Invisible. A cruel word. From the tips of our hair, to the ends of our feet, we women are often sexually analysed. If we aren’t the epitome of female beauty in the prime of life, then forget it, people do not want to know.
That, at least, was the hateful assessment of women by Yann Moix, a 51-year-old French prize-winning novelist, in his interview with Marie Claire in January 2019. He stated that he’s ‘incapable’ of loving a woman of 50 and over — they are ‘invisible’, and are ‘too, too old’ for him. He went on to declare, crudely, that he prefers ‘[t]he body of a 25-year-old woman [as it] is extraordinary’. His remarks caused outrage, and a good number of skin crawl reactions too.
In declaring this ageist attitude, Moix did his absolute best in reinforcing harmful stereotypes that middle-aged women are undesirable. The culprits, which are to be blamed for this supposed undesirability, are ageing and the menopause — two of society’s (many) taboos and, unlucky for women, most experience both. His views are akin to American author Robert Wilson’s, who, in his 1966 book Feminine Forever, even more shamefully described menopausal women as ‘crippled castrates’. Even though the remarks are fifty years apart, time appears not to have shifted. The image of the frumpy, forgetful, hot-flushed, de-sexed menopausal woman abounds. This stereotype robs women of their sexuality when, the truth is, middle-aged women can be desirable, attractive and sought-after.
If, at the start of 2019, Moix wanted to convince us that women over 50 were ‘invisible’, then by the end of the year he should have realised that he was sorely mistaken.
2019 : The year women over 50 reclaimed their right to be seen
With just five days left of 2019, The New York Times ran a piece entitled ‘The year women over 50 reclaimed their right to be seen’. The author outlined a number of films released in 2019 which explored the lives of middle-aged women. In the UK, the BBC’s autumn series ‘Gold Digger’ brilliantly portrayed a 60-year-old woman’s passionate relationship with a man 25 years her junior. Their lust for one another was more akin to that of lovestruck teenagers than love-jaded adults. The experiences of middle-aged women are being seen, and heard.
But are the women aged 50+ seen and heard only if they comply with a certain criteria?
Those who are visible adhere to traditional standards of beauty. Think JLo or Jennifer Aniston, both of whom are in their 50s and who are having something of a renaissance in their careers and media exposure. When photographed, they stand tall, poised, neat, with luxurious locks hooding their perfectly formed frames. And even those who are not actresses or models but successful writers or businesswomen, such as JK Rowling or Michelle Obama, their image is still one of a woman preened and perfect. They are physically and aesthetically pleasing.
In showing these particular women as examples that defy the rule, are we not playing straight into Moix’s hands? Their recognition only reinforces the notion that it is only women who have managed to preserve the stereotypical attributes of youth that remain visible. To an extent, this is true. These women are visible because they conform to traditional standards of female beauty, and do so through their financial and social advantages which enable them to look good. The result is that they are deemed worthy of being seen and heard.
Arguably, while the mentioned factors do give certain women an advantage, I don’t believe the attention merely derives from this. There is undeniably a change in societal attitudes when it comes to women’s potential beyond a certain age. This can only be positive.
Visibility of the everyday woman
Away from the eyes of the prying paparazzi and nosy news, women’s visibility is being seen in many aspects of daily life. For instance, the proportion of women in their 50s at work is increasing. Their reasons for staying in work are not just financial. Fulfilment and ambition also play a role. Forbes noted that ambition increases with age, peaking between the ages of 55 and 65. And now, for the first time ever, four generations are in the workplace: Baby Boomers; Generation X; Millennials and Generation Z. This workplace intergenerational mingling brings benefits, and one main benefit for young women is seeing older women visibly working hard, achieving and being recognised in the workplace. And with age comes built-up knowledge, skills and expertise which younger, ambitious and ever-impatient colleagues can learn from (and would probably trade some of that smooth skin of theirs to obtain).
Intergenerational mingling isn’t only happening in the workplace. Many Millennials and Generation Zs return to the family home after study or travel, due to the financial constraints of living alone. With mothers (and fathers) and their adult children sharing the same space, many swap ideas and influence each other on clothing, hobbies, food and culture. It could be argued that, in part, the revival of ’80s and ’90s fashion is attributable to middle-aged women introducing their children and grandchildren to those era’s fashions. In this sense, they could be seen as influencing today’s vogue.
And in the media, more and more articles focus on women aged 50+ speaking about their personal and professional lives and their achievements in various industries. These industries are wide-ranging, from beauty to technology — sectors usually seen as the reserve of the young, and in the case of the latter, male territory. A couple of years ago, The Telegraph ran an article focusing on middle-aged women, with Gina Pell, a 52-year-old US entrepreneur, coining the term ‘perennial’ to describe middle-aged women’s ageless and timeless appearance and outlook on life. According to Pell, they are: ‘ever-blooming, relevant, involved, stay curious, [they] are passionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded risk takers’ — an accolade which many of the pale, male and stale would only ever dream of receiving.
Moix is mistaken
Women aged 50+ are part of the zeitgeist which, rightfully, encourages inclusivity and appreciation of all people. And in any event, with people living longer, often well into their 80s, 50 is no longer deemed ‘old’. If we take Moix’s assessment seriously, it would mean that around a third of a woman’s life is in the ‘old’ phase. How wrong he is.
From the workplace, to home life, to media portrayals, it is clear that many middle-aged women are driven, interesting and fun, smashing the stereotype that they are ‘invisible’, ‘crippled castrates’ — ‘too, too old’ to love or appreciate.
The stereotype is simply invalid given everything. If Moix hadn’t focused solely on women’s physical appearance, he would have perhaps realised that women aged 50 and over are highly capable, increasingly visible and not too old to do anything.