Yesterday I taught a seminar on the representation of ageing women in popular culture. The idea of ‘shelf life’ came up a lot in the discussion – at what point do you cease to be culturally relevant? If ‘culturally relevant’ requires you to be fertile and sexually available, the answer is ‘surprisingly early’. If you have a look at Vulture’s grim graphs plotting the ages of certain Hollywood actors against those of their female co-stars you can see that a twenty-year age gap is fairly standard in these pairings: the women tend to peak in the mid-thirties, in some cases early forties, while the men clock over into their fifties and sixties (unless the man is Tom Hanks, who doesn’t seem to be quite as allergic to older women as are, for example, Denzel Washington and Johnny Depp).
Skepchick did a follow-up of the Vulture piece, and found that Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep began to be paired with younger co-stars once they got over forty, which is an interesting phenomenon, but even then the men are usually within a decade of the women – and Ryan, Roberts and Streep are in a league of their own as far as profile and career longevity goes (or, as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler put it in their 2014 Golden Globes intro, “there are still great roles in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over sixty”). We’re a long way off of actresses pushing sixty being routinely paired with twenty- and thirty-something co-stars.
This thinning visibility of all but the rarest women in the 40+ age group is nothing new, and sits appallingly well with the fact that so much of women’s lives is taken up by the fear of running out of time, of needing to get the career and family established before it’s too late (at which point we can start worrying about the true horror scenario of “becoming our mothers” – can you imagine anything worse?) In the discussion yesterday one student even mentioned being advised against taking a gap year after high school so she wouldn’t risk her chances of ‘having it all’.
Fun fact: a woman who has her first child at age 35 or over is referred to as an “elderly primagravida”- a marginal improvement on the earlier “geriatric primagravida”,
Let’s take a break here from this depressing heteronormative ageist sexism sundae and cleanse our palates with the exquisite video for Of Monsters and Men’s “Empire”.
Whenever I think about age I end up thinking about Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where he defines the characteristics of men in their youth, old age and prime. I’d quote all of it if I could, but let’s stick to highlights:
- Young men have strong passions, and tend to gratify them indiscriminately.
- They love [honour and victory] more than they love money, which indeed they love very little, not having yet learnt what it means to be without it.
- They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning.
- They are fond of fun and therefore witty, wit being well-bred insolence.
“Wit being well-bred insolence” – what a phrase! All in all young men come out rather well in Aristotle’s estimation. Hot-headed and naive, sure, but courageous, honourable, active, bit of a lark. So far so good.
- They have often been taken in, and often made mistakes; and life on the whole is a bad business.
- They “think,” but they never “know”; and because of their hesitation they always add a “possibly” or a “perhaps,” putting everything this way and nothing positively.
- Consequently they neither love warmly nor hate bitterly, but following the hint of Bias they love as though they will some day hate and hate as though they will some day love.
- They are cowardly, and are always anticipating danger; unlike that of the young, who are warm-blooded, their temperament is chilly; old age has paved the way for cowardice; fear is, in fact, a form of chill.
- Their fits of anger are sudden but feeble. Their sensual passions have either altogether gone or have lost their vigour: consequently they do not feel their passions much.
Yeech. Old men seem pretty dreadful, right? Cold, cynical cowards the lot of them. (How great is “fear is a form of chill”, though?) Is it any wonder we fear ageing, and have all sorts of hang-ups about representing or even discussing things like sexuality in old age, when one of the cornerstones of Western civilisation cannot find a single redeeming feature in advanced age?
- They have neither that excess of confidence which amounts to rashness, nor too much timidity, but the right amount of each.
- They neither trust everybody nor distrust everybody, but judge people correctly.
- Their lives will be guided not by the sole consideration either of what is noble or of what is useful, but by both; neither by parsimony nor by prodigality, but by what is fit and proper.
- All the valuable qualities that youth and age divide between them are united in the prime of life, while all their excesses or defects are replaced by moderation and fitness.
These guys seem worth knowing – although admittedly they do come across as a bit less interesting than the other two (no character flaws? really?).
At the end of this bit Aristotle also defines the age for this perfect balance in a man’s life. Are you ready?
“The body is in its prime from thirty to five-and-thirty; the mind about forty-nine.”
Two observations: those ages are later than what I would have initially thought, which betrays something of my own prejudices, and also incredibly specific. Why 49, and not 48, or 50? (And how old was Aristotle when he set down his pronouncement?) Remember that you tip over from this most laudable phase of your adult life very quickly into something very grim indeed: if you haven’t been overcome by cynicism, self-doubt and a sexless existence by your early fifties – you will. Soon. You are running out of time. (Aristotle did also think that women differed from men because they were too cold and too wet, so take his wisdom on the human condition with a ladleful of salt.)
‘Fear is a form of chill’ is a self-perpetuating idea. If old people are bitter cowards with no time for flares of feeling in their lives (on top of being ugly, smelly, technologically incompetent and a range of other exciting stereotypes) who would want to be old? You become afraid of becoming old, and the freeze settles in just in time for you to turn [insert arbitrary delimiter of Old Age].
This isn’t a buoyantly positive post about how age is only a number and let’s all just embrace our magnificent mortality – although, yes, all that – nor am I going to suggest we all be grateful for the time we have and look forward to ageing well (I’m sick today, so do excuse me’n’ my aching Cockney bones for being particularly aware of the limitations of the body at present). But if the chill of fear can make us into bitter old people* then surely a liberal slathering of well-bred insolence can have the opposite effect. Sure, it won’t make us any younger, but it may at least ward off making “a bad business” of what’s left. So on that note: go do something ridiculous.
If you’ve got the time.
*If twisting the words of dead philosophers is wrong I don’t want to be right.
P.S. This post was initially titled “Men in their prime, or why Denzel Washington doesn’t want to have sex with you”, which sounds jazzier but doesn’t match what the post ended up being about. I’ll leave the title here so you can ruminate on what could have been.