Beyond Useful

I am 42 years of age. I never thought I would be 42. Not because I thought I’d die prior to the date, but I suppose I thought time would stop at some point. Thirty three? Twenty nine? But time did not stop and I am now 42.  One day I will be 59 and then 64 and possibly 77 should all things go well.

I’m a fine 42. Fit, strong, competent. Involved and busy.

Creative and aware of who I am, moreso than at any time in my life. I have children and I have love.  I have little to complain about.

But.

Age is strange for women. I know, I know, age is strange for all of us, but I think there is something particularly cruel about how women are framed or viewed as they age, especially if they are mothers as well.  They wind up, oddly, desexualized in mainstream media, or if they remain sexual they are “Cougars, predatory and desperate rather than filled with passion and knowledge of life, love and everything in between. I find this to be sad.

Which was why I was so excited to see Meryl Streep grace the cover of Vogue and to read the subsequent article about her.  She’s long been one of my favorite actresses, but I’ve also admired how she’s fully participated in life- from food activism to a long term marriage and motherhood.  That, combined with her chameleon talents keeps me hungry for more of her on stage or screen.

The photos of her were stunning (Annie Liebowitz, natch) and the article fantastic.  It struck me though, how true this particular quote was and how sad it made me feel. Sad but also hopeful.

An excerpt from the Vogue Article-

“In 1989, she turned 40. “I remember turning to my husband and saying, ˜Well, what should we do? Because it’s over.’  The following year, she received three offers to play witches in different movies. She saw the subtext pretty clearly: “Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level. But with The Bridges of Madison County (1995) she captured “the audience that were my girls, that I knew they’d get it if we could get the movie made, hence Dancing at Lughnasa and One True Thing, which were also about “women whose usefulness had passed. And her last five years saw hit follow hit: The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated. That last film, she says, “in the period of Silkwood, could never have been made, with a 60-year-old actress deciding between her ex-husband and another man. With a 40-year-old actress it would never have been made.”

Think about that:
“Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level.

And

“women who’s usefulness had passed.”

That’s a stunning observation and cuts to the heart of many of us who are in that age range (or close to it) but without major studio support and access to fine designer clothes.  Am I grotesque on some level? Is my usefulness passing?  Why is age and motherhood the antithesis of sexy in this culture?

At what age does the usefulness return? Old age of the true elder? When women like Dr. Ruth and Sue Johansen can disburse humorous but accurate advice on sex, toys, and positions? Do the young find their shows appealing for their lack of overt sexuality? Are they safe grandmotherly figures, only now able to say all the crazy words? I daresay most of us would probably be shocked and envious of their sex lives. Sexual desire does not stop as we age. Desire for life? Desire for love? We feel these, I believe, in some form until the day we die.

The irony is of course that most women feel their most useful, their most sexual, their most creative and in touch with their inner awesomeness in their forties right when the main stream media and Hollywood is telling us we have only a few options for role models-asexual mother, desperate cougar, grotesque witch.  We know it isn’t true, but we have few mirrors to guide us.

Meryl is one and thank all the goddesses of the pantheon for her.

I’ll list a few more, actresses all, visible, in the public eye, Mirrors.

Frances McDormand. Helen Mirren. Tilda Swinton. Sigourney Weaver.

These women are strong and beautiful and yes sexual in their power, no matter their age.

Think of Meryl in Mamma Mia. No matter how you feel about a musical based on ABBA’s work, she’s an older women in love with an older man who loves her back, passionately. Most films would have paired an actress half Pierce Brosnan’s age. I have no issue with age disparity in relationships, but we usually only see the older man/younger woman pairing in Hollywood films. Seeing an older woman and same age man is refreshing.

Frances McDormand in Laurel Canyon; strong, passionate and in control, she’s pursued by a younger man who swears he loves her, she accepts his advances, realizing he may be fooling himself but not her.

Helen Mirren in anything, really! Talented, beautiful, funny; she’s constantly being told how hot she is by men of the younger generation.

Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Chaos and desire unleashed upon control.

Sigorney Weaver-Is there anyone sexier then Ripley? She’s a mothergoddessbadass. Always giving up love and comfort to protect those she loves. She has no time for cowards, not because they are weak, but because they are strong and don’t use their strength. If that isn’t deserving of desire, then I don’t know what’s what.

(If readers have other women they’d like to add to the pantheon of older magnificent, completely useful and in no way grotesque goddesses, I’d love to have them listed as my list is by far incomplete in terms of race, sexual orientation, and genre of art or cultural achievement.)

So we age. And that’s ok. And it should be a tribute to our usefulness, our stamina, and our knowledge, aging. It should not be a point of shame and despair, though I’ll admit, seeing my body change, my skin shift, my energy alter….those are often moments where despair rings my front doorbell and I’ve been doing my best to ignore it. Perhaps even overcompensating for the fear that doorbell ring inspires.

Thing is, no matter how my body changes, my inner experience stays the same.  My mother said to me once, “Whenever I look in the mirror I expect to see a 30 year old. That’s how old I feel. But the reflection startles me every time. Who is that old woman, I think! I suppose that’s how it is for all of us.  I know that’s true for me.  I never feel far away from those in their 20’s but I also feel comfortable with people older than me.

These women, willing to make their visage known on silver screens, in magazines, and on the stage make me hope for aging as a woman.  They are able to create multifaceted characters, work hard, be powerful, and also be mothers on their own in their real life.  They are the mirror that I want to look into, so that when I see my own reflection, I can smile at what I see; not just the body or face, but the fact that I am, and will continue to be, useful. And that is where the truest beauty lies.

Julie Gillis

Julie Gillis is an writer, producer and speaker focused on human sexuality, gender, and social justice. Julie uses humor and comedy in her performance and consulting work, but she is completely serious about making this world a better place for people to love and be loved.

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1 Response

  1. BASTA! says:

    Age is strange for women. I know, I know, age is strange for all of us, but I think there is something particularly cruel about how women are framed or viewed as they age, especially if they are mothers as well. They wind up, oddly, desexualized in mainstream media, or if they remain sexual they are “Cougars, predatory and desperate rather than filled with passion and knowledge of life, love and everything in between. I find this to be sad.

    Well yes, at certain age women get desexualized from hyper-desirable status back to the baseline level of human desirability. I imagine that this registers emotionally as a loss, but it’s the loss of a privilege about which I’d say “never” is a good engineer’s approximation of how often the other half of humanity enjoys it.