We Aren’t Allowed To Grow Up — An exploration into the gendered ramifications of ageism
On Halloween this year (2018), I had the most shocking revelation. No one wants to grow old — in fact, age seems to have become a bit of an enigma; a stigmatized and gendered process. Why do I say that? Well, coveting youth has never been more in demand — or problematic.
Let’s turn the clock a bit — even when I was a child, and was aggressively roaming the clinically clean hallways of shopping malls, I distinctly remember brushing against the term “anti-aging” plastered across beauty products and facial creams and serums. Now it’s important to unpack this term: “Anti-aging” — a subtle reinforcement of age being a condition needed to be treated; something like anti-anxiety medication or anti-fungal spray. Well thank God the industry has our back because in 2017 it was recorded that skin care products laden with a glorifying “anti-aging” label on them, made up roughly 40% of all skincare sales, data from NPD shows.
So here we are with “anti-aging” cosmetics having taken over the beauty world, with an estimate industry worth of nearly $11 billion in 2018.
Yet is anyone surprised of this unfolding of obsessive behavior? I hope not, because the story of age versus youth takes us back long ago.
Depictions since the dawn of man have been circulating the relationship between age and fatalism — an ironic term given age is inevitably linked with one’s imminent death. And for a very long time I’ve wondered if one’s obsession with youth was simply a veiled denial of death. Are we scared of dying? Or is there another phenomena at play?
If we turn our eyes towards the Dutch and Flemish arts in the 1600s, we’ll find a young Peter Paul Rubens. In 1632–33, Rubens completed his famous “The Finding of Erichthonius” painting — the story of the discovery of the snake-legged Erichthonius, son of Vulcan and Gaea from Ovid’s telling of the “Metamorphoses”. In his portrayal, Herse, a young beautiful woman, is shown discovering the baby yet contrasted by an old crone behind her. Yet, such a character is never mentioned in any of the classical accounts; in fact Rubens frequently added an old, seemingly devious woman in his paintings in order to highlight youth and beauty.
But what are the inherent implications of such? The subtle message was that female youth was associated with beauty yet consequently naivety, unworldliness, weakness; a child — someone not to be taken seriously. While old age in women was associated with intelligence and power corrupted into bitterness, envy and deviousness.
The narrative is taken further in Germany in the 1800s, when the Grimm brothers published their collection of fairy tales. And so begins the classical narrative of fear old women — “What do we have? Nags, witches, evil stepmothers, cannibals, ogres. It’s quite dreadful,” says Maria Tatar, who teaches a course on folklore and mythology at Harvard.
We have the wicked queen in Snow White who felt threatened by another’s youth; we have the evil hag in Hansel & Gretel who wanted to eat children — a direct metaphor for eating back her time. Then we have the witch in Andersen’s The Little Mermaid who cut Ariel’s tongue to gain the voice of youth.
If we take the 1937 Disney Snow White movie, we get to see the sequence in which a beautiful, charismatic, wicked queen turns into an old hag. A sequence probably more frightening to the adult audience since Disney studios managed to compress the aging process in about 20 seconds. We get to see that a once a beautiful queen who had it all, in the face of age, loses it all.
Forward to the 1950s, and we have Hugh Hefner founding the infamous playboy mansion who gained immense traction in the 1970s for its glamorization and legitimization of “eternal youth” and sensuality. The playboy mansion was laden with only young, ripe women and worked on an efficient rotation method — much like a crop rotation. Once the “bunnies” got old, they got switched with younger ones. In a further attempt to make salient the dominant messages of ageism, the Playboy mansion added a secret ingredient — men.
In a narrative long established as a constant pursuit of youth, men were added as a contributing element. Youth also got you men and riches and Hugh Hefner had a part to play in the gendering of age — his mansion secured connections with the crème de la crème of society for these women.
And so we reach the pivotal moment in 1993, when Anna Nicole Smith gained popularity in Playboy magazine when being named “Playmate of the Year”. After winning such a ‘prestigious’ award at the age of 26, in 1994 she receives what had been promised — a promising man in an ironic setting. Smith ended up marrying business magnate J. Howard Marshall II, an 89 year old man.
The narrative continues in 1999 with Melania and Donald Trump having a similar staggering age gap — Melania being in her 20s while Trump in his 60s.
Yet what happened in the 1950s that stirred the wheel away from Prince Charming ending up with the young, beautiful woman? How come old men became a prize yet old women remained in the dark?
I argue that the perversion of age lead to a subconscious triggering of clinging on to an eternity of youth as underscored by Alain de Botton. In an attempt to trick time, it seems a subconscious click happened — by marrying older men, an association with a father figure was established — hence, the process of aging; the process of becoming an adult; a woman, would forever remain impeded by the dynamic set in motion: a child and her father.
Hence, such accounts not only indoctrinated gender roles for men and women, but inadvertently reflected the value system of a contemporary patriarchal society.
Fast forward — so what did I find on Halloween in 2018? Well, as I was desperately searching for an adequate mask in the “Halloween Section” at Target, I found age knocking on my doorstep. A simple rubber mask depicting a normal old woman, covered in an Eastern European kerchief. That, for them, was a frightening gaze. A vision only to be taken out on the 31st of October. What I found in 2018 was that old age was a Halloween mask in Target.
And that hit deep.