When Madonna emerged more than three decades ago, it was about more than just the hair and makeup and the look she personified. It was about the message—a message that empowered women to determine their own pleasure, in spite of the existing gallows of cultural prescription. For a female pop star to have an overarching political statement was something of a rarity in the Reagan era, but it was desperately needed at the time to challenge the deeply ingrained tentacles of sexism in American culture.
From the unapologetic content of her lyrics to the blatant eroticism woven into her persona, it’s apparent that Madonna has never censored herself based on traditional notions of femininity. That’s what is so simultaneously appealing and challenging about Madonna—she refuses to compromise her artistic integrity. Not that her integrity has not been challenged along the way. In 1990, on her Blond Ambition tour, she was threatened by Canadian officials with arrest for the provocative masturbation simulation scene during “Like a Virgin.” Ever the feminist icon, she stood her ground and was willing to go to jail rather than omit that part of the show. It’s all documented in her 1991 movie Truth or Dare.
More recently, Madonna spoke to Refinery29 about a few of the larger social issues we all still need to actively address, condemning persistent sexism and ageism in particular. “Nobody ever gives men shit for how they behave, however old they are,” Madonna said. “There is no rulebook. As a man, you can date whoever you want. You can dress however you want. You can do whatever you want in any area that you want. But, if you’re a woman, there are rules, and there are boundaries. And, I feel like a lot of my biggest critics are women.”
The ongoing scandals surrounding Planned Parenthood and the GOP prove that women’s bodies are still a battlefield in more ways than one, which makes the theme of Madonna’s career ever more prescient. We’ve been going in circles on many of these same issues—birth control, the wage gap—for the last 30 years, yet these issues are continually glossed over by right-wing agendas. In the fight for sexual equality, Madonna has consistently positioned herself on one side of a line in the sand, dividing those who understand just how personal the political can be, and those who refuse to.
And despite the disposable fashion trends that have characterized sections of her career, Madonna’s one constant theme—her brand of sex-positive feminism—is what has catalyzed her influence and given her staying power, with a message that’s just as relevant now as it ever was. In playing with themes of sexuality and religion over the years, she’s made a career out of pushing people’s buttons; her fearless self-expression is what has been so inspiring to generations. Thankfully, she shows no signs of stopping.