What It Feels Like for a Girl: 40 Years of Loving (and Hating) Madonna (and Myself)

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What It Feels Like for a Girl: 40 Years of Loving (and Hating) Madonna (and Myself)


The first time I see you, you’re in that hat.
You know the one.
Big floppy bow across the front. 

Your defiant eyes
 — those eyes — 

Something in the way you love me won’t let me be. 

It’s more than the secret thrill of late-night MTV:
crouched on the plaid couch,
crunching popcorn at my best friend’s house.

I didn’t even have my period yet.

Who is that girl?

Angry can of spray paint
Red X on a white marble crotch.
Neon anklets. Yellow pumps.
Hair a dried mess of pasta twirls.

I don’t know you. But I need to.
Need to pay attention to whatever you say next.
Even if you don’t understand all of what it is yet.
Even if, for now, it’s just about black jelly bracelets.  


First cassette, and I can’t stop listening.
Burnin’ Up in the space before my piano lesson.
Crazy for You croon striking my sternum.
Material Girl before I knew about Marilyn.
You’re an angel, lucky star. That’s what you are.  

Like a Virgin, live on stage, you roll around like a fool.
(But please God please gimme all that tulle.)
I’m desperately, desperately, desperately seeking Susan.

I’m so tired of dancing here all by myself. 


Those fishnets.
That tutu.
Your open-mouthed, unapologetic laugh.
They don’t make this color any more.
Every move — even just an eyebrow quirk —
vibrates in me Louden Clear.

Open your heart; I’ll make you love me.
(Or, at least, you’ll make me feel funny.)
Tell your papa not to preach,
and I’ll preach to my own mom why you should. 

I’m becoming a real girl. You’re becoming an icon. 

Will I ever live to tell
how true blue baby I love you. 


I survive middle school
(Best friends. Sleepovers. Heartbreak. Pimples.)
and you survive Sean.
(Shanghai. Helicopters. Heartbreak. Pepsi.)  

Suddenly then we shift lanes —
so smoothly in tandem, I’m still not sure who goes first:
gaining our power, expressing ourselves. 

You kissed a black Jesus,
bounced before burning crosses,
and pissed off the Pope.
I organized a class walkout,
chose social rights over socializing,
and pissed off everyone but my parents.

Did you grab your crotch first?
Or did I grab mine?


Simultaneously, you say:
leap with mermaids.

Sooner or later get frisked by Dick Tracy.

Play baseball.
Play with yourself.

Just like a muse to me you are a mystery.


Fifteen and my first love.
Your first Blond Ambition Tour. 

It wasn’t like I didn’t know about sex.
My mom counseled at Planned Parenthood.
Showed me silly comics with condoms as characters.
Even before I could read
I knew the journey of an ovum.

By ten I had found Dad’s own secret stash.

I knew how to jerk off.
And how to be ashamed about it. 

But you — you fucked a bed onstage,
throwing your head back with glee.

I watched with my boyfriend and his parents on the family couch.
(An unsuspecting, well-intended birthday gift for me.)
The mortification pushed all of us deeper into the cushions. 

Part of me thought you were crazy.
Part of me thought, hell yes.


Truth or Dare. 

I didn’t know your mom had died.
How sad you were.
How to fellate a glass bottle, either.
But I know, immediately, I need to find those Fluevogs.

You’re so beautiful I could eat you up.
You’re so elusive I would starve. 


But that MTV Awards Vogue performance?
Come on.
There’s just been nothing like it before or since. 


First year of college.
Three months in, I lose my virginity.
Four months in, I am gifted with Sex.

I want my body to be your body.
I want to do with my body what you do with yours.
I want your mind and your life and your freedom.
And, of course, I want that handbag too. 

Your Sex leads to more legitimacy.
I fall deeper and deeper the further I go.
We’re not consuming you,
but intellectually consulting with you.
Norman Mailer,
Camille Paglia —
I read them as they read you.
I’ve come to the conclusion, they say, that you are a great artist.
A true feminist. 

I come to the conclusion I shouldn’t be ashamed.
Not of myself,
and definitely not of you. 

I write a paper: “Madonna and Power and the Body and Sex.”
I include photos in the appendix.
I earn an A+.


Then I go to Italy for a semester,
and am translucently transformed. 

It’s not just me who’s changed. 

A month after I’m back on my NC campus,
Dad calls and says, “Your mom is moving out.” 

You’ve been busy with the Girlie Show.
Four Rooms.
Body of Evidence.

