Ann Brown commenced a Master of Arts candidature in the Discipline of Women’s Studies at Monash University in 2008 after completing an Honours year at the same university. For her Masters project she is writing a thesis that compares and contrasts the childbearing and career making process of contemporary Australian women with that of Australian women from the 1960s era.
Volume 19, November 2008
Wrinkles, sagging skin and a crepe-like neck, are the natural results of the ageing process for women’s bodies yet these marks of time are being defined as bodily imperfections or deficiencies. The consistent employment of media images which compare youth with age encourage women to feel bad about becoming old and body maintenance has become a key component of contemporary advertisements which focus attention on older women. This article explores the reasons why images of older women are being remade and the older generation are being urged to adopt a new and glamorous image prompted by a media focus on older female celebrities as models of beauty.
The shift in the cultural perception of how an older woman should look has developed from the changing social, economic and political roles of women since the Second World War and the steady rise in the participation of women in the workforce. Women’s increased financial independence partially explains why many older women now have a more prominent role in society which allows them a greater financial freedom. Recognising a new target market, media attention is focusing on appealing to women with greater economic independence. This article will discuss the ways in which economic independence plays a crucial role in the complex issue of a woman’s place in society.
Advertisements sell products and in Western society traditional practices of femininity and beautification are learned through standardised visual images transmitted through the mass media. The media, television, films, magazines and newspapers, play an extremely powerful role in shaping constructions of reality and an understanding of how people age can be learned through these outlets. As a result current media images suggest that women can recapture their youth and beauty. This article examines the standards by which older women measure themselves and the role the media play in objectifying women’s bodies aiming to show that older women are being redefined by a consumer capitalist media who now portray them as sexy. Using celebrities as examples, I explore the idea that media images of older celebrities have helped to create a new representational body standard for which women should strive. In other words, a woman’s body can no longer relax into old age; the goalposts have been moved so that women in their sixties are being lured back into the beauty mill to challenge the signs of ageing.
My impetus for undertaking this project stems from my own personal standpoint; that of a woman over sixty years of age. Our Western culture largely ignores older women and my attention has been drawn to today’s media images that challenge well-worn constructions of ageing women and show ‘sexy over sixties’. Airbrushed approximations of older women are being used to promote age defying creams and cosmetics which promise self-transformation and the grandmother image of the past is being replaced by images of sexy women. Arguing that current media messages have created a new stereotype for the older female generation, this article claims that to strive for a youthful appearance binds women more tightly to the beauty system. Speaking from a personal perspective, I would like the freedom to choose whether or not to take advantage of the opportunity to be included in the beauty system. Equally I would like the opportunity to dismiss advertisements which suggest older women should retain their youthful image. In other words, as a sixty year old woman, I should be able to choose for myself which route I would like to take.
Another key factor in the shift towards women’s economic independence has been change in family size and Hakim draws connections between the 1960s contraception revolution and the equal opportunity revolution of the 1960s and 1970s arguing that this was when women began to have genuine choices as to how to live their lives (2003: 1). This phenomenon has presented Western women with choices and opportunities not offered to women from previous generations.
To further understand the reasons for the shift in the representations of older women I refer to the baby boomers, a generation of men and women born between 1946 to 1965, who are now entering their sixties. This generation of men and women have helped to expand the economy and represent a large proportion of today’s working women. As women became better educated they were able to apply for better workplace roles with commensurate pay increases as reward for their time spent beyond the traditional cultural concerns of hearth and home; women from this generation no longer had to function within the boundaries of generational characteristics as their predecessors did. Economic independence plays a crucial role in the complex issue of women’s place in Western society and Dunn-Cane, Gonzalez and Stewart believe that this generation of men and women have ‘expanded the economy more than any previous group, they represent the largest workforce ever’ (1999:2). The baby-boomers have challenged orthodoxy at every stage of their lives and with their appetite for life it is not surprising that many hate the ageing process and will go to great lengths to prevent it from happening.
To broaden their consumer base cosmetic companies recognise the importance of a generation of women who refuse to accept the ageing process, as an important target market. Ann Fishman president of a New Orleans-based marketing firm claims that ‘As boomers age they are demanding new products to keep their youthful appearance, stay healthy, feel pampered and relaxed’ (cited in Chambers 1999: 44). Fishman suggests that, ‘Boomer women aren’t content to be labelled “seniors”, they want to prolong youth’ (44).
