If you are new to this series, please check out the first post which explains the origin, the background and has a couple ground rules: Feminism in Action: Concrete Tip #1
Special note: I fact-check, I spell-check, I grammar-check and I check for broken links. If you see errors, please send me a message, don’t let me stay out here with toilet paper trailing from the soles of my intellectual shoes.
CONCRETE TIP #5:
Stop de-sexualizing certain types of women.
Before we jump to “why,” please take a moment to complete these two short thought exercises (remember, you agreed to do some work):
1. Margaret Thatcher, naked, on a cold day. What’s your picture? What are you feeling?
2. Kate Middleton, naked, on a cold day. What’s your picture? What are you feeling?
3. Clint Eastwood in a nice suit.
4. Ryan Gosling in a nice suit.
If these specific references make you feel out of touch with current famous people (I empathize!), substitute “a female senior citizen” for #1 and “an attractive woman in her early 30s” for #2. Then substitute “a famous male movie star in his 80s” for #3 and “a famous male movie star in his 30s” for #4.
There’s a lot going on in that exercise. If you are a male reader you may have had the all-too common response of, “ew, I don’t think of dudes like that.” Hm. Why not? You mean you don’t look at men and size up their potential as sex partners whether or not you have the intention to act on that? I mean, maybe I’m just overly imaginative but I can look at anyone and gauge my personal level of physical attraction. That’s not today’s topic of discussion, but I would like you to think about it.
I started with Margaret Thatcher as some of you may be old enough to remember this moment from the movie, Austin Powers:
It’s very simple. If you need to shut down your sexual desire, just picture an old lady. Because old women are universally repulsive. Because without youth and beauty, a woman loses worth. In terms of yesterday’s commodity discussion, her market value plummets. How much? Right now, recall the last dozen movies you saw. How many had a leading man 40+ vs. a leading woman 40+? If you really want to push yourself, go look up salaries for actors and actresses 50+.
Or how about this moment at the Oscars:
NB: Jump to 34:40
And all the “what the hell happened to Kim Novak?!?” astonishment that rippled through the media in the days after the Oscars. I think a friend on Facebook summed it up best: the patriarchy happened to her. Described loosely as a system by which men determine the worth (and therefore rights, privileges, etc.) of women, the patriarchy compelled Kim Novak to preserve her worth at all costs. Yet the public discussion focused on her decision to have plastic surgeries as though she made this decision in a vacuum. “What happened to her” is more than one individual deciding to have some plastic surgery. Remember that even though much was made of John Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” blunder, the vast majority of the judgy snarkery had to do with his actions and not his looks. The only thing Kim Novak did “wrong” in terms, patriarchically-speaking is that she made her attempt to preserve her worth too transparent; youth confers value and because her attempt to preserve her value was noticeable, she was mocked. Imagine a situation in which it would have been possible for her, at age 81, to actually appear 25 with no obvious signs of deception. How might she have been received? The only thing more repulsive than an old lady is a deceptive old lady, one who is trying to game the system just to get a shot at fair treatment.
We are socialized to see older women as asexual because thinking about them wanting to have sex with us might be uncomfortable since we’ve been trained to see them as universally repulsive. Let’s take a walk in Hypotheticalville: a young and hot guy sees and older lady who he finds ugly and … he is not threatened. Why? Because she doesn’t want him for sex anyway. What a relief! He can go on about his day not worried that old ladies are trying to get in his pants. Meanwhile, in another part of Hypotheticalville, a young and hot woman sees an older man who she finds ugly and … she’s somewhat worried that he’s going to come on to her and about what might happen if she rejects him … because indication of sexual desire from a man, of any age, is always a possibility. Right?
Old ladies are asexual; they’re grandmas. They wear aprons, they bring you cookies. Old dudes though? Virile to the end, right? Leaving the land of the living with a hard-on over a hot nurse? Why do we assume that men are interested in sex until the day they die but that women lose interest when the first crinkly wrinkle appears? Do we assume they lose interest because we are trained to see them as not-interesting? Is it more comfortable that way?
Circling back to who decides who is a sexual commodity and who isn’t (hint: it’s men, for right now anyway), if the person doing the deciding downgrades your market value there are a few options: outwardly declare the lowered value, presume the person in question has no sex drive anyway, or BOTH. Right, so old women are now both “unfuckable” (to the point that just picturing one can make you lose your sex drive for someone really hot) and besides, they don’t want any sex anyway. Well, that was easy.
Today’s task is to ponder why that is fucked up. Today’s task is to think about 1) the fact that everyone may or may not like to have sex and 2) about the inequality that inevitably results when one person’s worth diminishes with age and experience (women) while another’s plateaus or increases (men). Today’s task is to think, in general, about how the system determining a woman’s worth based on their level of sexual attractiveness and availability sets up fundamental inequalities that go beyond sexism. Today’s task is to stop using old women as punchlines to your jokes, as markers of something asexual, or “obviously” ugly.
Yeah, but …
Yes, socially and culturally we are trained to view lots of physical attributes as more/less desirable than others but I wanted to choose one concrete inequality to talk about. Whiteness is valued over any color. Thinness is valued over fatness. Ability is valued over disability. Cisgendered is valued over transgendered. ETC. Intersectionality is a real thing. That said, if you take a 60-something woman with all of the desired attributes vs. a man of the same age, the man “wins” every time.
Let’s all think about how whether or not someone wants to fuck us should have absolutely no impact on our self-worth, life opportunities, rights, respect, fair treatment under law, AND SO ON.
Go back to the exercise at the beginning and notice that I described the women as naked but the men as wearing a suit. Why? Generally, to sexualize women, we take clothing OFF and to sexualize men we dress them UP (put more clothes on). There are of course exceptions to this rule (Abercrombie catalogs) but generally speaking, sexy-formal attire for women consists of less coverage by design. Because more naked, more exposure, more access is what constitutes “sexy.” So, think about that, too.
Also, consider “cougar culture.” Ask yourself why there’s a whole “thing” (a word, clothes, bar theme nights, reality TV shows, sit-coms, etc.) around the outlandish idea that a man might “trade down” for an older woman. Of course the term “sugar daddy” does exist but older men with younger women is so normalized that it isn’t news and wouldn’t make for “compelling” TV. Why was it such a big deal when Demi Moore went after Ashton Kutcher but relationships with a 15-year age difference (yep, that’s all there is between them) with the gender roles reversed are no big deal? For example, who speaks of the 20-year age difference between Chevy Chase and his current partner?1
Rita Moreno on sexism, ageism and racism: http://variety.com/2014/film/awards/rita-moreno-speaks-1201056232/
Ageism and Sexism in the Workplace: http://www.brandeis.edu/barnett/docs/ageism.pdf
Honestly folks, I couldn’t find a lot out there – if you have good links on this topic, please send ’em my way!
1 And, incidentally, I’m not against large age differences in partners; I am against making negative judgments about some age differences and not others. I think we should date whoever we want and not be subject to gender-specific scrutiny.