Sometimes, I feel your love coming down like rain.
But even you can sense
this masquerade is getting older. 

For awhile I tighten my grip.
You taught me, after all, that sometimes
the only thing that matters
is how it all looks in the end.
So I do my best to out-poet
every poet on campus.
Graduate summa cum laude with Honors.
Perform in two plays.
Fall in love so hard I nearly break my neck. 

By the end of college, I’m so heavily layered with external armor
I can’t feel myself underneath.

But I can’t feel you any more, either. 


I don’t hear you on the radio.
But I still save pages from all those magazines. 


Flash forward to San Francisco. 

I’m 23 and have gotten a cushy secretary job, an amazing apartment.
I join a gym and a Vespa club.
Learn how to drink martinis
while writing poems on bar napkins in the Haight.
I stroll North Beach alone on weekends
and jet fashionably back East for family holidays and friends’ weddings.

I write — constantly. 

And for the first time
in a long time,
I can hear my heart sing.

Two months before I head back East,
you emerge at almost 40:
a Ray of Light, from your own cocoon.

Do I know you from somewhere?

I can’t stop listening.
An electric current I thought was dead
sparks alive.
You’re frozen
when you’re heart’s not open. 

In each song, you’re telling me:
It’s okay lose yourself.
You can make mistakes,
and still hold your head high. 

I feel
like I just got home.

This is what you have to look forward to, you say.
Keep coming. I am still here. 


Two weeks after my San Francisco homecoming
— bursting with newfound passion and hope —
I call to wish my childhood sweetheart happy birthday.
I’m reclaiming things I love but thought I’d lost,
and John is high on the list.

His stepdad answers the phone.
Tells me John died the day before.
By shooting himself in the head. 


There’s no more heart to bruise.


Three years later, no one recognizes us. 

You’re calling yourself Madge now.
I’ve shaved my head, moved to New York, and gotten a job in publishing.
My boyfriend is a DJ.
And I’m having an adulterous affair.
I whittle myself down to my skinniest,
and only see my family at Christmas. 

Who were you kidding, learning to play guitar?
And what even is kabala?
Go Re-Imagine your own World Tour.
Die another day with your American Life.


One time in all this, I do really see you.
That X-STaTIC PRO=CeSS exhibition showing somewhere deep in SoHo. 

You’re twisted into impossible yoga poses
on surgical tables or cold concrete floors.
All sinewy muscles and too many tendons,
flayed under skipping, blinking fluorescent lights.
In others you’re sulking, masked in jeweled scarlet. 

I’m not myself and I don’t know how. 


I break up with the DJ (and the affair) and move to Atlanta.
You make a bunch of confessions on a dance floor,
but I don’t want to see you.
I don’t want to see you lying the same way I am. 


In 2008, I truly give up. 

It’s a sweet gesture on my future-husband’s part:
gifting me with “Hard Candy.”
We’re in the terrible waiting days
between my biopsy and diagnosis.
He knows I used to love you.
He thinks he’s being nice. 

I think — she’s been a phoenix before. Maybe we can be again. 

what are you doing in that awful getup?
And your painfully obvious plastic surgery?
Those kids in Africa?
Justin Timberlake, for God’s sake?
Kissing Britney and Christina might’ve been cool in the past,
but now it’s just a stunt nod
to who you used to be.

You’re not an artist.
You’re not an influence or an intellectual.
You’re exactly who everyone always thought you were
— and I once fought so hard to convince you weren’t:
a fame-obsessed, money-grabbing narcissist afraid of her own death.

It makes me even sicker than the chemo.


Six years later, you show up in Jazzercise.
I’m working on getting healthy again,
and my favorite instructor has brought us pom poms.
L-U-V Madonna
Y-O-U you wanna.

Maybe I still do?

So I watch the Super Bowl halftime show.
And, of course, you kill it. 


You’re everywhere again,
coming at us with your Rebel Heart.

They say you’re back for real. 

I’ve seen and heard this before.
You abandoned me, remember? 

But maybe I’m a gambler, too. 


I buy the album.
And I can’t stop listening.
At first I can’t explain why.

In it, you are both fresh and familiar:
Cheesy and cheeky.
Overwrought and overstated.
Bouncy and ballsy.
Emboldened and embarrassing.
In both love and hate,
you’re pushing and thrilling and cringingly honest
about loss and sex, love and self-loathing. 

