Vogue, And Just Like That - even the glossiest depictions of Queenagers evoke a gendered-ageist backlash
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (August 13th 2023)
Why there is still a long way to go in making normal older women feel visible
Greetings from grey London where the sun has been MIA for the last two weeks and everyone – except me – is on holiday! The streets are weirdly empty – I went to the Globe last week to watch Macbeth and wore my DryRobe to keep off the wet. It’s a very autumnal August. I’m chained to my desk trying to finish my Queenager book; it’s like doing A levels or Finals – that feeling that the whole world is out having fun or chilling, except for you. The deadline is September which focuses the mind. So I hope you are lying in a hammock with a great book and a cold drink – if so have one for me!
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It’s amazing how often I disappear down a phone worm-hole for distraction… so I was delighted to find on Friday the September Vogue cover which is a new shoot featuring the original Super Models from the 1980s and 90s – Linda, Cindi, Christy and Naomi (it’s a measure of quite how famous they still are that the first names suffice). Anyway, I bunged a pic of the cover on mine and Noon’s social media with a post along the lines of “wha-hey Vogue puts a clutch of Queenagers on the cover”. I reckoned it was good grist to older women becoming more visible in the culture and since Vogue is the acme of fashion, particularly the September issue, having four 50-somethings struck me as a Queenager win…
I’d barely finished posting, however, when the backlash began. There on MailOnline (where else?) was a gleefully scornful piece criticising the cover for looking “funereal” and the women for “looking like Real Housewives going to a post-divorce party”; they just couldn’t wait to attack the issue for being ‘lazy’ and ‘dull’. Hmm – 12000 people have seen my LinkedIn post and not a single one reflected those views. It was all ‘hooray’ and ‘I feel seen’ and ‘go Queenagers’. And then I noticed that a Mail columnist today (a woman) had attacked the Supers for looking unrecognisable because of all their anti-ageing ‘work’ and so not being reflective of most women. (Given this columnist has had plenty of such ‘work’ herself that seemed hypocritical, particularly coming from the Mail which just loves to make women feel bad about things they’d never even considered before – I give you Cankles, and Bingo Wings for starters, not to mention years of body-shaming articles about women who -boo hiss – ‘let themselves go’. So criticising super-models for employing anti-ageing techniques.. that was a new line of attack from them. Just shows you can’t win!)
What this proved is the huge amount of gendered ageism which still greets even the most innocuous outing by older women – recreating an iconic 1992 Vogue Supermodel cover with Queenagers who are still some of the most famous faces in the world is hardly radical really. It’s not like they are using REAL civilian 50 or 60 somethings – with wrinkles and lived-in bodies. These are super models famous for their pulchritude. Yet even when the older women are supermodels, the world is stilluncomfortable with Queenagers being centre stage. The old ageist tropes raise their heads and this time is was overwhelmingly women leading the charge (time to examine some of that internalised misogyny ladies, or your inner ageism?).
It’s the same with the reviews of And Just Like That (the Sex and the City reboot which has Carrie Bradshaw and the gang back on our screens but now in their late 50s). I’ve been enjoying the series, the CLOTHES for starters. While I admit it’s gone a bit 2023 box-ticking on the issues – they’ve all got women of colour now as new best friends and Cynthia Nixon (Miranda) is gay and exploring her lesbian tendencies with a non-binary person – I don’t mind that. What I found more disturbing was the body-shaming in the issue where Kristin Davis (Charlotte) went back to work. For the whole episode she drank nothing but bone broth and bought endless new fat-compressing underwear to hide her (non-existent) mid-life tummy. It was supposed to be ok because in the last scene she was greeted by a younger body-positive larger woman at the gallery and took off her constricting underwear – liberation – but what the episode really highlighted and reinforced was that depressing old maxim, ‘be thin, be thin, be thin’ at all costs. My Gen Z co-watchers were appalled. In their generation it is extremely bad form to ever comment on someone’s weight, weight loss or indeed anything to do with their eating or food; there is an epidemic of eating disorders in this generation, many find this kind of content really triggering. It is taboo for them to mention weight, or body shape. I recommend that approach. It’s free-ing. And my god it makes you realise how often older women greet each other by commenting on the other woman’s weight… Anyway, I found this tin-eared in a series which prides itself on being sensitive to all cultural issues.
But I digress. My point was the casual, gendered ageism in so many of the And Just Like That reviews: “shrieking lip-glossed, grey-haired weaponised incontinence” wrote the female Times reviewer adding a bit about her horror at this foray into “ancient Vag land”. Gloria Steinem who makes a cameo in the show in which she speaks of: “Age still being the final frontier for women” – couldn’t be more right. The gendered ageist backlash against these two exceptionally glossy portrayals of older women – shows how far we have to go still to make Queenagers, particularly us normal ones with wrinkles and bulges – feel validated and seen in our culture. It also highlights how much work there is still to do, particularly around women and our own internalised misogyny and ageism.
I suppose at the very least that is a spur to me to get on with finishing my book! What I am trying to argue for is valuing older women for their amazing selves and all they can be, telling the stories of what is possible for women 50 plus. Our Noon research showed that over half of midlife women feel invisible, I want to change that.
It’s also made me think about the double standards that operate more broadly in our culture. How is it that a rich, white, right-wing, powerful man such as Donald Trump can get away with grabbing women by the pussy on camera, get convicted by a civil court for rape, be accused of overturning the rule of law in America to stay in power, nicking confidential documents, paying people off – and yet still is a front-runner to be the next Republican nominee and maybe the next President. Somehow he is immune to criticism, whatever he does. Contrast, meanwhile, someone like Lizzo, who has bravely championed body positivism as a woman of colour, who last week was binned from appearing at Super Bowl and cancelled by hundreds of thousands of her followers, because of unsubstantiated claims from three backing dancers who she fired, of maltreatment. I’m not saying that Lizzo is without fault… but I’m just interested that the merest whiff of criticism of her engendered an immediate fall from grace. How come Trump is never cancelled for his actions while those who begin from much more lowly origins and dare to buck the cultural norms get cancelled, just like that? It’s as if the more privilege and cultural power you have to start with the more you can get away with…
I was also thinking of this massive double standard in relation to the news about Theresa Villiers MP who it was revealed last week had a £70k investment in Shell while she was environment secretary. Yes you read that right. Rishi Sunak’s government is going against all environmental advice in re-opening gas and oil fields in the north sea (despite us living through the hottest global temperatures this year on record and an epidemic of extreme climate change events) and meanwhile a Tory environment secretary has financial ties to just the kinds of companies which will benefit from more oil fields but nobody seems to care. Villiers put out a statement saying: “Nothing she has said and done as an MP has been influenced by these shareholdings” -oh, so that’s alright then! I mention this because it’s likely you didn’t see it. This story vanished from media scrutiny almost immediately. Villiers has powerful backers. So ‘a little apologetic water clears her of this deed’ as Lady Macbeth might say.
Ok I promise to stop ranting about the media but as a journalist of thirty years standing I am truly appalled often these days at the partisanship in the UK press, the extreme positions taken by columnists who used to be rational people (driven by clicks) and the untethering from fact of much of what passes for ‘comment’.
What do you think? Am I just feeling grumpy because I’m stuck at my desk…
Lots of love
ps the next Noon Circle for Paid Subscribers to this email will be on 29th August at 7pm in Soho and you can join us on Zoom. Details below
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By Eleanor Mills