At this point it is useful to explore the power of advertising campaigns that suggest to a woman that wrinkles, grey hair and normal ageing are imperfections. Beauty product industries aim their advertisements at independent women who enjoy the rituals of beauty and feminine grooming. Advertisements that seduce women into the consumption of products with false promises of a younger looking skin merely emphasise that women should not have old looking skin. Stuart Ewen claims that as early as the 1920s business leaders in the United States recognised that advertising created consumers (cited in Featherstone 1991: 174). Advertisers discovered that producing advertising copy aimed at making readers feel emotionally uneasy, that they were not ‘doing things right’, could manipulate consumers to adopt different purchasing habits (175). Consequently, by promoting body maintenance an expanding and powerful market for the sale of commodities to older women that focused on her ‘bodily imperfections’ emerged.
However, the notion that female consumers are passive, dependent and gullible relies on the gendered debate that production is masculine and consumption is female. The idea that production is a positive activity and consumption is a negative activity is part of the traditional Marxist model. Marx argued that our identity is created through socially useful labour and consumption falls under the category of domestic labour which is not socially valuable labour (Hollows 2000: 113). However, beauty products can also be thought of as an enhancement activity performed on the body to increase an older woman’s self esteem. In other words, by educating themselves to use beauty products to their advantage senior women are actively controlling consumption more effectively.
However, when older women are urged to use creams to banish wrinkles or cosmetics to cover them up the enjoyment and fun of ‘making-up’ is reduced to a necessity. In this way rather than experiencing beauty products as enhancing agents women are made to feel they are being judged by their inability to look younger. For example, L’Oreal launched a skin care range called ‘Age Perfect’ specifically for women in their sixties (Appendix 1).
To further emphasise their target market they used Susan Sarandon, a celebrity in her sixties to promote their product. The advertisement suggests that an older woman can look like Sarandon by purchasing and using this product. My central claim here is that such advertisements show unrealistic images of how a woman in her sixties should look. By appearing younger than her chronological age and adopting a more glamorous and youthful look celebrities such as Sarandon have actively chosen to participate in gendered ideals that set unrealistic standards for older women.
Women have always been under pressure to look good but that has increased recently because we have become used to seeing perfect and beautiful women with unwrinkled faces smiling from the pages of magazines. Using female celebrities as examples, I will now address the notion that contemporary Western women elect to copy imaginary bodies. My central claim here is that the media show unrealistic images which promote ideals and fantasies of how a woman in her sixties should look. Airbrushing age from a woman’s faces not only erases her identity but reduces her historical value in society. Naomi Wolf tells us that Dalma Heyne, editor of two women’s magazines confirms that airbrushing age from women’s face is routine. Women’s magazines ignore older women or pretend they do not exist: ‘magazines try to avoid photographs of older women and when they feature celebrities who are over sixty ‘retouch artists’ conspire to ‘help’ beautiful women look more beautiful; i.e. less their age’ (1991:82). In other words, the images we see in beauty advertisements are fantasies rather than true to life images. For example, when Revlon chose Susan Sarandon, a woman of 60, to represent their skincare range, they printed airbrushed images of her, implying that older women would be self-transformed by using their products. This type of contemporary media image of a youthful looking female celebrity can impart a Hollywood type fantasy into the beauty system. This perpetuates the belief that by following the same beauty regime the user will achieve the same glamorous appearance. Cyndi Tebbel insists that the majority of readers of magazines are unaware that most photographs in editorials and advertisements are routinely retouched (2000:22). If the images we are seeing of older women in magazines, on television and in films are airbrushed and redefined then no one knows how a woman of sixty should look.
Not knowing exactly how one’s body should look as it ages positions older women as anxious watchers for signs of ageing and age stereotyping of women’s bodies is present in the press, advertising, film and television. And as a result of women’s anxieties to retain an ideal body image marketplace techniques used by a capitalist media focus on familiar metaphors and images that urge women to buy youth. Claiming that old fashioned stereotypes of senior women have been superseded, Mia Freedman asks ‘where did all the little old ladies go?’ (2007: 9). Media images of women in their 50s, 60s and 70s are almost unrecognizable from women at the same age from previous generations. Plump grandmothers who bake and knit have been replaced by ‘Hot Nannas and slim, gym going women in their sixties who have replaced bingo with bungy jumping are featuring in magazines’ (9). Such media images sell the idea that ageing is controllable and that staying and looking young should be an important life mission.
