21 Jul 2008

On The Shelf?

Tracy Emin is in the news today, as usual for mouthing off rather than for her art, namely for her comment that she dreads reaching the age of 55 because women are apparently no longer sexy at this age. Cue a debate on that wonderful current affairs show, The Wright Stuff. Post-55 women, and their male admirers, are emailing and calling in to refute the idea that post-menopausal women are sexually invisible and undesirable. As I type, a 77 year old woman is telling Matthew Wright that she had an affair with a 35 year old man when she was 70. Myself and my partner are agreed that this is pretty unappetising news, but no more disagreeable than the various old men who parade round with women young enough to be their daughters or granddaughters, and are merely congratulated on their wonderful relationships. However, the one defence of Emin's comments that pisses me right off is the idea that post-menopausal women are not considered attractive because of their inability to reproduce. Why is it that the Darwinian defence is only ever invoked to justify shitty behaviour amongst human beings? Rape, promiscuity and now ageism have variously all been justified via recourse to the idea that we (for we, read 'men') just need to 'spread our genes' as far and wide as possible with as fertile partners as possible. How on earth can any of these claims be quantified? I think the average person would acknowledge that sexual attraction is such a fluid, individual and curious phenomenon, that explaining where it has its roots can only ever be conjecture. This idea that 'Oh, you're not really aware of your motivations, it's all in your cavemen subconscious baby!' seems only ever to serve to justify vile behaviour (amongst men), or to reduce all good human behaviour to self-serving calculation. Because, god knows, men are all mindless sex driven rapists, and women are mindless baby-driven home-makers.

Yes, sometimes men seem attracted to younger women. Whether this is due to a caveman-like attraction to their fecundity, an inability to deal with women their own age, or a slight nod to paedophilic leanings, we'll never know. For what it's worth, I largely doubt it's the first; I don't think the emaciated Calista Flockhart's 'childbearing hips' were what attracted Harrison Ford, a man 25 years her senior, to her, nor her previous demonstrated ability to bear a biological child (she has one adopted son). The rest we can only speculate about. But why is it only these men who are acknowledged as behaving in a sexually valid way, and 'backed up' by questionable, vague, selective uses of 'science'? Why not John Lennon, who married Yoko Ono, eight years his senior? Why not Prince Charles, who rejected his young, dewy wife 11 years his junior, to pursue for most of his adult life, a woman largely considered to be seriously lacking in the looks department with a couple of years on him? Why not the partners of Demi Moore, Vivien Westwood, Joan Collins etc etc etc? And, as is well overdue for pointing out, why is it always the appeal of the women that is under the spotlight? Why are older men 'distinguished', but older women are dried up hags? Anyone who's gone for a swim at their local pool will probably acknowledge that both sexes can get pretty un-pretty in their later years, and withered flesh will affect us all one day.

The caveman defence is not only one that has never been sufficiently proved or quantified, but it also a fairly vile way of defending male promiscuity, male sexual violence, or male lack of responsibility displayed towards partners and children. It's also occasionally pulled out to justify female infidelity, viz the idea that us ladies just want tp get pregnant by as many strong-jawed biological specimens as we can. I find it tiresome, lazy, and totally dismissive of the spectrum of human sexual relationships that exist in reality. If we applied the idea that we are only attracted to people due to their apparent ability to reproduce, plump, wide-hipped women at the age of 30 (the female sexual peak) would be considered the apex of female beauty and would be fighting off manly-jawed 19 year olds (male sexual peak) ready to inseminate them.

I don't doubt that it is hard to be an older woman in this society, but instead of justifying this via the supposition that, if you ain't producing those eggs, you ain't gonna get looked at (cos men just love those ovums! they can't think of anything else!), we should be looking at the far more likely reasons staring us in the face. As I pointed out in my earlier post, our age-obsessed society fetishizes youth to an extent that is frightening and sinister. The worship of dewy 16 year olds can't all be about wanting a girl who can bear your children, as the canonisation of youth comes hand in hand with the prizing of a body shape so wasted that the average model, actress and singer now looks like she probably doesn't even menstruate. To me it seems a neat way of ensuring that, however far women get in society, they continue to feel substandard and inadequate, because youth is fleeting, and a Body Mass Index of You're Nearly Dead is not something we all feel like achieving.

I can understand why Tracy Emin feels afraid of aging, because if you're made to feel ugly and asexual by the age of 25, what is it going to be like when you don't have the natural defences of youth on your side any more, and it's pretty much all downhill on the looks front? But she's playing a foolish game feeding into these stereotypes. Beauty myths only become self-fulfilling prophecies if we let them, and if we let a society that loves to undermine us succeed in doing so. It takes a strong mind and a steel will not to crumble, but it's possible. And both men and women have obviously managed it, otherwise no one over the age of 55, or over the waist size of 33in, or under the cup size of 32DD, or with a wrinkled face, a non-functioning reproductive system etc etc etc would ever find a partner or have sex.

Not to mention those who have chosen to opt out of the drive to reproduce (if male promiscuity is all about the desire to spread your seed, I guess the condom in the wallet is just for show). I've worried in the past that my choice not to have children will effectively rupture my relationship with my male partner; so far, they've been more than content to come round to my way of thinking. And this is not only an act of resistence against traditional Darwinism, but also Social Darwinism, that demands we abandon our freewheeling ways at some point and get down to some proper procreation during our lives. Childbearing and rearing is still the norm, even if it is delayed or shaped to fit in with modern ambitions. Not wanting children makes me a figure of curiosity, criticism and patronising pats on the head accompanied by 'Oh, you'll change your mind' (but it'd require a whole extra post, or maybe a book, to properly get into that issue).

My point is, if I can stand against this and not be mindlessly swept along on a tide of trends I do not wish to participate in, perhaps we can also not let trends that exist solely to make women squirm, dictate that we must be invisible once we hit a certain age.

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