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Girls & Women

Madonna Just Gave the Best Speech for Women in 2016

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Both in her music and outside of it, Madonna has outspokenly advocated for women and girls for decades. From songs “Material Girl” and “True Blue” to her famous on-stage kiss with Britney Spears to her provocative Met Gala outfit, she has had no problems pushing the envelope, challenging Americans to confront taboo themes of sexuality, violence, and bigotry. At times, her envelope-pushing has led to controversy, but it has also served to inspire.

This weekend’s Billboard Woman of the Year speech was no different. Madonna spoke from the heart, confronting pervasive sexism and ageism in the music industry.

“There are no rules if you’re a boy,” she said in her speech. “If you’re a girl you have to play the game.”

Other stinging criticisms of the music industry included: 

“You are allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy, but don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion.” 

“You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness.”

“To age is to sin.”

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She challenged young women to confront these norms: “In life, there is no real safety except self-belief,” she said. 

She also spoke in direct terms about having been raped in New York in the late 1970s, something that she only started talking about in 2013

“New York was a very scary place,” she said. “In the first year I was held up at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat, and I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I just stopped locking the door.” 

For much of her speech, the crowd was hushed. 

This year’s was the 11th Billboard Women in Music award, an event that has already honored Beyonce (2009), Katy Perry (2012), and Lady Gaga (2015) for their musical and philanthropic accomplishments.

“With her creative vision, relentless innovation, and dedication to philanthropic causes, [Madonna] is an inspiration to hundreds of millions of people around the world,” Janice Min, president and chief creative officer of The Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group, told Billboard in October.

Madonna’s non-profit, Raising Malawi, has supported more than 700 orphans and 5,000 students in Malawi since its inception in 2006. Madonna has also been a longtime supporter of organizations fighting to combat HIV/AIDS, and has worked extensively with AIDS Project Los Angeles. In 1991, her documentary “Truth or Dare” brought awareness to the epidemic long before many were open to discussing the problem. 

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In her speech, she also confronted perceptions of age in the music industry and paid homage to the musicians who have died in the past few years. 

“People say that I’m so controversial, but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around,” she said. 

After an election that saw a male presidential candidate attempt to disqualify his female counterpart for lacking the “stamina” to be president, Madonna’s comments are a welcome change.   

Just this year, Peggy Whitson, 56, became the oldest women to arrive at the International Space Station. In 2013, Diana Nyad, 64, swam from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage, becoming the first person to do so. At 58, Madonna shows no signs of stopping her musical career, having already proven time and time again that she will not cave to societal norms. 

“Michael is gone. Tupac is gone. Whitney is gone. Amy Winehouse is gone. David Bowie is gone. But I’m still standing,” she said.

“I’m one of the lucky ones.”