To understand how advertising creates consumers it is useful to explore an historical perspective that contextualises the way in which Western consumer society has viewed women’s bodies. Frida Furman claims that, ‘a woman’s value in contemporary society is all too often associated principally with her bodily appearance, measured against idealised standards and not with ‘the real given’ existing woman’ (1997: 61). In her concern over body image Furman makes the point that women are influenced by the way they are perceived by others (51). The anxieties surrounding body image are as important to old and young women alike. It is part of their self-concept and a basis for a woman’s identity. Such anxieties result in self scrutiny making the body the focus of acute attention (Twigg 2004: 61). Clearly Fredrickson and Roberts share this concern when they claim that, ‘women often adopt an observer’s perspective on their physical selves’ (1997:177). Crucial to these observations is the indomitable persistence to achieve an ideal body that now continues for some women into old age. Thus, appearance becomes a measure of personal value and understood as a woman’s access to economic security and social influence as she ages. Such difficult standards of bodily perfection could prompt women to use cosmetic surgery as a means of trying to obtain the same youthful looking image.
Justifying those who have resorted to surgery, Davis argues that many women seek cosmetic surgery to alter their appearance because they fear losing their jobs as their faces show signs of ageing. The argument here is that constant body vigilance and improvement is a way that women can gain control over their own lives. These very specific understandings of cosmetic surgery lead me to examine why some celebrities have chosen to enhance their bodies in this way. Certain female celebrities have become icons for cosmetic surgery and could be viewed as advertisements to promote its empowerment. Cher, a woman who gained fame in the nineteen sixties, once reluctant to admit to having plastic surgery, finally acknowledged her passion saying ‘The reason I come off as being sexy and attractive is because I’ve had myself re-built … ‘I’m the female equivalent of a counterfeit $20 bill. Half of what you see is a pretty good reproduction … and the rest is fraud’ (cited in Tebbel 2000:36). Discussing whether Cher is a ‘surgical junky’ who feels the necessity to continue to remake her body, Davis suggests that Cher has had so many operations it is hard to know where the original left off and the artificially constructed began. Davis observes that Cher has undergone dozens of operations and spent over $75,000 on altering her body: ‘a body that was already considered by the public to be beautiful’ (1995: 18). The decision to resort to drastic cosmetic surgery may be the result of societal expectations. Cher needs and wants to be attractive to her audience and this means removing all signs of ageing to fit into contemporary society’s expectations of how a woman should look. A similar situation exists with Cher as that of Sarandon and Mirren, body monitoring and improvement are a necessary routine for older women who need to retain their position in the celebrity world. However, the fact that Cher, a woman in her sixties, has remade her body to retain her celebrity status creates an unattainable body standard for other older women. Cher’s appearance is her asset and her way of remaining in the public eye. Her investment in her body, which has to be maintained and preserved unless she wants to disappear from the limelight, is her access to success. Such observations suggest that this unnatural and surgically enhanced body is the ‘norm’ of a youthful appearance yet can offer new options for older women who wish to remain looking young.
In exploring the discourses surrounding the justification for resorting to cosmetic surgery I will use Dolly Parton as another example. In her biography Parton discloses that she has had ‘… little ‘natural enhancements’ for a number of years. I have had nips and tucks, and trims and sucks and such, eyes and chin … and I’ll never graduate from collagen’ (1994: 286). Parton says she copes with each little ‘problem’ as it comes along but would never have a major face lift and then come back looking like a different person. ‘It’s not only a right but an obligation for a woman, especially a woman in the public eye, to look as good as she can’ (287), says Parton. She admits she will have more surgery when something in her mirror doesn’t look to her like it belongs on Dolly Parton. For celebrities such as Parton, who are recognised for their bodies, their identities become embedded into their appearance and cosmetic surgery offers a way of retaining their stardom status.
The focus of Parton’s need for body maintenance works on the premise that failure to do so would amount to failure in her career. By camouflaging and altering her body we are led to believe that she has accepted Western culture’s hegemonic ideas of what is normal and natural. However, another way of looking at her decision is that Parton may be challenging such ideas and refusing to accept the wrinkles and sagging skin of the natural ageing process.
Feminist theorist Diana Tietjens Meyers (2002: 148-9) analyses how women grapple with images of ageing, claiming that the face seen in the mirror by the ageing woman is often not the face that reflects her continuing zest for life. She explores a woman’s decision to embark on cosmetic surgery claiming it as a possible remedy to control her access to economic opportunities and to solve the negative social aspects of growing old and its affect on self-esteem. In examining the empowering impact of cosmetic surgery for older women Meyers (166) puts forward two scenarios of the courageous older women. The first is that a woman should redouble her efforts to conceal her age and dedicate herself to self-beautification and the second is that she should have the courage to tell the truth by wearing her face unrepentantly. I suggest a third: a woman who is unhappy with her image is not a confident one and thus not a powerful one, therefore any form of self-beautification that empowers an older woman must have a positive effect on her ability to retain a place in society.
