
Singer Alessia Cara received the “rule-breaker” award, and in a fitting statement similar to the sentiments expressed by Madonna, she talked about the significance of this award and what it means for women in music.
“Sometimes questioning certain standards and breaking tradition is how we find our own truth. To every woman being honored here tonight, I hope that we, as peers, can now teach girls what so many of you guys have taught me. That sometimes rules are meant to be broken,” she said.
Inspiring and empowering messages to say the least! And you don’t have to be an artist to relate. Many women have experience the kinds of setbacks both Madonna and Kesha have in their careers. It’s also a reminder for us all to take back agency of our bodies, lives, choices, appearances and abilities, and empower other women to do the same.