How adequately are aging women represented in the media?

We live in an ageist society, which favours youth. Because of this, celebrities’ “age is inherent in the discourses” (Van den Bulck, 2014, p. 63) about their persona and appearance. This is especially true of female celebrities who come under constant scrutiny because of the “different standards for men’s and women’s aging” (Oberg, 2003, p. 126) caused by our patriarchal society. MailOnline perfectly demonstrates the public obsession with youthfulness and older female celebrities lack of representation, but when they are publicized, they are usually shown as desexualised and unattractive. There are some exceptions, for example the publication’s focus on Helen Mirren; however, “sexy” older celebrities are presented to us as anomalies.

Old age is “disdained in contemporary (Western) culture” (Ross, 2010, p. 52) and as a result, we have created “a culture that discards old people” (Siegal, 1992, p. 55). Palmore points out that ageism is so embedded in our ideologies that “we are often unaware of it” (1999, p. 86). For example, up until 2011 there was still a Default Retirement Age in the United Kingdom, meaning that an employer could force any employee to retire if they were over the age of 65. This law gave older workers second-class employment rights and meant that their job was in a continuous state of uncertainty.

However, our attitude towards old age has not always been this negative. Older people used to be considered knowledgeable whereas younger people were positioned to be lacking in “maturity, wisdom, skill and so on” (Palmore, 1999, p. 70). Cultural changes are seen to have caused the decline in the position of elders (Cuddy & Tiske, 2004, p. 17) and this alteration in hierarchy “serves a secular society whose idols are ever-increasing industrial productivity” (Sontag, 1972, p. 31).

Because of this, in addition to the sexism that all women face, “older women tend to be socially invisible” (Arber & Ginn, 1991, p. 36). Stories about Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Billie Lourd (all 24-years-old), describing their “slim legs”, “natural beauty” (Sotoodeh, 2017) and how they are “a sight for sore eyes” (“Selena Gomez Stands Out”, 2017) are typical in “All The Hottest” showbiz news on MailOnline website. The praising of a youthful appearance is apparent and indirectly shames aged features by neglecting them.

Celebrity culture holds youth “in highest esteem” (Kite & Smith Wagner, 2004, p. 129); Cruikshank has even said that to call it “‘youth-worshipping’ is an understatement” (2009, p. 139). An example of this in popular culture is the replacement of older female celebrities with younger, less qualified women, such as Alesha Dixon replacing Arlene Phillips on Strictly Come Dancing (Parsons, 2004) in 2009. Female value is linked to beauty and beauty is linked to youth. A woman’s skin “should betray no signs of wear, experience, age, or deep thought” (Bartky, 2010, p. 83); she should display “characteristics of the weak, of the vulnerable” (Sontag, 1972, p. 35). Therefore, female celebrities, and all women, face “the impossible burden of growing older without aging” (Katz & Marshall, 2003, p. 5).

The media aggressively inspects “the looks and practices of ‘older’ female celebrities” (Bacon & Brooks, 2012, p. 94), yet ‘older’ female celebrities could be anything from the age of forty upwards. Indeed shaming female celebrities in relation to their looks “often appears to be the point” (Rose, 2004, p. 203). Aging is alleged to be quicker in all women, not just celebrities, which could be why “a woman hardly has to be anything like what would reasonably be considered old to worry about her age” (Sontag, 1972, p. 32).

This premature categorisation of “old” does not, however, transfer to men (Bernard, Itzin, Phillipson & Skucha, 1995, p. 61; Ginn & Arber, 1995b, p. 174; Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 30; Kite & Smith Wagner, 2004, p. 143; Oberg, 2003, p. 117; Sontag, 1972, p. 31). Aging in men is frequently considered sexy, while women are condemned for this biological development. This double standard could be regarded “as symptomatic of gender inequality” (Bacon & Brooks, 2012, p. 85). Currently in the United Kingdom the age of eligibility for a state pension is lower for women than it is men, which may “reinforce the widespread prejudice that women ‘age’ earlier than men” (Ginn & Arber, 1995b, p. 174). Although, this gender-age gap – which was 5 years difference – is being phased out, meaning that the British state pension age will be the same for men and women by 2019.

Thanks to the internalization of images of youthfulness (Oberg, 2003, p. 127), it can come as no surprise that many female celebrities feel “immense pressure to ward off the signs of ageing” (Arber & Ginn, 1991, p. 43). Countless celebrities choose to suppress signs of aging as, “they fear a decline in their reputation” (Bytheway, 1995, p. 35). And yet, MailOnline’s dissection of Nicole Kidman establishes that this can backfire. One article describes how she looked “somewhat strained” (Glennie, 2014) suggesting that Kidman had over used Botox. It discusses how previously she looked “fresh-faced” but now appeared “remarkably puffy” (Glennie, 2014). Throughout our culture women are constantly reminded that old age is “an undesirable condition, which must be fought at all costs” (Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 132), but aging must only be ‘fought’ naturally and with poise.

On the other hand, anti-aging technologies do help legitimise our culture’s aversion to aging as they have reframed aging as an issue of health and a social problem (Cuddy & Tiske, 2004, p. 3). With the female body and experience coming under more and more medical scrutiny (Kohler Riessman, 2010, p. 51) age has been conceived as “a conundrum to be solved by science” (Dolan & Tincknell, 2012, p. ix). What Foucault called “the clinical gaze” (1973) has had a deep adverse effect on women’s self-esteem, and consequently, the discourse of science acts as an “intoxicating lure” (Martin, 2012, p. 100) to prompt the purchase of products, like anti-aging creams and procedures, causing cosmetic companies and medical professionals to profit greatly (Balazs, 2014, p. 30).

