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Madonna decries 'ageism and misogyny' after criticism of her new look

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Madonna seems to know when she is about to cause a stir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADONNA: Are you ready for a little controversy? Come on, people. Let's make some noise.

SUMMERS: That's the legendary singer on stage at the Grammys last week. She was there to introduce a performance, but she began by sharing some wisdom she's learned from 40 years in the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADONNA: If they call you shocking, scandalous, troublesome, problematic, provocative or dangerous, you are definitely on to something.

SUMMERS: The controversy, it turned out, would be Madonna herself - or more precisely, her face, virtually unlined and glowing, framed by barely-there brows and pillowy lips. A barrage of social media criticism came swiftly. Plastic surgeons have given tabloids their medical opinion on the work she's had done. And Madonna's response - I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny, she wrote on her Instagram. Well, for this week's episode of The Take, we're going to look right into that glare with a guest who calls Madonna's new face a beautiful provocation. We're joined now by novelist Jennifer Weiner. Hi there.

JENNIFER WEINER: Hey. How are you doing?

SUMMERS: I'm well. So you wrote about this backlash in an op-ed for The New York Times, and in it, you make the point that older female celebrities like Madonna find themselves in a, quote, "impossible bind." Tell me what you mean by that.

WEINER: Well, I think that there is really no way for women of a certain age to win. And I think back to the Goldie Hawn line from "The First Wives Club," where she talks about the three ages of women in Hollywood, where it's babe, district attorney and "Driving Miss Daisy." And it just seems like after you turn 45 or 50, you've sort of crossed the rubicon. And here's Madonna, who has managed to keep herself in the conversation for all these years by reinventing herself over and over and over again. And it just seems to me that if a woman like that gets the kind of backlash that she does, you know, there's just not much hope for the rest of us.

SUMMERS: You make this passing reference to an old TV commercial from the '50s for Clairol hair dye, which promises youthful hair without giving away the fact that you've dyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Does she or doesn't she? Does she or doesn't she? In the softest candlelight or brightest party lights, hair color by Ms. Clairol look so natural, only her hairdresser knows for sure.

SUMMERS: And, you know, it strikes me that this cannot be farther from the way that Madonna is managing her own aging in the public eye. Is she essentially saying, don't hide it? Yes, she does.

WEINER: Yes. And that was sort of revolutionary, because all throughout history, when you're talking about aesthetic interventions, everything had to do with subtlety and secrecy. And that was never how Madonna did things. She would show up with bright platinum hair with dark roots, making it completely obvious that the platinum was dye, or she'd wear underwear as outerwear, sort of putting corsets and boning and push-up bras on display, where previously those things had all been hidden. So it was sort of making an announcement about, don't I look great? But also, hey; here's what went into that look. And that was a very revolutionary, provocative, different thing for a female performer to be doing.

SUMMERS: I mean, as you're saying this, I'm thinking about even my own relationship to beauty standards. And there's this idea of women, particularly older women, but in some ways, women of any age are expected to do all of these things to preen and polish their appearance. But you're not supposed to let anybody in on all of the minutes and hours of work that goes into looking the way that you step out into the world.

WEINER: Yep. It is invisible, unpaid labor that, like you said, it's a big secret. And, you know, the idea of like, does she or doesn't she, only her hairdresser knows for sure - we are all just supposed to look like the best possible versions of ourselves every minute of every day. And no one is supposed to know, you know, that you're spending half an hour on your no-makeup makeup look.

SUMMERS: You know, all of this reminds me of this moment from 2016, when Madonna is accepting the Billboard Woman of the Year award, and she has this to say. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADONNA: If you're a girl, you have to play the game. What is that game? You're allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don't act too smart. Don't have an opinion. And finally, do not age because to age is a sin. You will be criticized. You will be vilified. And you will definitely not be played on the radio.

SUMMERS: Jen, given the conversation that we've been having and what you just heard from Madonna herself, do you think that she knew kind of exactly how this moment was going to play out?

WEINER: This is a woman who's been looked at for her entire career and has always been very, very intentional about the way she looks, the way she presents herself, the things she wears, the things she says. And this isn't the face you get if you walk into a plastic surgeon's office right this minute and say, give me the latest and the greatest. The consensus seemed to be that she looked the way she did because she'd had fillers. And women these days are having fillers taken out. Courteney Cox very famously gave an interview to People magazine about having her fillers taken out. So I think that this is a face that she knew did not look, quote-unquote, "natural" and absolutely was going to get people talking. And I believe she wanted people talking, and she wanted people thinking about the beauty game and how to play it and how, for women, it just becomes unwinnable at a certain point.

SUMMERS: You've been challenging the popular notion of beauty and of what makes a woman attractive since your first novel, "Good In Bed," came out 22 years ago. And Madonna has also been wrestling with this for decades. What do you make of the fact that how a woman looks, how much she weighs, what she does with her hair or her makeup or her face is still the subject of so much debate and trolling and angst?

WEINER: Yeah. I mean, when I wrote "Good In Bed," I was single. I was larger. And I had not really seen plus-size women depicted in popular culture as anything other than the funny best friend or the butt of a joke. And I wanted to change that. And with Lizzo out there pushing the standards and trying to change things, I still think it is much easier for women in smaller bodies to succeed if we're talking about professions where they are viewed. And I was single when I wrote "Good In Bed" all the - lo these many years ago. I'm now the mother of two teenage daughters. And I so wish the world was changing a little bit faster.

SUMMERS: That's author and novelist Jen Weiner. Thank you for joining us.

WEINER: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.