Dutch 'Sexy at 60' Cover Photos Defy Ageism

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

If the Netherlands can make 60-ish women look hot, can American media too? And should we applaud or boo?

Margaret Morganroth Gullette(WOMENSENEWS)--News of Patti Davis posing nude for More magazine at age 58 suggests America might soon try catching up to the Netherlands in celebrity gossip about sexy "older" women.

Pop culture in the Netherlands was treated not long ago to a number of images of famous midlife women making their faces and bodies plenty visible.

One, Patricia Paay, was Playboy Holland's featured Christmas-issue centerfold in 2009. Paay, a socialite and singer, was 60.

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With a pretty face shot on the cover, Paay is shown inside in typical soft-porn postures–rump up in the air, partially swathed in fur and so forth. In the controversy that followed a comedian said only "necrophiles" would be attracted. But that didn't seem to be the popular view. The issue was Playboy's biggest commercial success of the decade.

A more decorous novelty concerned Linda de Mol, a 40-plus TV show host, producer and actress who has her own magazine, Linda, with her own photo on every cover. One cover--with "65+" on it--advanced her age, showing the Oprah Winfrey of the Lowlands looking lovely and considerably older, with her flowing blond hair silvered, fine lines etched around her mouth and a smile less ingenue and self-involved than usual.(Both Lindas are photoshopped, no doubt: the current one retouched, and the other skillfully aged.) Most commentators liked seeing Linda older and beautiful.

The Linda issue, titled "Grey Girls," contains more surprises for American readers accustomed to finding promotional articles about plastic surgery in their so-called beauty magazines. Here, women who had been maimed by plastic surgery tell their stories, with photos. The cover title is: "Failed facelifts. You made your bed, now lie in it." The headline on the story: "Sometimes you end up in hell after cosmetic surgery."

Dutch Courage

Nothing in the United States until now has offered an equivalent to this kind of Dutch courage, powerful anti-ageist journalism or wild fantasy about women over 60.

More is a magazine for women over 40. Will Oprah try going gray? Will top-girl Christie Brinkley pose naked? Who thinks the New York Times would run a "Post-Surgical Hell" headline?

With most such radical departures unavailable, Americans find ourselves in a middle space, moving ahead but still trammeled by traditional sexist ageism.

In the bad old days, few first-rate actresses could continue working without playing hags. Gloria Swanson played a has-been at 51 in "Sunset Boulevard." Greta Garbo got out of the game forever at 36.

Tina Fey hit a nerve when she wrote in the New Yorker: "I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they're all 'crazy'." Her suspicion is that the definition of "crazy" in show business is a woman who "keeps talking," even after no man wants to sleep with her.

But things have been changing, somewhat. The average age of a woman appearing on television today is 40, compared with 33 in 1950. Meryl Streep, at 60, played a romantic lead with long blond hair and a tub scene in "It's Complicated." Of her sexy role, she said, "Bette Davis is rolling over in her grave!"

Diane Keaton was naked and appealing at 57 in a shy long-shot in "Something's Gotta Give." Kathy Bates was plumply naked from the waist up in a hot tub in "About Schmidt." Helen Mirren played the lead in Jean Racine's play "Phedre" as a realistically passionate and dignified older woman.

The historical trend owes much to feminism–to female directors, or male directors who want female stars, and female audiences who gravitate toward actors alongside whom they have been aging. It's a beginning that also coincides with the new longevity.

But what would happen if the envelope got pushed to the point where a woman at this life stage posed in Playboy? Would it lead to harassment and stalking of older women? I don't think so.

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"Dutch courage" is right: false courage, is what that means, and that's what this is. Linda de Mol is hardly the Dutch Oprah. What she is, is the country's joke -- a wealthy woman (thanks to family efforts) who has indulged in every treatment known to womankind to lift, freeze, plump, and reshape her face and body over the years. She is also one of the country's very few internationally-known celebrities, which gives her a particular allure (not to mention the fact that her family owns most of the media). Moreover, the number of articles in American women's mags celebrating over-40s and over-50s (Jane Fonda, anyone?) suggests that the Dutch are way behind on this one.

I think it would be helpful either to do more research into what Holland is about, or check facts, before publishing something like this. As a former Dutch correspondent for WeN, I can assure you that there is much wrong with this particular piece.