Aging women can accept invisibility or find new vision

ALICE STEINBACH

October 18, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Most men, in my opinion, have a far smoother transition than women when it comes to the matter of aging. You could even make a case that there is no transition as a male moves from youth to middle age and beyond: Not only do many men reach the height of their earning power in their 50s, they also remain -- partly because of financial power -- sexually attractive.

Women, on the other hand, traverse a bumpier road as they move from their 40s into their 50s: Most find themselves confronting a huge obstacle around which they must navigate if the journey is to be successful.

The bump, of course, is the aging process itself. Which, for women, means the loss or diminishment of the two assets considered by society to make a woman most sexually desirable: youth and beauty.

From adolescence on, women absorb the message that this discrepancy exists between male aging and female aging. It is, after all, an important element in the pop music, television and movie culture that dominates our society. We see, for instance, that actors like 60-something Sean Connery can still play the romantic partner to women the age of Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer.

Actresses, on the other hand, often begin to play "character" roles in their 40s. A recent New York Times interview with Faye Dunaway, 51, addressed some of the problems facing actresses of her age. "Can we extend, as they do in Europe, the age of a leading lady?" Ms. Dunaway wonders. "Can we not be stopped by age. Can we think there is allure?"

The New York Times reporter describes such a hope as "the fight of her [Dunaway's] life," and goes on to quote an unidentified film executive as saying about the actress: "There is a lot of conflict between that part of her that wants to play leading ladies and the fact that those kinds of roles for women as they get older don't exist."

It is a remark, I might add, that strikes me as another example of art imitating life.

If, however, you want an example of life imitating art, look at a letter in the same New York Times re the Woody-Mia-Soon-Yi triangle. It is headlined "What Men Want," and the male writer states that it is "a simple anthropological fact" that "all -- and I mean all -- societies reflect male preference for young females."

Case closed.

Or is it?

As millions of female baby boomers move through their 40s, the subject of women and aging has suddenly come out of the closet. Two books on menopause -- one by Gail Sheehy, the other by Germaine Greer -- are currently hot tickets in bookstores.

In an interview promoting her book Ms. Greer calls menopause "a liberation, an unwanted liberation. . . It leaves a way open for loving men in a different way." But she also indicts a "patriarchal society," which renders middle-aged women "invisible" once they are no longer able to fulfill its demands. She writes of the aging woman:

"She can no longer play the obedient daughter, the pneumatic sex object or the Madonna. Unless she consents to enter into the expensive, time-consuming and utterly futile business of denying that she has passed her sell-by date, she has sooner or later to register the fact that she has been junked by consumer culture."

Of course, one could make a case that if a woman, of any age, can junk consumer culture before it junks her, then she might experience what Colette described as "that lightheartedness which comes to a woman when the peril of men has left her." Colette chose her words carefully, emphasizing that it is the peril of men -- not men themselves -- that women need to junk.

In other words: Women need to define themselves outside of what has been called the "male gaze." Throughout history, it has been the male gaze that has determined who is desirable and who is not. And it is the male gaze that sets the limitations on what a woman may be after her youthful roles no longer fit.

Gloria Steinem once suggested that Marilyn Monroe was a female impersonator; that all women are female impersonators. What we are impersonating, in this context, is the male vision of what a woman is or ought to be. But the vision of what women ought to be stops somewhere around the age of 50. The male gaze has no vision beyond that. And so women become "invisible."

But women who are open to living outside the male gaze may find themselves discovering a very pleasant truth: That there's a whole lot more to the middle ages than attracting Mr. Right.

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