I’m new to my 40’s and trying to reclaim myself.
I don’t yet know it’ll lead me to divorce, I just know
my heart wasn’t broken by the past —
I buried it.
And then buried it again. 

There is so much to unearth.
And here you are, handing me a shovel. 

This is what you have to look forward to, you say.
Keep coming. I am still here. 


We see you in concert.
I’m so nervous I could puke.
And I don’t know what to wear. 

When you’re two hours late, the feeling returns:
You’ve abandoned me.
And I was wrong to believe. 

Eventually, you descend in that cage
— I can’t. I-con. —
and I’m cry-screaming like I’m 12.  


Who else can give this gift but you?

It’s all here in this show: the 18 year-old you and the 25 you. The Vogue you and the Ray of Light you and the Sex you and the Now you. The twice-divorced you. The Hard Candy you. The failed you and the broken you. The gorgeous-laughing-climbing-conquering-grinding-growing

This is what you have to look forward to, you say.
Keep coming. I am still here. 

And all of me is in here, too.
I am 11 and 25 and 30 and 43.
I am disdaining and sick. I am healed and whole. 

I’ve been sewn to you with the first stitch,
but now I see it’s one big quilt of individual patches:
a blanket
to curl in for comfort,
wad up and piss on,
or sometimes wear
like a jeweled cape.  


In the process I forgot
that I was special too. 


You receive Billboard’s Woman of the Year Award.
It’s a messy speech.
(You still can’t resist grabbing for easy attention.)
But what’s harder to witness
is your dead-eyed hurt.

We have to start appreciating our own worth, you say,
and each other’s worth.
Seek out strong women
to befriend
to align yourself with
to learn from
to be inspired by
to collaborate with
to support
to be enlightened by.

You recall finding yourself wishing
you’d had a female peer. 

At the end you thank the doubters and naysayers.
Tell them their resistance only made you stronger.

I want to tell you how sorry I am
about how much that includes me. 


I loved doing the Women’s March together in 2017.
I was in Atlanta.
You were in DC.
But still — we were together. 


Then I’m 45,
divorced and struggling,
but working to assemble new and old parts of myself
back into a whole.
I’m writing again:
still wobbly but with better footing. 

Madame X is a secret agent, you say. Traveling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom. Bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love.

I lean forward.
I love this idea for you.
And for me at the same time. 


But — really? These silly outfits?
All that autotune?
We’ve been through this together before.
And this time I’m whole-heartedly different.
I don’t want to judge us.
I want to love us. 

So I start writing:
The first time I see you, you’re in that hat.


We’ve got to talk about what you’ve been doing to your body.
The lips and cheek fillers.
The butt lift.
The “unrecognizable” face.
Even I have heard myself recently
compare you to a cartoon of Kim Kardashian. 

Your tits have always been remarkable,
but now they are like a bad punchline
you drunkenly can’t stop repeating. 

Perhaps this is just another statement of yours.
I want to believe
there is intention behind it.
You are, after all,
the most brilliantly meticulous artist I know.

— I haven’t said that enough. 

One day, maybe
this will just be another patch in our quilt.

The thing is, you don’t look like you anymore.
You look like you don’t want to be you. 


It feels like nothing today would be what it is
without your bravery, discipline, creativity, and beauty.
Without everything you’ve done.

I don’t know how we thank you for that. 


I do wonder how you feel
watching Taylor so soundly eclipse you now. 

I wish we could talk about it. 

I want you to be excited.
To feel inspired by this renovation of what you built.
But even having nearly died this month,
you’re still an ouroboros of yourself:
trying to keep up with what’s behind you.


You said once you found yourself wishing
you had a female peer.
And while my whole rebel heart will always be grateful,
I’m wishing now
you’d give me one again, too. 

On the edge of 50, I want to collaborate, promote, produce, teach, share.
It’s what I want you to do, too.
I want to take everything you gave me
and give it to someone else.

I want to make you show me how. 


You’re 65 today, and I still don’t know how to end this.
Maybe because I don’t want you to ever end.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
None of us have stayed ahead of you.
But maybe you’ve run so hard and so fast,
not even you can keep up. 

I love you so much.
In part because you are me.
And I am me because of you. 

The queen is dead?
Long live the queen. 

Something in the way you love me won’t let me be.

Terra Elan McVoy is the author of eight novels for teens and tweens, including the Edgar Award finalist, Criminal. She is currently Project Director and Strategist at Rootstock, and stands firm in her belief that “Into the Groove” is Madonna’s all-time #1 best song.

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