(WOMENSENEWS)--Nora Ephron's sour dislike of women's bodily aging, poisonous with "humor," took up an hour on National Public Radio last month.
Ephron read a hideous endless passage from a new bestseller, about being surrounded by women with "turkey wattles."
I was driving back from Cape Cod, having spent the weekend with friends who, like me, are as old as she is.
None of us dyes her hair, none of us has had surgery, none of us wastes her time complaining about her neck. One husband gave his wife, turning 64, a darling garnet on a thin chain to wear around her pretty bare neck. I was wearing over my purple T-shirt a chunky new necklace of lemon quartz, uncut mother-of-pearl and Swarovski crystal that I felt great in. Another woman with fabulous thick white hair wears no jewelry that might hide her lovely throat.
So, are my friends somehow all naturally gorgeous, or is it Ephron's world that is full of freaks?
Neither. I live in the feminist country of later life. Ephron doesn't. She grew up in the already-desperate L.A. of the 1950s, where women remembered Garbo's early retirement and her mother's generation dyed their hair. She read Peter Arno cartoons and thought his fat baldies ogling voluptuous chippies were the real world. Now she lives on the upper East Side--Botoxilandia--and goes to restaurants like Le Cirque where, according to her, no one allows herself natural aging.
Affliction Worse for Upper Class
The upper classes have often suffered more from ageism, because the commerce in aging targets people who can afford its products. And many of them feel so entitled to what's on offer they don't look at the strings attached.
Starting in the 1920s in Europe, women started getting plastic surgeries that had been perfected on the shattered faces of men wounded in the trenches of World War I.
The flapper era brought sexist ageism to the New World. As early as 1924 Gertrude Atherton wrote the novel "Black Oxen," in which the upper-crust foreigner Marie Zattiany gets radiation treatments to her ovaries (holy cow!) that were alleged to take 20 years off a woman's face and body. Some rich men, on their side, rushed to get monkey's testicles implanted. W.B.Yeats had a kind of half-vasectomy that was supposed to rejuvenate him.
Before World War I, however, most midlife men didn't know they had erectile issues and midlife women in the middle and upper classes were much admired.
The term "older woman" had connotations of being sexually expert (and more willing than her daughter the virgin). It was older women who wore plunging necklines and their daughters who were robed to the chin. In that system, the three faint lines around older women's necks were called "the Rings of Venus." They were adorable. A girl would grow up eagerly waiting for her neck to become as beautiful as her mother's.
Now even the young and the poor save up for surgeries.
Well, sexist ageism did all that.
And feminism and Age Studies, celebrating the whole life course, are trying to undo it.
Making the World of Women Uglier
Ephron several times on the radio said that it's OK for my feminist friends and me not to fix ourselves up, dye our hair or get surgery. Not so big of her, since she and her like-minded pals are surely looking at our necks with distaste. Disgust is in her title, "I Don't Like My Neck."
What's the matter with us, we just don't notice how bad we look?
In the movie "Something's Gotta Give," the 50 or 60-something character played by Diane Keaton wears turtlenecks in the heat of summer and her male counterpart Jack Nicholson mercilessly quizzes her about it. The host of the NPR show, Tom Ashbrook, gleefully played the tape of the turtleneck exchange between Keaton and Nicholson. He usually gets experts to treat the major subjects. "Aging" he patently considers not in the majors.
Those who are exposed to such ridicule, may suddenly see ugly necks everywhere. The whole world of women will then have taken a giant step toward greater hideousness. Men will not be far behind. Younger women will be right in step. Even I might be tempted to take off my gorgeous necklace.
(I have a scar on my neck from an operation I had to have in my 30s. My mother, not wanting me to think I had lost any ground, bought me a necklace for the occasion. That's where I come from.)
Ephron has fans, including me, for the tense resistance of "Silkwood" and for her quick-witted understanding of sorry gender relations in "When Harry Met Sally." She was a feminist and a progressive. But aging is the acid test for female pundits. Even if they have read Simone de Beauvoir's "Old Age," about the social sources of ageism, all too many fail.
How to Fight This
Making women's alleged bodily decline into a joke ought to be a no-no.
Ashbrook congratulated Ephron on being able to confront "aging" with humor, but really, think again. Thinking our bodies begin to get uglier soon after youth isn't about aging. It's about ageism. That's the subject that writers, reviewers, pundits and the rest of the media should be focusing on. Try using the word ageism wherever you see the word aging. It could jumpstart a revolution.
Is ageism really as funny now as racism used to be? Should we try making fun of "kinky" hair once again and see who squirms with embarrassment? Should we point out to Jewish women how "exotic-looking" they are and watch them get nose-bobs and have to make jokes out of it? Should we talk again about how strange "slanty" eyes are, propose medical remedies and congratulate the victims on making us laugh with their pain?
What is going on here?
Only ageism is so ignored, so invisible, so untheorized that a former feminist and a would-be intellectual can have a yuck-fest on NPR about it and never use the word. Future reviewers of the book should try mentioning ageism.
The first way to fight it is to be able to name ageism when you see it. I have a little card composed in my head that in my imagination I give out in such cases. It would be nicely printed. "Friend," it begins, "you just made an ageist remark. You didn't mean to give pain, but you did." And it ends, "Please join our anti-decline movement and help us figure out how to avoid such instances in the future."
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a resident scholar, Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her latest book, "Aged by Culture," was named a Notable Book of the Year (2004) by the Christian Science Monitor. "Declining to Decline: Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife" won the Emily Toth (1998) award for the best feminist book on American popular culture.
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