tekst: Mila Apostolova
A midlife crisis is a very familiar concept that is often used to describe a transition of identity occurring in middle-aged individuals. The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis that is usually triggered by events highlighting a person’s growing age, for example physical ones, such as gray hair and wrinkles. The midlife crisis as a phenomenon is hard to conceptualize and it is tricky to empirically prove its existence or commonality, since studies on midlife crises have to be longitudinal in order to be accurate. This type of study collects data over a long period of time, which can be expensive and time-consuming. However, it is important to acknowledge such a crisis in order to stimulate new research on how social expectations on the one hand, and personal goals on the other impact one’s self-perception at middle age, as many personal goals might not be supported by society when you reach a certain age, like becoming a fashion icon.
Aging is particularly cruel to women, for many reasons, but especially because society associates femininity with youth, as if women were perishable goods.
It is completely legitimate to consider the transition to middle age as a crisis, because it is not just a harmless transition. It is a crisis because it can be described as a very difficult moment in someone’s life, a period marked by uneasiness. Indeed, this apprehension is fueled by social expectations and by the depreciative image of the elderly that society has created. Old age is not valued in general, either for men or for women. However, it is important to note that women might feel this crisis more heavily because we live under a patriarchal system that perpetuates sexism and stigmatizes women who do not fit our beauty standards. Being young is one of the main criteria of those standards. Moreover, we are often exposed to a depreciative image of older women that is conveyed through media, literature, and other cultural formats. The social pressure of looking young has been targeting and affecting women for centuries, and it is important not only to acknowledge and communicate this fact, but also to change our own view on the matter.
There is a certain asymmetry that needs to be examined, because these women, often invisible in the media and discriminated against, are so much more than just witches and grandmothers.
The social pressure
Throughout history, many male authors have fought hard against the acknowledgment of older women. For example, the French poet Pierre de Ronsard was one of the most persistent authors in this pressure on women to stay young. He wrote various poems during the 16th century expressing the idea that the beauty of women flies away with age, and that the only time a woman can taste the pleasures of life is when she’s young. These portrayals introduce not only a negative physical depiction of elderly women but also the prohibition of their pleasure, making it taboo. They are not only depicted as having an unpleasant physical appearance, but also as lonely people, with neither romantic nor sexual relationships, with no hobbies, and never having fun.
Have you ever noticed that we do not see many elder women in movies, advertisements and magazines?
In the 19th century, the perception of old women was formed very precisely, influenced by the theme of the witch, a representation of women that is still present nowadays. The witch is not simply a creature born from folklore, because the witch as an archetypal figure represents everything a woman shouldn’t be; old, single or widowed, childless, wrinkled or white-haired. All of these characteristics are portrayed as scary, and are often used in comparison to their counterpart. In the Disney classics, for example, it is common to see the contrast between the witch character and the young and beautiful princess, nourishing the idea that a woman’s value can be found in her youth but never in her wisdom or lifelong experience.
During the 20th century, female authors questioned the depiction of old women that had long weighed them. The difficulties linked to womens old age were dealt with in several works written by women, such as the American essayist Susan Sontag who published a long article named “The double standard of aging” in 1972 where she compares the processes of men and women facing aging, asking herself: “Why do women lie about their age?” She analyzes the shame, the humiliation, and even somewhat social phobia that women feel when they reach a certain age. Aging is particularly cruel to women, for many reasons, but especially because society associates femininity with youth, as if women were perishable goods. The French author Colette is also an important writer on the subject of female aging who has attracted particular attention from critics. She portrayed old women in her works and was the first author to thematize explicitly the topic of menopause in her novel Julie de Carneilhan, published in 1941.
Of course, the impact of realizing you are reaching a certain age is not only a result of societal pressure and expectations. It is also an internal, hormonal bodily change that can lead to numerous symptoms such as sleep disorders, fatigue or migraines. Even though both men and women undergo biological changes as they get older, women are the ones that have to bear the looks of reproval. As Carrie Fisher put it: “Men don’t age better, they are just allowed to age”.
Representation of older women in the media
Have you ever noticed that we do not see many elder women in movies, advertisements and magazines? Women have a longer life expectancy than men, which means that elderly communities in many countries are mostly female. In Europe in 2017, the sex ratio for ages 80 and over was 53 men per 100 women, and worldwide it was 64 men per 100 women. This difference can be seen from the age of 65 and onwards. But if they are more numerous, why do we see fewer elderly women than elderly men?
Even if there are more older women than men, they are socially invisibilized, especially in popular culture. In the cinematographic industry, we can find thousands of movies in which the female main character is played by a much younger actress than the character’s age, while the male character is played by an actor whose age matches the character’s. Age gaps between female and male actors playing the role of a couple is also a very common thing, even in cases where it does not make sense. For example, in the upcoming movie Kitbag, directed by Ridley Scott and based on Napoleon’s life, Napoleon will be played by Joaquin Phoenix who is 47 years old. His wife Joséphine, however, will be played by Vanessa Kirby who is 33 years old. It was initially planned that the actress Jodie Comer, who is 28, would play this role. The funny thing is that in the movie Josephine is 14 years younger than Napoleon, but in real life Joséphine was 6 years older. So why is that?
When movies portray a couple where the man is older, is it never the main subject because it is expected. But when it is the other way around it is very much controversial. The film industry pushes women to stay young, while old women do not exist on the screen because young women play all the roles. An analysis of US films between 1920 and 2011 showed that by age 30, women only get 40 percent of the leading roles. The study also showed that past age 40, men claim 80 percent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 percent.
Even very well-known actresses like Meryl Streep has encountered issues since turning 40, when she suddenly started only being offered roles as witches. This reinforces a negative view towards the physical appearance of older women because we are used to believing that 40-year-old women look like 28-year-old women.
Do not leave them in the forest
We realize that in western culture the representation of old women is quite unforgiving. It is harsh, it punishes and incriminates women just for the fact that they are old and women. What is the solution then? It is hard to say, because the image attributed to old women by society comes from a sexist perspective, which is deeply rooted in our way of thinking. However, we could distance ourselves from the general view that old age is a bad thing, and we could even start seeing it as something valuable and worthy of respect. In fact, there are several examples of this attitude towards the elderly in other cultures, where elderly women and men are treated with respect.
The Yanomami people are an indigenous community living along the borders of Venezuela and Brazil. In Yanomami culture, old women are esteemed and immune to violence when there are conflicts between villages. They also have power in decision-making and politics, since they are looked highly upon. Moreover, in northeastern Brazil there is an indigenous community called Potiguara. Fatima is one of the two female shamans in the Potiguara community, and she explained in an interview how old age no longer exists among them because being old means no longer being of any use. She said : “When something is old we just leave it in the forest. And we never leave anyone in the forest”. If we had the same, or at least a similar conception of old age, perhaps the midlife crisis would be lighter to bear and easier to live with.
Mila Apostolova: (f.2001), kognitiv nevrovitenskap, UiO