‘Be pretty & cute. Do not express an opinion. Don’t act too smart & do not age’: Madonna blasts the rules for women.

“I stand before you as a doormat ... Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer”.

It was the opening line of a blistering speech Madonna delivered after accepting a Woman of the Year award at the Billboard Women in Music 2016 event on Friday.

The highest-grossing touring female artist of all time is sick of breaking the rules that shackle women. She is tired of the double standards that persist and she’s unwilling to stay quiet about it.  

“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,” she said.

“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.

“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 criticised and vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio.”

Madonna is famous for pushing the boundaries; subdued, she has never been. But her speech on Friday was different. It was blunt, personal and powerful.

Before the awards she told Billboard that Hillary Clinton’s recent defeat had sparked something inside her. “It’s really important to make a stand and speak my mind about the importance of women and women empowering themselves,” she said. "I think I've always been political. But I think in this particular time, especially I do want to fight for not only human rights, but for women's rights."

The pop icon acknowledged that she has been labelled controversial over the years.

“People say that I’m so controversial,” she explained. “But I think the most controversial thing that I’ve done is to stick around.”

She ended her speech with a call to arms to women.

“We have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth,” she said. “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.”

Very few women have lived as publicly as Madonna has, yet there is something universal in her speech. Famous or not, rich or not, younger or older, conformist or not, the details don't matter. Women from all walks, of all ages, face the double standards Madonna exposed. We are all stifled - in big and small ways - by the rules. For some, it isn't a cause for concern. For others, however, it is. Which is probably why Madonna's speech has resonated the way it has. Ageism and sexism prove a potent pair that is hard to escape.   

As Madonna said herself, more than ever, particularly in America right now, women need to make a stand and speak up.      

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a Contributing Editor at Women's Agenda. She began her working life as a lawyer before building a career in journalism as an editor, reporter and recognised advocate for women. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.    

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