Indeed, keeping a youthful and ‘healthy’ appearance signifies the correct attitude; “it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself” (Bordo, 2003, p. 195). It is suggested that with the right amount of willpower, exercise, beauty aids and procedures we can all look youthful and attractive (Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 23). Our exterior appearance is reliant on our self-discipline and if proper control is not applied we are, “at least to some degree, morally bankrupt” (Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 23).

Bartky argues, “This self-surveillance is a form of obedience to the patriarchy” (2010, p. 94) and thanks to current ideologies women live in “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault & Sheridan, 1979, p. 201). In other words, women are held back within society because “everyday beauty practices take up women’s time, energy, money and emotional space” (Jeffreys, 2005, p. 126).

But thanks to “normative discontent” (Rodin, Siberstein & Striegel-Moore, 1984) among women, self-surveillance continues. Normative discontent means that appearance and weight dissatisfaction is so prevalent “that feeling negatively about one’s appearance is thought to be the ‘norm’ rather than the exception” (Tantleff-Dunn, Barnes, & Larose, 2011, pp. 392-393).

And yet, as Sontag points out, “Inevitably, a woman’s physical appearance develops beyond its youthful form” (1972, p. 36). Once a woman begins to look old she is often reviled as “intellectually rigid, unproductive, ineffective, and disengaged” (Palmore, 1999, p. 103). Negative stereotypes like these are “almost unconditionally accepted” (Golub, Filipowicz, & Langer, 2004, p. 277) and often mean that old women are “pitied but not respected” (Cuddy & Tiske, 2004, p. 17). This is true of the portrayal of 90-year-old June Brown in an article from MailOnline. It talks about Brown’s loss of hearing and sight, but how, because of “financial fears”, she is not giving up work (Packer, 2015). Despite her long-running role on EastEnders (Greening, 1985) the tone of the article is pitiful and renders Brown as feeble.

As a woman’s beauty and status is commonly defined in terms of her capability to reproduce, our patriarchal society typically desexualised post-menopausal women, like June Brown. The article from MailOnline fails to acknowledge any aspect of Brown’s looks, perhaps because once motherhood ceases to be a major source of identity (Markson, 2003, p. 81), sex is seen as “negligible or past” (Kogan & Shelton, 1962, p. 15).

As older women are redundant from the point of view of both capitalism and patriarchy, they face “a heightened disadvantage due to both their gender and their age” (McMullin, 1995, p. 36). They are perceived to be beyond their “social and economic usefulness” (Ross, 2010, p. 52) because of contemporary stereotypes and discrimination against their “failure to achieve idealized beauty standards” (Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 4). This “double marginality” (Woodward, 1995, p. 87) has caused old women to be “among the most devalued and marginalized social groups” (Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 30).

And yet, surprisingly some older women are represented as dynamic and attractive. Helen Mirren, for instance, “exemplifies aging glamour” (Martin, 2012, p. 98) and seemingly makes aging more acceptable. MailOnline describes how Mirren is “elegant” and “defies her age” (Chester & Smith, 2015). But, aging beauty is defined very narrowly. Railton and Watson describe “decorum, poise, elegance and grace” as “watchwords of attractive older femininity” (2012, p. 200) suggesting that older female celebrities still feel pressure to ‘act one’s age’ (Ginn & Arber, 1995a, p. 8). Additionally, “senior sexiness” must emphasise “glamour, allure, and desirability” (Wearing, 2012, p. 146). MacMaster point towards Twiggy and Jane Fonda as older celebrities who’s aging is deemed acceptable thanks to their continued glamour (2012, p. 43).

The only “heroic images of active old people” in the media tend to be of celebrities (Featherstone, 1995, p. 227), Hurd Clarke identifies that this may be because “a woman’s experience of aging is related to her social location” (2011, p. 6) in terms of her class, sexual preference, physical ability, and ethnicity. Those who have lower incomes and less leisure time are much more likely to find it difficult to delay the appearance of age (Ginn & Arber, 1995a, p. 8; Sontag, 1972, p. 36).

Principally, it would appear that older women who are represented as attractive are only deemed attractive through “established and entrenched body-maintenance practices that signal success in terms of ‘passing’ for youthful” (Garde-Hansen, 2012, p. 162). MailOnline probably only depicts Mirren as attractive as she is a “blonde beauty” with a “nicely toned body” (Chester & Smith, 2015). Sontag states, “what makes these women seem beautiful to us is precisely that they do not look their real age” (1972, p. 36).

In this way, these apparently positive representations of older women are still just as bad for shaming women’s aged bodies as they “starkly remind the audience that the sustainability of sexual attractiveness is one of the most highly valued personal commodities in the media market” (Garde-Hansen, 2012, pp. 161-162).

Overall, while policy in the United Kingdom is changing to help fight ageism, aging women still tend to be inadequately represented in the media for the reason that ageism is so embedded in our ideologies and because they are “already devalued as female” (Cruikshank, 2009, p. 143). Additionally, because the patriarchy’s ideal state for women is docility (Sontag, 1972, p. 38), beauty standards and practices will continue to be enforced helping to shame any appearance that differs from what society deems beautiful. Traditionally, this idea of beauty always excludes the body fat, wrinkles, and grey hair typically found on older women, perhaps due to the fact that women grow more powerful with time (Wolf, 1990, p. 14) and these powerful older women pose a potential threat to the patriarchy.

 

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