A long time ago there was a song that’s now become an iconic soundtrack of a period in Australian history – AC/DC’s Jailbreak.
Back in their formative years (the 1970s), the band was fronted by the late Bon Scott, a hard-boiled young sex god with a chest rug, tattoos back when they were dangerous, and denim jeans so tight you could see the outline of his considerable assets.
Jailbreak remains legendary for many people and I’m going to use it now as a metaphor for the cages in which we control and label women as we age.
Three events have sparked this post
Each acted as a small thorn in my side, until I put all of them together and realised that this was a subtle push to voice my feelings and thoughts.
The first was the joint gasp from a group of young and beautiful narcissists on a franchised TV show premiering in Australia. It features several twenty-somethings with seemingly faultless and idealised body types, all thrust together on the tiny Love Island.
As viewers, we are expected to voyeuristically gorge our eyes on their unblemished physiques while we watch them figure out a pecking order, and couple up night and day under the watchful eye of 24/7 cameras (including night vision).
The almost-comic gasp I mention occurred when the group discovered that one of their members (a svelte, early-twenties buck) had a fling with an ‘older woman’ – “almost 50” no less.
The shocked expressions worn by these young women might indeed have been hilarious if they were not so insulting. I saw the gamut of emotions flicker by as the camera panned around the group – astonishment, the dreadful reality sinking in, revulsion. I imagined these vain hen peacocks trying to comprehend the scandalous notion that their ‘perfect’ bods might not actually be enough to keep hold of their man!
Who knows what the young bucks were thinking – I indulge myself that maybe they were a little more opening minded?
The second event I recalled after subconsciously pondering that ghastly show (like a car accident that held my gaze, I found myself strangely compelled to watch it until the first ad break!).
This second event was a story told by a recreational cricket player here in my town and it involved a similar socially suspect admission by a younger guy. Let’s say he was in his late teens, but his age is irrelevant. Points were jokingly assigned to these cricket hobbyists based on their most recent sexual success. When it came to the young buck’s turn, he LOST points – amid much jocular ribbing – because his womanly ‘conquest’ was over 40.
Not only was their assignation deemed unworthy of point value, he was penalised for it!
The third event was a comment made by a man on a dating site.
“Who’d be interested in a 52-year-old man?” he rhetorically and self-deprecatingly enquired. I responded, “And why wouldn’t someone be interested?” Tick any of the boxes that our youth-worshipping society so neatly packages up for us – too old, clapped out, can’t get it up, past his use-by date, haggard, jaded and just plain boring.
And for all those stereotypes there are matching ones for women! Dried up old prune, wrinkled, middle-aged, invisible, unworthy of our interest or attention, tired, past her best, and so on.
Subverting the dominant culture
While I find these examples of narrow-minded ageism all too predictable, it’s simultaneously fascinating that, subverting the dominant culture, is a whole other world where mature women are actively sought out for age-earned privileges.
‘Knowing what we want’ and ‘being able to hold a conversation’ are two such examples of the recognised virtues an ‘older woman’ brings to the table, as well as the more questionable ‘cutting to the chase’ and ‘being low maintenance’. (You might want to have a quick peek at my section about the changing definition of a ‘cougar’ at this point.)
Yes, it’s true that sometimes we don’t care to mess around with preliminaries – we might just want to get laid. In contrast, people regardless of their age still have very human needs and for me, being respected is right up there in the top five.
…people regardless of their age still have very human needs and for me, being respected is right up there in the top five.
Another example of the change in attitude at the other end of the spectrum is the term MILF. Firstly, that it exists, and secondly, that it’s consistently one of the top five most popular search term on Pornhub. (Pornhub Annual Report 2016) More worryingly, ‘step mom’ was the top most searched term in 2017 and still remains extremely popular.
Both cultural terms denote edgy, mature (and slightly dangerous) female sexuality combined with the traditional stereotype of women as the nurturers and carers.
In the article The Emancipation of the MILF: Does sexual freedom belong only to the young? journalist Kim Brooks describes the relatively unchartered territory of mature female sexuality, especially that of women who are also mothers. (Kim Brooks, The Cut May 2017)
In her 40s, author Claire Dederer came to the painful conclusion that she had a problem. “The problem had to do with sex. It had to do with desire. It had to do with being a middle-aged wife and mother and needing and wanting to be seen and known by new people in a new way…” says Brooks.
