Once, women were old at 40, but as Helen Mirren shows, age no longer
July 20, 2008
What is the essence of modern womanhood, the one hard-to-define
component that makes us all want to cheer the loudest, ecstatic with
gratitude for the changes wrought over the past few decades? What is
the thing that has made the most difference – the right to vote,
equal pay or the elusive promise thereof? The pill? Abortion? Divorce?
Or the possibility that we may, at 62, perhaps look like Helen Mirren
in a bikini?
And if you think that's shallow, I would humbly posit that you
understand nothing at all about real women's hopes and ambitions.
Today we all have fortysomething, fifty-something, even
sixtysomething friends who dress in such a way that they look about
15 from the back. We think it's perfectly normal. It was not always
so, even within living memory.
I am 42 and I can still just about remember the time when becoming "a
mother" meant two things: a) you got a lovely baby and b) you got
"promoted" overnight to the ranks of the dowdy middle-aged, without
having any say in the matter. Being "a woman" meant no longer being
"a girl", which translated into bad clothes, bad hair, bad make-up
and, if you were especially unfortunate, a bad figure. The idea that
a woman in her sixties might one day deport herself in the sunshine,
bikini-clad and exuding sexual confidence, would have been so
improbable as to seem insane.
Worse, having reproduced meant that in the eyes of society you no
longer existed as a sexual being. And all of this happened
heartbreakingly young: women went from girlfriend to prematurely
middle-aged fiancée often before their 25th birthday and as soon as
they had popped the firstborn out – well, hello old lady: here's your
twinset and here's a wonderful recipe for marmalade; the Stannah
stairlift is on order for when you need it.
This applied uniformly across the board. When I was at school I was
convinced that every one of my teachers was in her mid-sixties and it
wasn't just the callowness of youth that made me get it wrong by
I know now that they were for the most part in their thirties, but it
was an easy mistake to make since many of them were – horrors! –
unmarried, coupled with the fact that they were still part of a
generation which, superficially "liberated" as it might have been
(which is to say good at the theory but less so at the practice),
believed that "bluestockings" were automatically frumps.
My friends' mothers were, in some cases, extremely glamorous, in a
look-but-don't-touch kind of way, but they had not an ounce of
anything that would pass for recognisable sex appeal between them.
Looking like someone who had a sex life simply wasn't done – and on
the rare occasion when it was, you could hardly move for the
accusations of vulgarity and the overwhelming sense of pity at poor
old so-and-so (usually divorced) not managing to "age gracefully" (at
43 or so).
"Letting yourself go" – as in the sexy Italian girl getting married,
producing children, putting on five stone, donning a black frock and
devoting the rest of her life to mass and pasta – was not only a
cliché but a daily reality, whether you were slipping on your
housecoat (housecoats! Where are they now?) in Doncaster or waddling
around Puglia dressed like an ancient crone, old before your time.
All of those women were younger than I am now and a good 30 years
younger than Mirren.
If the picture was depressing for mothers, it was entirely bleak for
grandmothers. A bit of baking, a bit of bridge or canasta, the sense
that you were 102 and that society would treat you as such, even if
you were in your late forties, and that was your lot – if you were
lucky. Come to think of it, a lot of the grannies, my own included,
were the sort of age that I am now.
Now, obviously, there wouldn't be much point in looking like Mirren
if we couldn't vote, or got paid 2p an hour, or felt that sexual
harassment came with the female territory and rolled our weary eyes
every time some sweaty creep in a cheap suit copped a quick feel (or
worse) at work.
And we must all give daily thanks for every painstakingly won
societal and political gender advance (Mirren herself has always been
a vocal card-carrying femi-nist).
But the fact remains that a 62-year-old woman looking hot – properly
hot, not "hot for her age" or hot as in "fanciable, even though you
know you shouldn't" is a thing that simply can't be celebrated enough.
By wearing her red bikini with such style, Mirren has redefined the
possibilities and smashed through any number of societal glass ceilings.
The photograph of Mirren looking golden and happy and incredibly
sexy, with (slightly annoyingly, I must say, it does raise the bar
somewhat) a figure that many women of my generation would kill for,
is going to become famous and with excellent reason – not least that
she is properly sexy.
There are no comedy plastic bosoms, or an eerily smooth face, or
grotesquely inflated absurdi-lips, no weirdly sinewy body that
suggests she lives in the gym. She just looks great.
She has perhaps had a reasonable bit of "work", but nothing that is
outside most people's league, now that so-called minor surgical
procedures are deregulated and your chiropodist can technically give
you Botox: we are hardly talking three facelifts and intensive body work.
It's not a look that you often get in Heat magazine and its
imitators: apart from Mirren's fantastic figure, what was noticeably
absent was the sad-desperate-exploited look of many celebrity
magazine regulars who are 30 or 40 years her junior.
I am reliably informed that prior to last year's Oscars, T-shirts
appeared in New York and Los Angeles featuring a picture of Mirren
and the legend DILF, as in MILF, but not. Ask a young man to explain
the ILF part (it is a yearning plea for physical intimacy); the D
stands for "Dame". At the ceremony itself the two cool young
comedians, whose job it was to keep the audience amused, sang them a
song, the refrain of which was, "I'm going home with Helen Mirren".
Mirren was up for (and won) an Oscar for her performance as the
Queen. She is beautiful, which helps – but this isn't just about her
physical appearance, pleasing as it is. It is about the breeziness
with which she seems to be saying, "Here I am – I'm 62 and this is
how it is for me and how it could be for you." It is a triumphant
assertion of easy, carefree femininity.
