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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?

Subhead: 
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.

Objectification Limits

The Dutch are moving the age of "still" being sexual objects and pretty women from 40 to 50 and to past 60.

I suspect the trend, if it continues here, might reduce ageism without increasing sexism.

It manages this by making apparent a few cheerful facts that should be better known. Bodies don't change over time as much as youth fashion, ads, menopause innuendo and jokes falsely suggest. Even old women may have great breasts, soft skin, sexual feelings and devoted partners.

Insofar as wanting to have sex depends on visual stimuli, these help the not-young find lovers. For every woman who is happy that construction workers no longer whistle at her, there are others who want simply to be visible to someone.

Many 60-year-old women would be horrified at the idea of being airbrushed for Playboy. They don't want extra pressures to be slim, toned and "perfect" as they grow older. But others want to be admired in real life. Sexing later life opens up choices.

One friend of mine hides her neck, while another shows cleavage and a third bares her shoulders below white hair.

Being a young woman always involves anticipating growing older, and if younger women can believe they will remain desirable as they age, it's an incalculable life-course benefit, reducing their own internalization of sexist ageism.

We'll suspect that the double standard of aging is weakening when people put gorgeous nearly naked 60-year-olds--male and female both--on Youtube!

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Margaret Morganroth Gullette is an author, most recently of "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America," and of "Aged by Culture" and "Declining to Decline." She is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis. Aagje Swinnen is the editor of a book on the sexuality of older people, an assistant professor at the Center for Gender and Diversity of Maastricht University, the Netherlands, and a founding member of the European Network in Aging Studies.