These observations will be extended to examine how Hollywood films have constructed an older woman’s sexuality in Something’s Gotta Give (2003), The Banger Sisters (2003) and The Queen (2004). Filmmakers compose women’s bodies to reflect our idealized and existing social values about females. Examining this argument Olberg and Tornstam claim that we scarcely see older bodies engaged in sexual activities in feature films, and that ‘our culture values sexuality as an asset of younger people’ (1999: 632).
Hollywood has been merciless and dismissive of older women portraying their sexuality as somehow deviant as in the case of Ann Bancroft who plays Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967). Bancroft’s predatory role is to seduce Dustin Hoffman and contrasts with Diana Keaton’s role in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) where Keaton is portrayed as a middle-aged woman who re-discovers her sexuality at mid-life. The difference between Bancroft and Keaton’s role demonstrates that Hollywood’s representation of female stars has altered to reflect cultural attitudes towards the sexuality of older women. However, we should bear in mind that Keaton was playing her role to an ageing Jack Nicholson who was a far cry from Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate in 1967!
The fact that films reflect social changes and shape cultural attitudes is obvious in recent representations of older women, who are shown to possess a more open sexuality than in earlier decades. Keaton’s role in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) is an example of this argument. Discussing the new generation of film makers who have recognised the value of producing to a market of older females, Margaret Tally claims that these films express to women a ‘coming to terms with their sense of themselves as sexual beings’ (2004: 39). The consistent theme in films such as Something’s Gotta Give (2003), argues Tully, is the sexual re-awakening of the older female character. Susan Sarandon who appeared in The Banger Sisters (2003) is another example of a beautiful woman who has, despite her age, ‘miraculously held onto her sexuality and attractiveness’ (2004: 41). Tally believes that actors such as Sarandon are held out as ‘the quintessential role model for the middle-aged baby boomer woman’ (42).
Through films directed towards female viewers, women can identify with Keaton and Sarandon and acknowledge their own sexual identity by the very fact that these movies portray women in a sexual as well as maternal role. Films showing women in roles where they are discovering themselves as sexual beings represent a perspective that women themselves may be able to identify with. As Tally points out, ‘Sarandon is portrayed as a mother, an actor and a desirable woman’ (2006: 42). Similarly, Diane Keaton’s role in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) allows her to play the role of a mother who becomes sexually active. Tally critically observes that contemporary films allow female audiences to see older female characters in scenes where they are allowed sexual expression yet this liberating move merely represents a ‘continued fertility’ (2006: 52). Yet what may be overlooked is that these celebrities are actors and their characters are skilfully manipulated to convey make believe situations. These characteristics are somehow transferred in media images to the actors themselves when they are shown as glamorous and sexy bodies. In other words, audiences are recognizing not only the celebrity but the character they represented and merging the two images.
Recognising that the disadvantages of ageing mean bearing the brunt of both ageism and sexism, this article has illustrated that media images tell contemporary women they have little to rejoice as they approach old age. Yet baby boomers are also defiant of such coercive advertising, as exemplified by the Red Hat Society. What started out as a light-hearted social organization for women over 50 is now a society that has gained freedom and are not worried about media images. The Red Hat Society whose motto is To grow old outrageously was founded a decade ago by Sue Ellen Cooper. The Society has over 40,000 Chapters in more than 30 countries around the world (Yarnal 2006: 65).
Inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem which begins ‘When I am an old Woman I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me’ a sisterhood of women over 50 years of age meet regularly to enjoy the company of other like-minded women. Yarnal (2006: 65) claims that these women are breaking stereotypes by no longer feeling that they have to impress anyone. Women with shared experiences join together to defy ageing, says Alice Gordon who formed the Long Island Lusties. Dr. Gordon told Marcelle Fischler that she chose the name Lusties because ‘older women are sometimes looked upon as past sex’ (2003: 2). Red Hat Society women dress in outlandish outfits, mainly red and purple, and meet regularly to enjoy the company of other older women and the Society provides a space to escape from the cultural norms of femininity and the ageing process.
Western feminism has sought to change patriarchal ideals which force women to fit into media images of a stylized and socially constructed female body yet, as this article has discussed, women celebrities in their sixties are representing the normal standard for women in this age group. Media images that create a new category for senior women labelling them ‘sexy’ does little to dispel the idea that women should be judged by their bodies. Contemporary senior women are constantly being urged to combat the signs of ageing with media messages stressing that the older generation should be constantly alert for signs of wrinkles or greying hair. In other words, creating a new benchmark for older women strengthens cultural obsessions that to be wrinkle-free and youthful should be a woman’s goal as she ages.
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