It’s hard to be an older female artist. Look at the sexist snark thrown at Madonna

<span>Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters

I’ll never forget an interview with the singer Henry Rollins I saw years ago. He was talking about Madonna – he’s long been an outspoken fan – and he said: “When you’re sleeping, she is working.”

Over the last 40 years of an amazing career, Madonna has gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working people in show business. Her intense work ethic was seen again recently when she put the cast of her now shelved biopic through a grueling “bootcamp”, which reportedly included training sessions lasting up to 11 hours a day.

Related: Madonna bootcamp was gruelling, intense and, it turns out, completely pointless

You could say that, more than anything, Madonna is a performance artist, in the sense that her music (as great as it is) has always seemed like it might just be a device through which she can grab our attention and get a reaction. Madonna is also a disciplined artist – an intentional one, who plans her next moves with care. When we’re asleep, she’s awake, thinking of how to get us talking about her again.

So, with all of the above, do you really think Madonna didn’t know what she was doing when, this fall, she posted to Instagram photos of herself wearing lingerie and taking selfies on a hotel bathroom floor? Or when she started styling herself like an alien from the bar scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, with her shaved eyebrows and Kabuki-like makeup? Or when she twerked on TikTok, again in lingerie, licking her lips and shaking her breasts?

“Someone stage an intervention,” remarked one of the commenters on that post.

Stories about fan “concern” over Madonna’s “bizarre” behavior have abounded over the last few months. “The woman has lost her mind, time to retire,” another commenter said.

Retire? Over these same few months, Madonna has perhaps not so coincidentally been preparing for an upcoming world tour (The Celebration Tour, which kicks off in July), predicted to be her biggest ever.

But I don’t think Madonna’s recent antics can be attributed to self-marketing alone. She has always been about more than that. As a longtime Madonna fan, I’ve come to see that whatever she’s being criticized for, that’s what she’s asking us to examine. She’s popping a big zit on our cultural face.

When I was in college (her first album, Madonna, came out in 1983, my freshman year), it was people criticizing Madonna for being too sexual. I remember, in an English class, a professor calling her “indecent”. We’ve since come so far in terms of sex positivity; the interminable discussions at that time about Madonna’s alleged “indecency” seem Neanderthal now.

That’s thanks, in part, to Madonna. She was always about exposing the ugliness in our negative attitudes toward women expressing their sexuality. And their power. When Madonna wore that “boy toy” belt buckle and grabbed her crotch, millions of people got upset. Millions of others felt inspired.

So what’s Madonna trying to stir up now? What’s she doing with all those loopy posts? Again, look at what she’s being criticized for. She’s being told to “calm down”, to “act her age”. She’s being told she’s too old. 50 Cent actually called Madonna “Grandma”, while mocking her “old ass” on social media last year. “LOL at 63 somebody tell her to chill out please,” the rapper captioned a picture Madonna had taken of herself sitting crotch-forward on a bed in black underwear. “Friends reveal why Madonna refuses to grow old gracefully,” said a headline in the New York Post.

Madonna’s latest subject as an artist is ageism, I believe. She wants us to be uncomfortable with an older woman being sexual because we are uncomfortable with it. She wants us to look at ourselves and ask what we’re so feeling so judgy about, exactly.

Related: Like a cinema virgin: how Madonna went stratospheric making Desperately Seeking Susan

Ageism is the last frontier of wokeness, in many ways. At a time when it’s not OK to judge someone for – well, almost anything – you can still make fun of them for being old. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Hollywood is having a run on movies where we get to laugh at older ladies for making fools of themselves. (See Diane Keaton, a legend who deserved better, in Poms.)

Madonna says no to all that. She dates men 30 and 40 years younger than her. She goes to nightclubs and dances the night away. She climbs on Jimmy Fallon’s desk and flashes his audience. But she does it all with a sense of humor – knowing full well that she doesn’t look like the dazzling young woman she once was, and knowing what the haters will say about her supposedly trying to “recapture her youth”.

Madonna has always explored the meaning of what it means to be sexual, to be sexualized, and to sexualize oneself. And now she’s exploring what it all means as an older woman – the ultimate taboo, for many people, who think old ladies should just disappear. She knows those people might not get what she’s doing now, and will vilify her once again. And she thinks they’re squares.

Does it still hurt her feelings? I think it must, and that’s why she finally asked people to stop “bullying” her. Because it does hurt to age; it hurts to be told you’re too old. And Madonna, a woman who has always expressed “what it feels like for a girl”, is now expressing – through posts she knows sometimes border on the grotesque – the sadness in no longer being that girl any more.

But I also think Madonna is having a lot of fun. In one of her TikToks, she posted an old TV interview in which a reporter asks, rather snidely, “When Madonna is 50 … 60, what will she be doing?” “Who knows?” Madonna replied. “Hopefully I’ll be having fun.” After which she ran pictures of herself in the present day – looking glamorous, posing, dancing, drinking wine from a bottle, all to her 1983 song “Everybody”.

“Everybody get up and do your thing,” the song says. By that, Madonna has always meant everybody – including, now, older women like herself.

  • Nancy Jo Sales is a writer at Vanity Fair and the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers