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The tragedy of older women

I suspect this might be a first time this warning’s been put on a sex blog, but the following post contains spoilers for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special. I promise you it’s relevant. 

My Mum finds it hard to get served at the bar.

I’ve seen it happen: she’ll be there for twice as long as most other people. She waits, purse in hand, trying to catch the eye of the bar staff, and making sure that she’s standing assertively. She’s not shy or nervous, hanging back or offering her place in line to other people – she’s just there, prominent yet invisible. Unnoticed. And people around her – younger people, and older men, nip ahead and throw their orders in.

And she waits.

Why are older women invisible?

I’ve heard other older women talk about this before – the age at which you become invisible. Reports vary – for some it can be as early as mid-forties, while others remain visible into their early sixties, but this cloak of invisibility is there for many, and to ignore their experiences would be as churlish as passing over them when they’re in line at the bar.

I don’t know why it happens, but I suspect it’s a combination of fear, pity, and horror. After all, there’s nothing sadder than a woman losing her youth, right? Youth is the best thing a woman can have, and something she should cling onto for as long as possible without, of course, letting anyone know that she’s clinging.

A woman must be young at all costs, but never let anyone know how high the cost is.

Doctor Who and the terror of aging women

So onto Doctor Who.

Twice now, modern Doctor Who has used the fact that women age as a means to wring some emotion out of a storyline. Firstly when Amy (Doctor Who’s previous companion) got trapped in a timestream. The Doctor and Rory (Amy’s husband) went in to rescue her only to find that – horror of horrors – she was old. Stuck for forty-odd years in time, her face grew lined and Amy grew bitter. We were encouraged to cry for her, miserably abandoned and left alone for so long, but more pressingly we were asked to weep for that most devastating consequence: that a once-youthful woman had aged.

In the Christmas special this year, we were presented with the most recent companion, Clara, who’d lived for decades while the Doctor hadn’t been around. Clara told us explicitly that she’d had a bloody good time.

“I learned to fly a plane,” she explained, before tenderly telling the Doctor that she’d taught all over the world, lived an independent, exciting life, and generally had a whale of a time. Yet we were encouraged to be sad for her. To lament the utter misery that was this once-youthful woman’s face, now lined and loose. Her frail hands could barely pull a Christmas cracker. The torment! The horror! The only small comfort in this otherwise heartbreaking emotional scene was that the Doctor still saw her as a young girl. He literally saw her younger face instead of her actual face. Thank God for that – if there’s anything worse than aging it’s letting someone you love see your wretched, wrinkled face.

We’re all going to age

As you can probably tell, this makes me incredibly angry. It happens to guys too, for sure (there’s a Doctor Who episode in which a policeman gets sent back in time, and when he next meets the companion he’s old), but usually when we’re encouraged to lament old age in men it’s because they’re sick, or incapable of doing something they used to enjoy, or they’re not long for this world at all.

With women, they can be as happy and healthy as they like, having lived a full life of achievements, and still we’re encouraged to feel a sense of pity and loss.

It’s particularly noticeable in a world like the Doctor Who universe. Planets have died, countless people have been vaporised, ambitions fulfilled and dashed – all manner of misery and pleasure and excitement has occurred, yet the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is that she’ll grow old.

Growing older, showing marks and wrinkles, becoming weathered and … well… living is considered far more than distasteful: it’s heartbreaking. It’s the weepy climax of your life, which people can look at and sigh and tut and go ‘such a shame, she used to be so beautiful and young.’ Or, worse, they can turn their heads away and fail to acknowledge you, because while an older guy might have tales to tell, and older woman only has the story of her lost youth and ravaged beauty.

You might think this isn’t relevant to you, if you’re young. I thought the same when my Mum first told me she gets ignored at the bar. Ah, you’re probably exaggerating. You’re probably not being assertive enough. People don’t just ignore older women, do they? But of course, pretending that this doesn’t happen to people is exactly that, and when I took the time to watch I realised not only that they do, but that I was one of them – not only dismissive of her experience, but on track to become like her one day too.

If we act as if the most valuable thing a woman can have is youth, then why should I be surprised that we consider her aging to be an overwhelming tragedy?

It’s the New Year soon – that moment in time when we all realise we’re a year older. Most of us have one or two new wrinkles or scars or bruises. And each and every one of them is the result of a new experience we’ve had, and one more year we’ve been lucky enough to live through.

Growing old can be in turns devastating and exhilarating. But considering the alternative, it’s probably the least tragic thing that can happen.

30 Comments

  • @vivibene1 says:

    Great post. Every time I get a little sad about getting older I read my favorite Clayton Cubitt piece on beauty.

    http://claytoncubitt.tumblr.com/post/29392765569

  • RB says:

    This is all lovely. It’s one reason I get very sad at older women (say, 50+), getting plastic surgery to tighten their faces, to remove the signs of aging and be in suspended animation. It’s a denial of a history and of a natural process.

  • Kaen says:

    I always was ignored at bars in my 20s. Not a problem now – in fact I often have to point out that other people were there before me. I think it really is to do with assertiveness and confidence – many women lose confidence because they feel they are ‘losing’ their looks. I’ve gained wrinkles and sags and weight, but I’ve lost inhibitions and all fear of other people’s opinions. I’m 50 in two weeks’ time. I don’t fear that I’ll lose my bar presence when I hit 60 or 70 – my ex mother-in-law has no problem at late 80s. Heaven forbid anyone dare ignore HER at a bar! Growing older isn’t the ‘least tragic’ thing that can happen – unless your outside shell is your main focus (which, of course, the media would encourage us is the right thing to do). For the rest of us, growing older is the BEST, cos the older you get, the less of a shit you give! :-D I’m not gonna lie and say I never wish I had the looks I had in my 20s, but as a ‘package’, would I swap then for now? NO WAY.

    As a Doctor Who fan, I have to say I thought the sadness for Clara was the same sadness we feel for all humans who are elderly and in pain. I know I felt it for my father as he was dying. It doesn’t matter how great a person’s life is – to find them near the end of it, and a frail person when they used to be so vital and strong – that is sad, even if they personally accept it.

    Plus, I think if Clara and the Doctor had gone to a bar right then, Clara would have had NO difficulty being served…..

  • Ben says:

    I didn’t get quite the same vibe from the Doctor Who episode – I interpreted it more that the Doctor was sad because he’d stayed away so long, not that she’d got old.
    Or perhaps it was because all the things she’d done hadn’t actually happened and were just part of the weird head-crab induced dreamscape. When he awakens her the final time she asks if she’s young again, and he tells her to look for herself because he can’t tell, so perhaps the getting old was her fear?

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah, it’s really interesting that I’ve had so much Doctor Who criticism from this post – I clearly need to avoid mentioning it =)

      I see what you mean, and I agree that those things are definitely part of the sadness. There’s a fuller answer below in my reply to Elly, but basically the problem I have is that there *definitely is* something there about her beauty. And I don’t think it’s relevant whether this is her fear or the Doctor’s fear (although I’d argue that it’s a bit of both), the problem is that it’s presented to the viewer as an extra reason for them to be sad. It felt, to me, like the show was very clearly pointing and going ‘look how sad it is that she got old and she’s not pretty any more.’ Laying aside the second the ridiculous notion that you can’t be beautiful if you’re old, my main issue with this is the fact that this point is very rarely (never, perhaps?) made about men. In other episodes where aging has been a theme, when it’s men who age, I’ve never noticed the show pointing in the same way at a loss of beauty.

  • Captain Smith says:

    Firstly – Love the tags. :) (I would have been happy with that as an ending for Clara as well, but apparently she’ll still be around for another year at least.)

    Doctor Who has used ageing as a plot device for both women and men – just last year, the Christmas special had Matt Smith getting the old age makeup before becoming young again – but I think you’re right that with women, the writing suggests that growing old is tragic in itself in a way it doesn’t for men.

    Perhaps the show is also worse for older women now than it used to be. A few years ago there were regular appearances by the late Elisabeth Sladen (although she still got the same isn’t-it-sad treatment as Clara here), and Alex Kingston got to play the older partner to Matt Smith in a relationship which is rare to see on TV (although she still got written out before getting too visibly aged). But now Peter Capaldi’s taken over, the show’s gone back to its roots of being about an old man having adventures with young girls. It’s rather odd really that the writers expect us to happily watch a man who looks every one of his 58 years in the title role, but be shocked by one of his companions getting a few lines on her face herself.

    • Captain Smith says:

      Just realised I forgot to mention the best example of an older (well, 40+) woman on Doctor Who: Catherine Tate as Donna! She showed that the kids won’t stop watching just because there isn’t a plucky young girl on the Tardis. Bring her back, I say.