While recognising that she loved her husband and her family, she could no longer suppress the bubbling desire for something ‘other’ than where she found herself in her life. “A part of her wanted to step outside the boundary of the polite, middle-class domestic life they’d drawn around themselves. Or, to put it more crudely, she wanted to fuck around.”
And this concept is being echoed around the world, not only in memoirs, articles and blogs, but in TV shows like Wanderlust, and even among my own midlife female friends.
Revising the concept of the cougar or MILF
In the time since I installed that first dating app four years ago, I’ve done a complete 360 on my attitude to the concept and mythology around MILFs and cougars.
It hasn’t been easy, because I’d imbibed the subtle messages that surround us, as women, that once we reach a certain age our lives become less interesting, less important and certainly, less passionate. As I age, I instinctively struggle with this blatant ageism, because in my core, I don’t feel any different from those early heady years of discovering my personal, female and sexual identity in my late teens and twenties. I’m sure you feel the same way.
History and popular culture has proven that many, many women in midlife can identify with what Claire Dederer grapples with in her memoir Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, forensically examining what happens when a devoted wife and mother stops taking care of everyone, “stops subsuming her own needs to those of her children and husband, stops repressing her unruly sexual desires, and starts acting like, well … a man.”
Dederer asserts that a woman might be a mother and yet also a person with unruly, lively and even promiscuous sexual desire. “…A mature woman’s love life might be every bit as sensuous, tawdry, complicated, and overflowing as that of any women in her twenties,” she says.
Kim Brooks suggests of Dederer, “…but as a woman, she is setting out into the uncharted territory, suggesting, as a few brave souls have now begun to do, that the MILF might not just be a male fetish and a focus of male desire, but a person in her own right, not just an object, but a subject with things she herself would like to do.”
This image of the powerful and emancipated cougar or MILF is in direct contrast to the dominant ideology western society likes to periodically regurgitate. It was repugnantly blatant in the three examples I mention here – and it is not only confined to women.
Men also experience a similar cultural backlash as they age, even if they are party to its distribution.
For example, men perpetuate ageist attitudes about themselves (“who’d want this clapped-out old goat?”) and in the popular midlife trend of seeking out a newer model of the no-longer-interesting wife.
Research shows that men judge a woman’s physical appearance significantly higher (33%) than any other factor. (Elyse Romano ‘The State of Dating: What Do We Look For In A Mate?’)
British journalist, Deborah Orr writes in The Guardian, “how many articles have there been about how awful it is that ‘middle-aged women’ can’t meet ‘middle-aged men’ because all the ‘middle-aged men’ are snapping up ‘younger women’?…Women are culturally programmed to go into some kind of existential panic if they find themselves single in their forties. Men? They’re culturally programmed to believe that whatever they do, they mustn’t get mixed up with an ‘incredibly lonely’ and ‘incredibly vulnerable’ woman in existential panic. Which, frankly, is fair enough.” (Deborah Orr ‘Helen Bailey and the Lethal Darkness Behind This ‘Middle-Aged Woman’ Myth’ The Guardian 25 Feb 2017)
Looking on the bright side
But thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom for women in midlife.
Not only do we have the titillating prospect of sex or liaisons with younger men, but at least 58% of 26,434 men between 30 and 49 in one study said they’d consider dating a woman older than them. (Elyse Romano ‘Online Dating Report Women Want Younger Men’) So there are some positive aspects to take out of some research.
One article says that, “the overall attitude [is that] the older woman is better adjusted …that women in their forties have significantly high levels of self-confidence, are happier with their lives overall and feel that the best days of their lives are ahead of them.”
Even better for men with commitment phobia, “96% of women in their forties are content being in a relationship that may not end in marriage, but only 62% of eighteen-year-old women can say the same.” (OK Cupid Says Men Are Looking for Older Women and Just Don’t Know It’)
I am happy to have reached the stage where I am content both with myself and my life, as a strong, independent woman.
I don’t need a man – I want mutually satisfying, challenging and fun relationships, but that’s very different at my age and stage at any other decade. I don’t have a burning, ‘sand through the hourglass’ desire for babies, I don’t have any economic need to be taken care of or pampered. I don’t rely on my body or my appearance for my external validation (although it’s always nice to be appreciated or admired!).
Finally, in this second half of my life, I have reached a place of satisfaction, empowerment and reasonable contentment with myself. I’m still a work in progress, as we all are.
If there’s one thing I’d say to those obnoxious, narcissistic young women on Love Island it’s this: One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll reach 50 too. Pray that by then, you have something other than a lithe body and a pretty face as the foundation for your self-esteem.