By Annie Reuter
Since her first single was released in 1982, Madonna has paved the way for countless women. On Friday (Dec. 9), the singer was honored at Billboard‘s annual Women In Music event, where she was named Woman of the Year and she pulled no punches sharing her truth with the audience.
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer,” Madonna began. “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.”
Madonna’s speech was candid as she discussed challenges she faced throughout her career and the harsh realities she experienced in the ’70s as a woman in New York City.
“People were dying of AIDS everywhere. It wasn’t safe to be gay, it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community,” Madonna recalled. “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.”
Despite these hardships, Madonna said she learned one vital lesson: “In life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
Later, she explained how she also learned that there are no rules if you’re a boy in the music industry. However, if you’re a girl there are many rules to follow.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Noting how she is one of the few icons left standing—following the passing of Michael Jackson, Tupac, Prince, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and David Bowie—Madonna said that the most controversial thing she has ever done is to stick around.
“I’m one of the lucky ones and every day I count my blessings . . . 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,” she urged.
Billboard‘s ‘Women In Music’ airs Dec. 12 on Lifetime.