  • Erica Jagger says:

    Thank you for writing this! I’m 52 and am planning not to go gently into this good night. So much of not feeling invisible is about confidence, and that takes challenging the cultural narrative that women over 40 have reached their expiration date.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Absolutely – and I shudder a lot at the ‘expiration date’ thing, because it does seem like there’s a weird assumption that a woman is ‘done’, that is closely tied with fertility. I think part of challenging the narrative involves taking this on, as well as taking on the very idea that a woman is only ‘worthy’ if she’s capable of bearing children. So many women can’t, or actively choose not to, that I hope this particular narrative is eroding. It’ll take time, but it’s important.

      • mrfloppy says:

        All good and true. We should t ignore older women or ask them to look younger. But there is an elephant in the room. Its not to do with fertility. Its because many just don’t fancy old wrinkly people (some do of course) and it would be great if more did. That’s important because, well sex is important, like you say, if its on your mind other things matter less, that includes people you don’t want sex with. And you of all people should know this. Ask yourself do you fancy old wrinkly men or women? So it IS sad to see women get old. It IS a tragedy because they will less likely have sex or be desired. And recognising it wont solve it. What’s more tragic than that? Facing up to it. I’m terrified of aging. And I should be. Because sex is all I care about.

        • Girl on the net says:

          You’re making a quite extraordinary assumption that everyone, when choosing a sex partner, will be focused on the same qualities that you are.

  • “I don’t know why it happens, but I suspect it’s a combination of fear, pity, and horror. After all, there’s nothing sadder than a woman losing her youth, right? Youth is the best thing a woman can have, and something she should cling onto for as long as possible without, of course, letting anyone know that she’s clinging.”
    Wow- I couldn’t disagree with a statement more than I do with this. At age 60, I can get a drink when I want one, people talk to me…. and I certainly don’t see fear, pity or horror in my daily interactions. We do ourselves an injustice by talking about age as if it’s horrible–you do intend to turn 50+ don’t you? And, will you approach it as if you are to be pitied? I hope not.

  • Elly says:

    I am 37 in less than a week and I’m invisible. Not sure when it happened, but I am always overlooked in situations where multiple people are waiting to be served. One fantastic example was when I was engaged and took my fiancé to buy my wedding shoes. There we were, standing in the ladies section of shoes and the female saleswoman turned to my fiancé and asked “Can I help you?”. He told her we were looking for ladies wedding shoes and without taking her eyes off him, said “What size?”. Really??

    And I can’t stop myself from commenting on the Who references. I feel The Girl Who Waited wasn’t meant to be interpreted quite that way. They said they would rescue her. Then she was left totally alone in a very hostile environment for 36 years. The sadness wasn’t that she had aged, but that she and Rory had missed 3 decades together and that she had been abandoned and alone having to fight for her life. Amy had grown to be quite a kick ass lady (making her own sonic screwdriver, anyone?) and Rory was happy to take her back to the Tardis, regardless of age – he loved her no matter what.

    I think there was an age related sadness in Blink, too. He never got to take Sally out for that drink ;)

    • Girl on the net says:

      Bloody hell – I hope that saleswoman realised her mistake and won’t make it again – that’s really awful =(

      The Who stuff is, oddly, the most controversial thing about this blog. I had a tonne of people on Twitter saying I’d misinterpreted the age thing in the Christmas special. For what it’s worth, I totally don’t agree. I *do* agree that there is much more too it than just ‘oh she’s old and look at what she looks like’ but what I’m basically saying is that with women, that is often presented either as a vital part of the tragedy of things (as in the Rory episode) or as the *absolute central reason* why this thing is a tragedy. The fact that Clara had to run for a mirror, the fact that we actually saw that shot of her younger face through the eyes of the doctor, the fact that her life achievements were (I think) presented as a kind of futile thing, adds up (for me) to the fact that her age played a part in a way that it very rarely does for a male character.

      In Blink, I think your example proves my point – the tragedy is that he failed to score with the younger woman =) It’s less to do with his beauty and youth and more to do with what ambitions he failed to fulfil.

      And I can’t agree that Rory was happy to take her back to the Tardis – he LEFT HER! He left her! Oh God he left her! I actually sobbed for about half an hour after this episode (I know, I am a soppy twat), and mainly because I was horrified that the choice was presented as such an easy one (to the viewer, not for Rory) ‘oh just take the younger one into the Tardis and then the older one will have never existed.’ He wiped out her experience – all the things she’d learned and experienced and etc. Oh God I’m going to cry again now.

