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.