Madonna’s 10-minute acceptance speech at Billboard’s Women in Music Awards on Friday was one of the singer’s most warmly received public offerings in recent memory (a real hit, if you will). It was, in turn, defiant and vulnerable. She recalled experiences that were far too relatable (being raped at knifepoint) and others completely unique to her experience as a superstar—she said she learned that women did not have the same freedom as men at age 34 when she contrasted the press’s disdain for her Erotica album and Sex book with the general acceptance of Prince’s open sexuality.
Toward the end of the speech, Madonna mentioned feminist critic Camille Paglia, who briefly championed Madonna (most famously in her 1990 New York Times essay “Madonna — Finally a Real Feminist”) before unleashing over two decades worth of brutal critique on Madonna (the definitive authority on Madonna history, Matthew Rettenmund’s Encyclopedia Madonnica 20, says that Paglia trashed Sex in Us in 1992). Madonna spent less than 50 words on Paglia, if we’re being generous, during Friday’s speech:
Camille Paglia, the famous feminist writer, said that I set women back by objectifying myself sexually. Oh, I thought, so 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.
In contrast, Paglia took the opportunity to write over 500 words in response in The Daily Mail. Her name was dropped, her antennae went up, her pen got to work. In her scathing retort, Paglia congratulated herself (“my ultra-controversial 1990 op-ed on her in the New York Times...”) while roundly dismissing Madonna.
Paglia criticized Madonna’s own art:
The real issue is that while Madonna’s world tours have remained highly successful, her artistic development has been stalled for 20 years. The last truly innovative work she did was with electronica producer William Orbit. Madonna has become a prisoner of her own wealth and fame. Her most authentic ideas were inspired by her childhood rebellion against the repressive code of American Catholicism.
Paglia criticized Madonna’s relationship to others’ art:
Madonna seems to lack the humility and persistence that are required for the study of serious art. She collects art for display, but obviously it has not broadened or deepened her imagination.
She criticized Madonna’s appearance:
The number one issue in Madonna’s current path of self-destruction is her embarrassing inability to deal with aging. She has failed to study the example of her great role model, Marlene Dietrich, who retained her class and style to the end. Madonna keeps chasing after youth, humiliating herself with vulgar displays, like the horrendously trashy, buttock-baring outfit she wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in May.
She has become a cringe-making pastiche of ratty blonde hair extensions and artificially swollen cheeks, obscuring the magnificent classic bone structure that made her one of the most photogenic celebrities of the 1990s.
She criticized Madonna’s Instagram:
In her struggles to stay relevant, Madonna has debased herself with adolescent, pitifully inept Instagrams that cannot compete with Rihanna’s brilliant work in that genre.
Paglia mentions Madonna rebuffing her interview requests in the ‘90s, as though it were a crime against female solidarity rather than, perhaps, a response to one particular woman that Madonna wasn’t interested in hanging out with. Writes Rettenmund in his book:
What’s probably most infuriating to Paglia is that back in the ‘90s, Madonna refused to meet with her, and apparently did not take her seriously. Madonna joked that Paglia, an out lesbian, probably just wanted to sleep with her. Madonna seems to have wisely realized that Paglia overbilled her from the beginning: Paglia may have been exactly correct in her analysis of the effect of the Madonna Zeitgeist, but Madonna knew or at least sensed that she, as a person, could never live up to Paglia’s imagination.
The point is underscored with a quote from a 2008 Guardian piece by Aida Edemariam about feminist academics turning on Madonna:
What exactly has Madonna done to deserve this? Perhaps the answer lies in the hopes they had for her (and themselves) 20 years ago. In 1990, Paglia wrote that Madonna “has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives”; she celebrated the snook Madonna was cocking at “the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism”: Madonna, proclaimed Paglia, “is the [real] future of feminism”. And now they feel betrayed by what that future held: Catholicism replaced by Kabbalah; one-night-stand babies by marriage and stately homes; a vigorously pursued desire not to look old (by clinging to the in-your-face sexuality she pioneered).
It’s not like Paglia’s critique of Madonna’s music is entirely without justification—as the years have gone by, the trend-chasing has become even more evident and the tunes less memorable. Is there something to be said about Madonna’s relationship to aging? Sure, but her speaking out against societal expectations while seemingly bowing to them via plastic surgery bespeaks a much more complicated and fraught relationship than she’s given credit for. During her speech, Madonna shared a lesson she’s learned from response as she’s gotten older in public: “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.”
Overall, Paglia’s response is mean-spirited and furthermore opportunistic. If we’re talking about stalling, let’s talk about how Paglia’s been using that Dietrich line for at least four years now. If we’re talking about struggles for relevance, well, look at Paglia, once again discussing her most famous subject, the one that’s produced some of her best-known criticism.
This battle is an eternal one, it seems—it’s basically a modern Who Killed Baby Jane. Sometimes it’s way more cerebral than that, sometimes it’s way more dumb.