At this year’s Billboard Women in Music Awards, Madonna was named the Woman of the Year. While accepting her award, she made a seemingly important statement for women (read: white women) in the industry.
Madonna opened with, “I stand before you as a doormat… Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer.” She continued, “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.”
In her speech, Madonna addressed the white misogyny, white ageism, white ableism, white sexism, and white pain she’s experienced in her career. While calling out the “double standards” within the music industry, she also mentions her experiences in being assaulted and navigating a world that is geared towards white men.
“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,” Madonna continued. “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.”
Her speech continued to bore me and remind me, and probably every woman and femme of color, how much her experiences don’t account for the violence that exists beyond the bubble of white feminism. The reality is this: white women might have a reason to cry, but your platform is built on our backs.
Although she makes generalized points within feminism, the lack of racial and queer politics of the conversation completely depoliticizes her commentary to white feminism bullshit. Madonna has also been praised by multiple news platforms and Lady Gaga for making a powerful and necessary speech. It’s amazing how, in retrospect and contrast, Viola Davis’ Emmy Speech was met with backlash and a fight from other women … but only white women were mad.
Viola Davis said, “‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
This powerful speech gave power and presence to so many black women and femmes, but also to women and femmes of color within the industry. The pushback and critiques only came from white women who could not understand why race had to be brought up in the midst of a historic moment for Viola Davis. So in comparing these speeches and their reception by audiences, the question remains: Why doesn’t anyone give a fuck that Madonna been saying the same white feminist shit for years, while also having children of color, and still ain’t brought up racism in the industry she’s been fighting to stay in? *Crickets*
As Madonna closed out, she said, “What I would like to say to all women here today is this: 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.”
In her speech, Madonna reminds us how little range she has in her faith in other women. Especially because in another interview she mentioned a similar sentiment about women hating other women. This perspective isn’t just white feminism, because often white women are only ever feuding with other white women within a system they already benefit from, but it’s also just not nuanced enough to give perspective on why there’s a winner-take-all approach in how women and femmes navigate the world for survival.
Madonna bringing up her experience of assault, exploitation and rape wasn’t disregarded, but rather expanded upon by those of us who are never given a platform offered and protected by whiteness while we still experience such violence. Madonna had the opportunity to enlist or name any woman or femme of color within the industry that is dealing with deeper forms of misogyny amplified by racism, queerphobia and fatphobia, yet she decided not to. What we can take from Madonna’s moments of white feminist whine is that we cannot trust white women to represent an intersectional perspective that does not center their own narratives of pain and trauma. We can trust that white women will always be white feminists .
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com.