Including older women, or extending sexism? Midlife women in popular culture

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By Dr Julie Whiteman
Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham

On 8th March we heard much about ‘inspiring inclusion’ as part of International Women’s Day celebrations. Inspiring inclusion will mean many things to many people, recognising the scope of exclusion that permeates all aspects of our society. By focusing on inclusion, it is hoped we will shine a light on the spectrum of exclusion and intersectional discrimination women face, raising awareness and inspiring ongoing and lasting change. In this vein, I would like to highlight sexist ageism in popular culture.

We know that youth, beauty and sexuality are forms of capital for women and that women over 40 are largely excluded from them. We also know that popular culture, which increasingly overlaps with marketing, plays a significant role in shaping cultural power and gender politics. Consuming, that is watching, reading, listening to, absorbing, popular culture representations has implications for how we think and feel about ourselves and others; representations matter for how we see and experience our role and value in society. When a group of people are absent from or underrepresented in media representations, this is recognised as symbolic annihilation, a process that contributes to their trivialisation and condemnation in social life. Seeing ourselves represented and represented meaningfully can be a powerful source of inspiration, as noted by Academy Award winning actor and campaigner / activist for onscreen diversity Geena Davis, If She Can See It, She Can Be It.

Representations create, define and legitimise subject positions. When we examine representations of ageing women, some significant absences become apparent. This impacts how we – I count myself among the category of ageing women – feel about ourselves, and how others feel about us.

One of the first things we notice is that there are very few, if any, visible signs of ageing. Grey hairs and wrinkles are absent. Desirable and beautiful midlife women radiate and are celebrated for their youthful good looks, reinforcing the normative belief that beauty = youth. Typically, they are slim, conventionally attractive, light skinned and able-bodied, conforming to and reinforcing a contemporary feminine ideal in all ways except age. Implicit in this representation is the exclusion of those who do not, can not or will not meet this standard, including but not limited to fat women, wrinkled women, dark skinned women, and those women who cannot afford the cosmetics, treatments and procedures required to maintain this appearance. In this framing of womanhood, we are either young or old, a label applied to us based on whether or not we are sexually desirable to a heterosexual male gaze.

This connects to another absence, the sexually desiring and desirable ageing woman. Ageing bodies, and women’s bodies in particular, have normatively been identified as ‘sexually repulsive’, and sex in later life as ‘unwatchable’. Interestingly, a growing genre of gerontocom movies is visibilising ageing women with plots designed to attract the silver pound as ageing female protagonists ‘find themselves’ through new loves and lovers. Featuring midlife actresses who meet the youthful beauty standards outlined above, these films arguably challenge the concept of the female actresses’ Last Fuckable Day satirised by American Comedian Amy Schumer.

Taken together, these trends suggest an important gendered linking of two powerful contemporary ideologies, postfeminism and successful ageing. Postfeminism, intricately linked with consumer culture and sexualisation, foregrounds the concepts of choice and empowerment in and through consumption of e.g., skincare, beauty, fashion, sex, and lacks political underpinning. Successful ageing, similarly linked to consumption culture through the idea that it is the individual’s responsibility to fight the physical decline of age through consumption (e.g., vitamins, exercise, medicine), increasingly incudes calls to maintain a healthy and active sex life. Both postfeminist and successful ageing ideologies place responsibility on the individual for the accomplishment of their ideals, with no consideration of social, political, economic, genetic, or structural barriers or constraints.

This vision of ageing female sexuality calls on women to remain youthful and sexually desirable and holds those who do not responsible, excluding them from the representational framework, absenting them from the socially sanctioned definition of valued ageing womanhood.

I argue these (re)presentations of ageing female sexuality perpetuate a discriminatory feminine ideal that has real implications for ageing female consumers’ self-esteem and confidence. I argue these representations of ageing female sexuality contribute to a nuanced reworking of sexism that maintains exclusionary ideals of femininity (e.g., young, slim, heterosexual) meet ageism. Through my analysis in the published work, I draw attention to class systems and social structures to highlight how power circulates and how the self is experienced through consumption, shedding light on its potential to shape and inform gendered and sexual politics.

My chapter ‘Film and the marketplace exclusion of aging female sexuality: a critical feminist review’ is published in the book ‘Responsible Marketing, Well-being and Society: a research companion’ out in April 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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