Where ageism and sexism meet

Bury Free Press columnist Nicola Miller
Bury Free Press columnist Nicola Miller

One of the most vibrant women I know once told me that there are times when she feels invisible. Turning 50 had, she said, brought her to a time in her life where she felt diminished and she worried that as she entered middle age, it wasn’t just her own edges that felt as if they were blurring, but those of her female peers, too.

When statistics show that older men appear as much as 10 times more frequently than older women in the media and the characters they play hook up with partners decades younger, she’s got a point. And that’s before we even examine the discrimination older women face in the workplace, too. The over-valuing of youth; the criticism older, famous women experience if they step outside of societal aesthetic or behavioural boxes – these all play their part in convincing women that they have to shrink -fit their options or get out of the game.

To see these attitudes in action you only have to look at the jibes made about Madonna when she fell during a dance routine whilst wearing half a hundredweight of costume. There was little recognition of her career – one which defined the zeitgeist instead of merely reflecting it; no recognition of her as a woman who refuses to compromise; no acknowledgement of her healthy lifestyle.

No, what we got were ridiculous comments about Zimmer frames, old age and what a woman of her age ought to be doing instead. Madonna is only 58. Yet, conversely, we have the untroubled casting of craggy older men as thrusting action heroes complete with young leading ladies in tow because the TV and film industries believe that in real life, young women seek out near 70-year-olds as first-choice life partners when they need to abseil down a skyscraper.

Older women wouldn’t get to play an action hero at 69 as Sean Connery did in “Entrapment” with the 30-year-old Catherine Zeta Jones as his love interest. Neither must Pussy Galore be post-menopausal, oh no. She’d play Bond’s mother if she was, even if he was of similar age.

My friends, many of the women in my age bracket or older are forward-thinking and more open-minded than any person half their age has a right to be. None of them are a tide in ebb: they are carving out bigger spaces to pour their lives into, although quite a few of them report receiving unsolicited criticism about what they should be doing and how they should look, according to The Older Woman Playbook.

These female role models are important because this is where change resides. Increasingly women are refusing to go gently into the post-menopausal light and, in the process, are pushing back at a culture whose values do them a disservice. Friends laugh in the face of the Dove campaign for “real beauty” because, as they rightly say, where’s the campaign for “real” male handsomeness and why must women always be defined by their outer beauty anyway? What is real beauty anyway and who gets to bang the gavel on that one?

This shouldn’t mean we have to look a hot mess either, but if you think I am, please don’t base that judgment on how my hot mess compares with that of a 25-year-old’s.

I know that other female friends wrestle with the same insecurities that I do, although this doesn’t mean we’re pandering to the male gaze by slapping on the make-up because we woke up feeling a bit blah. We’re pretty clear-eyed about what cosmetics can achieve, too. Check out the L’Oréal ad featuring Helen Mirren which appears to have been filmed by a camera with a cataract problem. As Mirren, 71, gently wafts about, telling us she is worth it, what some see is a veiling of the truth.

Older women want to be represented but in a way that acknowledges we are more than the sum of our visible parts; that what we do is as important as how we look (and we do a lot!), but what we’ve ended up with is a polarised concept of older “beauty” with Dove’s get-your-stretchmarks-out philosophy at one end and Mirren’s blurred edges at the other.

Ageing is neither a crime nor a problem of women, there to be solved by denial of its essential qualities.

Most of us are not prepared to endure anything and everything to avoid the effects of time, although it’s normal to want to be healthy and attractive and I’m not promoting corporeal decay as a tool to counter discrimination.

It’s not anti-feminist to want to look one’s best but it is discriminatory to depict older women in narrow and ageist ways. Why can’t we be an action heroine in a film?

-- Nicola Miller is author of The Millers Tale blog.