We live in a time when young women are tormented by lack of
confidence, beset by endless anxieties concerning their perceived
physical inadequacies and self-harming in a variety of different ways
– from cutting themselves to starving themselves, via binge eating.
Middle-aged women don't seem to be significantly better off: many are
desperately trying to keep up with their twenty-something
counterparts, which is inevitably doomed to failure and doesn't make
anyone feel great about themselves.
Older women, though – women who, three generations ago, would have
either been heading for the nursing home or intensely devoted to card
games and cats – are not only where it's at but where many of us
would like to be: happy, carefree, sexy, in charge.
Witness the brilliance of Meryl Streep, who is (incredibly) pushing
60, in this summer's smash-hit blockbuster Mamma Mia! The thing that
has audiences whooping and dancing in the aisles isn't the charming
sweetness of the film's younger cast members, but the sight (and
sound) of near-pensioner Streep, who would have been defined as
elderly not so long ago, bouncing up and down on a bed, yelling Abba
lyrics and looking beautiful and free and sensual while she does it.
It's not just Streep: her co-stars also steal the show and none of
them will see 50 again.
What the film demonstrates with startling clarity is that the rewards
of feminism are far more enjoyable than its arguments – and that
those rewards come only with age and experience. Mamma Mia! is
powered by some of the obsessions that classic feminists hate – men,
marriage, children, domestic bliss – and yet, ironically enough, it
manages to be the most female-affirming film of the past decade. And
Mirren in her red bikini says more, more succinctly, about what women
want and can achieve than any amount of turgid feminist preaching ever could.
Women's interest in looking good is still not a subject that is taken
seriously: being devoted to lipstick, or to making sure that you look
nice on the beach, is still tantamount to admitting that you are
unforgiv-ably shallow. Men snigger derisively and so-called serious
women are scornful of such supposedly lightweight interests.
I've never understood it: surely taking an interest in your
appearance is the most basic indicator of self-respect and if you
ain't got self-respect, then you ain't got much, even if you can
quote Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon until everybody falls
asleep with boredom.
Both the Mirren photograph and the film of Mamma Mia! show women's
interest in how they look and how they survive and how they enjoy
laughing and dressing up and being surrounded by beautiful things is
so important that it is nowadays the biggest part of their success –
patriarchy be damned. Who cares, when you have a super-capable
matriarchy speaking for millions and asserting itself so persuasively?
The trick was always turning towards yourself without turning away
from men and the older these women are, the better they have managed
it – not just in films but in real life, too. Witness the fact that
every survey tells us that older women have better, more satisfying
sex than their daughters; have more disposable income; are freer;
laugh more; have nicer possessions and are better dressed.
What has worked isn't necessarily increasing politicisation, or the
fact that many of these women are the right age to have been at the
vanguard of the feminist movement. It is age. Specifically, it is the
thrilling combination of age and health – and, as Nora Ephron once
said, the life-changing power of hair dye.
Which leads neatly to the often derided, but in my view genuinely
life-changing, advances in health, cosmetics and cosmetic procedures.
It is fashionable to mock all three as being of interest only to the
super-vain, as though it had been decreed that you can't have
intelligent opinions unless you're the kind of person who embraces
crepy skin and facial hair. This is the nastiest, most demented kind
of woman-hating nonsense, usually spouted by women who might know
better if they made an attempt at living in the real world, rather
than speculating about it from the loneliness of the ivory tower.
It is an intractable fact that how we look is intensely tied up with
how we feel and that advances over the past 20 years or so mean that
we now have the opportunity to defy age and, with it, to defy all the
clichés concerning age-appropriate behaviour and pastimes. To me, the
fact that a 55-year-old woman doesn't have to have a turkey neck or
great big jowls if she doesn't want them is as revolutionary as, for
example, being paid properly for maternity leave. It really matters.
I was brought up abroad and old Europe has been rather ahead of the
game when it comes to all of this. There may have been no shortage of
young married women waddling around in black tents, as though in
perpetual mourning for their youth (a fact that always strikes me
when British or American women howl with outrage about burqas. Have
they never been to rural Greece? Italy? Spain? At least you often get
a bit of designer bling under the burqa; the last person I saw take
hers off was wearing Cavalli. In the Med, all that lurks under the
figure-denying black cotton are giant control pants), but there were
also a couple of dazzling exemplars of feisty, gorgeous,
self-affirming "older women", namely Catherine Deneuve in France and
Sophia Loren in Italy.
These were women who didn't take age or maltreatment lying down and
were not gladdened – as so many British women seem to be – by the
prospect of age-related invisibility and the loss of power that went
with it. They wanted to be enlarged by their decades' experience, not
reduced by it. They wore their beauty triumphantly – they still do.
They were spellbindingly beautiful, past 60 and past caring about
what anybody thought. They were, and remain, feminist exemplars.
Now, at long last, we have one too. Look and learn.
Age cannot wither them
STILL LOOKING GOOD
Sophia Loren, 73 (September 20, 1934)
Jane Fonda, 70 (December 21, 1937)
Julie Christie, 67 (April 14, 1941)
Catherine Deneuve, 64 (October 22, 1943)
Dolly Parton, 62 (January 19, 1946)
Helen Mirren, 62 (July 26, 1945)
Goldie Hawn, 62 (November 21, 1945)
Glenn Close, 61 (March 19, 1947)
Meryl Streep, 59 (June 22, 1949)
... AND NOT SO GOOD
Brigitte Bardot, 73 (September 28, 1934)
Glenda Jackson, 72 (May 9, 1936)
... AND STILL YOUNGSTERS
Michelle Pfeiffer, 50 (April 29, 1958)
Madonna, 49 (August 16, 1958)