My husband, Greg, is the same age as Archie Bunker was in 1975. Me? I’m in my Edith years. And if you vaguely remember watching All in the Family back in the 1970s, you are squarely in the age of Bunker.
But I don’t look like Edith. I don’t wear housedresses or live to serve dinner to my husband. I have no children and Greg never calls me dingbat.
Times have changed. Life in the fourth and fifth decades has been redefined. So why are we still throwing shade toward middle-aged women?
Case in point: A movie that launched a million think pieces. Fifty Shades of Grey was aimed at 40-something suburban moms who learned about sexuality from Judy Blume. I have not read the book by EL James, but my husband and I saw the movie last weekend.
I’m not sure who initiated the idea. Perhaps he was intrigued by the trailer. Or maybe I decided to support the movie after listening to men trash it for appealing to middle-aged women. How odd to disparage a movie because it appeals to the wrong demographic. Money is money, no matter whose pocket or purse holds the wallet.
My opinion of the film? The groans from me weren’t sexual. The most interesting part arrived just as the film ended. As the last scene cut to black, a woman in the audience gasped, “Oh My Goodness!”
The spontaneous reaction jarred us. While the credits rolled, Greg and I laughed hard. So hard, in fact, my stomach muscles ached as people filed out of the theater. People, you know. Men and women. It was not a Chippendale’s audience.
Just before my 30th birthday, a guy friend warned me that I had about five more years left in the culture. It wasn’t because of my gender. He said he was around 35 when he realized how American mainstream culture slanted toward youth. It didn’t matter who you were. Your stories, sexuality and concerns incrementally decreased in cultural relevance with each passing year.
It took me a while to see it, and even then, I had to get a double dose of age plus gender to really notice. But when I got married at 38, I was already starting to have my fill of society’s rules for “women of a certain age.” I was supposed to ditch my bikini, if I still had it. I also had to say goodbye to miniskirts, even if I had fabulous legs.
Hairdressers tried to encourage me to wear short hair because, in their minds, older women should wear short to medium-length hair. Long hair was for models. Beauty experts advised against pairing long haircuts with an aging face. And no matter how much the media says, “40 is the new 30,” there’s still the idea that the average, non-movie star, non-famous middle-aged woman should look a bit less glamorous than a rock.
And no matter who you are, expect the general public to greet you with backhanded compliments, like “You look good – for your age.”
I don’t know how these messages break down along other racial, ethnic or class lines. It’s something I’ve longed to discuss with other women. What kind of special brand of middle-aged bullshit did you get fed?
What I do know is that all actresses over 40 get fewer parts and rarely roles with substance. And if you take out the motherhood component, what other stories are there? Plenty, but American culture does its best to marginalize and render them powerless.
When I was younger, I had no idea about almost anything. At 30, I thought I had it all figured out. Life experience, well traveled, a few relationships under my belt…. But I couldn’t connect the dots artistically until I was about 40 years old. Because going to the right arts or theater school can only give you a little bit of what you need. You get the rest by slinging sludge… For about 20 years.
Then you take the sludge, rinse it off and you might a few pieces valuable enough to polish. It occurred to me a few months ago that these are the polishing years, the most powerful years because I now have something that no amount of money can buy: wisdom. And no matter who you are or where you come from, you can have wisdom too. As long as you work for it. And you don’t die.
As I’m writing this essay, I’m looking at a story about Katherine Webb-McCarron, wife of former Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron. She’s a model and an actress who is active on social media. She instagrammed a photo of herself posing in a bikini. Then she took some grief from commenters who told her that she needed to eat a hamburger.
She addressed them on her page by taking a screenshot of the abuse. Here is an excerpt of her accompanying comment:
To all of you who think I need to gain weight or eat more, I eat just fine. I am 5’11 so I have a lot more places to put my calories. I eat crap most of the time anyways. And to all the middle-aged women who like to leave mean comments on my page about my body, you can gladly skip my page and go somewhere else. I am tall, I eat just fine and also suffer from thyroid problems so don’t make fun of me or my body when you probably have problems of your own. I rarely react to this kind of stuff, but this really bothers me.
First of all Katherine, from one Alabama resident to another, Roll Tide. Secondly, I’m sorry those people insulted you. It was inappropriate. But I gotta tell you that I’m not seeing a lot of middle-aged women on that screenshot you posted of the abuse. It’s actually a diverse crowd, so singling out middle-aged women makes it seem like you are dumping on them.
Here’s what I would’ve done: Remember that Carl’s Jr. ad you did that featured you eating a burger? Put it on a loop and tell people to kiss your gorgeous ass.
Now, it’s probably inappropriate for me to suggest that, but I’m sure you and I can reach a mutual understanding. After all, when I was your age, I too, harbored the idea that middle-aged women were jealous shrews. I also thought the stories these women probably liked were boring or irrelevant. Middlebrow. Chicklit. Trite. Cute. Domestic. Stupid. Silly. Sentimental. Not sexy, not serious and certainly not edgy.
I know where you’re coming from, and when you turn 40 and write an advice book for middle-aged women, I’ll consider buying it. Hopefully by that time, all of us will have figured out that growing old is a privilege and yes, it can even be a blessing.