      Blergh, sorry. I’m banging on FAR too much about Doctor Who – and I don’t mean to be fighty over it, I just think it is a legit interpretation, and it’s not me going ‘OMG Doctor Who is sexist and awful’ – I bloody love Doctor Who. I’ve been told I need to watch last year’s Christmas special (which I’m a bit surprised I haven’t seen, tbh) for parallels, but I think if it genuinely weren’t sexist at all then it’d be one of very very few shows that was – because everything is going to be influenced in part by our society, and Doctor Who’s not immune from that.

      • mrfloppy says:

        Most men have a type they like to fuck. Usually (yes not always, and not because of sexism, but because of biology and natutal desire) its women under 50. It is sad. But also true. I think its the truth that bothers you. Not sexism.

  • jvcake says:

    “…the least tragic thing that can happen.”

    Indeed, well said.

  • robjam says:

    I agree with your general point, GOTN – & it’s underscored by the fact that there is a whole discourse about ways in which older men can become more handsome, for which there is no parallel discourse for or about women.

    However, I’m not sure I fully agree with your reading of what was going on in that scene in the Dr Who episode. In fact, I thought there was quite a strong connection to be made with part of what you were saying in your snowballing post from a few days ago…

    It’s that thing of the older self looking back at the younger self (this could be one way of reading the juxtaposed faces of Clara), &, on the one hand, that sense of wishing we had done otherwise (Clara staying with the Dr rather than turning away from him, the Dr coming back to Clara rather than staying away, not lying to one another in the kitchen) when we had the opportunity, of taking one of the other forking paths; & on the other hand, the deep sense in the passing of time of time being lost (as much as experience gained) – that whole Proustian thing.

    Either way I do think there is something to take away from this – not to regret who or what we are not, but to celebrate who & what we are; &, even more, to exhilarate in every moment that offers itself, when it offers itself.

  • Elphaba says:

    I actually think you got the age thing in Doctor Who spot on. Despite that, I still admired who the characer became, probably because I want to BE old Clara when I grow up – but we were still encouraged to pity her regardless of the richness of her experiences.

    • mrfloppy says:

      Why wouldn’t we pity old age. Its not sexy. Let’s be honest. And I don’t know about you, but since we are reading a sex blog I’ll assume you agree, sex is very very important and wonderful. Aging is the saddest thing ever because we don’t fancy old people. Its not sexism. Its an elephant on the room. Also it is terrifying.

  • brainintheclouds says:

    I can’t stand Doctor Who (sorry fans), but caught this episode in passing (I live with an addict) and hoped you would write about it – well said!

    It annoys me how it’s so often assumed that ageing makes women less good looking. I just don’t see the problem with grey hair or wrinkles – some wrinkles enhance some faces, and grey hair can look just as good as any other colour. Looking at old photos of my recently deceased granny, I honestly think she looked prettier in her seventies, eighties and early nineties than in her teens and twenties.

    All the focus on looks of course ignores much more important aspects of ageing and what makes life worthwhile.

  • Dawn says:

    I’m going to be 48 this year and I’m having more fun than I ever had when I was young!
    When I joined a dating site last year I was amazed at the number of ‘boys’ (under 25) who wanted to meet up with me, apparently experience and not having to worry about unplanned pregnancy are important considerations for the young lads plus some of them also probably think I’d be pathetically grateful for the attention. I chose to stick to my own age group and am now having the best sex of my life, spanking, ropes, toys. It’s great being old :)

  • Zak Jane Keir says:

    At the age of 51 I had started to think that (much as I might despise the misogynistic, patriarchal bullshit that deems older women unfuckable and therefore worthless) I would probably not have much more sex in my lifetime. I really didn’t want to engage in OLD because if I’m going to get abuse from online randoms I prefer to do it for starting fights in discussion forums. I was generally ^reasonably^ accepting of the fact that I was a bit past it, and would console myself with remembering all the excellent sex I had in my younger days.

    Only then I encountered someone who was not remotely put off by my advanced age. I didn’t diet, get botox, have a ‘makeover’ or anything else. I was wrong to absorb the bullshit. It *is* possible to be sexy and over 35. I’m not old, I’m a fine fucking vintage…

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