Madonna stole the show at Billboard‘s Women in Music 2016 event, where she was honoured as Woman of the Year on Friday, Dec. 9.
In her brutally honest acceptance speech, she recalled the “blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse” she faced over her 34-year career, reported Billboard‘s Joe Lynch.
Near the beginning of her speech, she described her early years as a struggling artist in New York City.
“People were dying of AIDS everywhere,” she said. “It wasn’t safe to be gay, it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community. It was 1979 and New York was a very scary place. In the first year I was held 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 stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots.
“In life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
She went on to describe how her “muse” David Bowie influenced her, though added the rules he played by didn’t apply to her because she was a woman, and how that affected her art and personal life:
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… 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.
Eventually I was left alone because I married Sean Penn, and not only would he would bust a cap in your ass, but I was off the market. For a while I was not considered a threat. Years later, divorced and single — sorry Sean — I made my Erotica album and my Sex book was released. I remember being the headline of every newspaper and magazine. Everything I read about myself was damning. I was called a whore and a witch. One headline compared me to Satan. I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?’ Yes, he was. But he was a man.
This was the first time I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men.
I remember wishing I had a female peer I could look to for support. Camille Paglia, the famous feminist writer, said I set women back by objectifying myself sexually. So I thought, ‘oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it.’ So I said ‘f–k it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.’
I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around. Michael is gone. Tupac is gone. Prince is gone. Whitney is gone. Amy Winehouse is gone. David Bowie is gone. But I’m still standing. I’m one of the lucky ones and every day I count my blessings.
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.
It’s not so much about receiving this award as it is having this opportunity to stand before you and say thank you. Not only to the people who have loved and supported me along the way, you have no idea… you have no idea how much your support means. But to the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not or I must not — your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today. So thank you.
Billboard’s Women In Music event airs Dec. 12 on Lifetime in the U.S.