Did I mention that I have recently moved jobs, and houses, and cities? Well, I have, swapping the cheeky charm of Liverpool’s Liver Birds for the gorgeous Geordie Shore (I mean the real Geordie shoreline of the Northumbrian coast) of Newcastle or, as I am beginning to enunciate, ‘New/kassle.’
As with most encounters with the new, the city is absolutely nothing like the media’s representation of it and although the rather brilliant Sarah Millican has done much to recuperate the North East’s otherwise bleak reputation for beer, fags and bone-chilling wind, she is only one of the many wonders of my newly adopted regional home.
Millican is important because she exemplifies something which I appreciated from the very first day I moved into my new home, which is the kindness of women: from my fab next door neighbour who brought round some fizz on my first night alone here, to my new colleagues who have treated me to skinny cappuccinos in abundance. But this kindness sits alongside an odd kind of self-deprecation, just like Millican’s humour, which serves to undermine the generosity, strength and creativity of these new friends, all of whom are more or less one’s age. Which leads me to the theme of this blog, the unbearable lightness of being…an older woman.
A few days ago, at the invitation of one of those same new colleagues who had earlier plied me with coffee and kuchen, I gave a guest lecture to a group of second year fashion students on the broad topic of gender and media. If I had spent as much time writing even one chapter of my new book as I spent agonising over my outfit for the session, I would be much further forward than the pathetic 30 pages I actually managed to produce.
These were fashion students, fashionistas manqué, likely to sum me up (no doubt entirely unkindly with the casual and unthinking sensibility of typical 19-year-olds) in two seconds flat. I want to present myself as the sexy and sophisticated Helen Mirren but am anxious that I will actually be seen as Mrs Overall from Father Ted. After umpteen outfit try-ons, my dog looking on from her basket with utter indifference as I talk her through my sartorial options, I settle on something I like and feel comfortable wearing, neither New Look nor Jaeger. It is a Vivienne Westwood knock-off, stitched by my fashion graduate daughter in grey pinstripe and lime green silk ruffles. Quirky, but in a good way, rather like I see myself.
So, halfway into the lecture, I show a photo of Madonna’s rear view, on stage, taken during a concert from a couple of years ago and ask who she is. An immediate and unanimous chorus of voices correctly identifies said celeb merely from her red and frilly-knickered derrière, despite the distortion of the image caused by severe pixellation. The follow-up question, whether it is *appropriate* for a woman of Madonna’s age – my age too, incidentally – to be cavorting around in her underwear, seductively stroking the pecs of her male dancers, is met with embarrassed silence.
I let the silence breathe, looking round the room at 100 plus young, enthusiastic and motivated women who up to that point had been dutifully making notes as I talked. Eventually, a bold young woman in the front row says cuttingly, ‘not with those legs!’, and the group laugh. I exchange glances with my colleague. In the look which moves between us is a dreadful sadness that such an attitude is precisely at the very heart of the lecture, to question and critique popular media’s disavowal of the *older* woman. Madonna has fabulous legs, not just for a 50-something year old, but for any woman, so I can only assume that in order to mask her disgust for the superannuated writhings of Madge, said student needed to come up with another reason for consigning her to the dustbin of superstar-has-been.
But I am not entirely depressed. At the end of the hour, as I’m packing up, two young women come up to me saying that they had never really thought about what it must be like to be an old [sic] woman and they were now going to ‘do’ it for their assignment. Could they come and interview me about being one? They mean well and empathy is a good place to start on the damascene road.
And, as a postscript, one of the two young women contacts me and I reply with a couple of options for meeting up. She emails me back almost instantly, incredulous that I have a Twitter handle. I explain that while I might not be a digital native, I was an early adopter and that the 50 plus age group, especially on the distaff side, is the very one galloping up the league tables as the group most likely to. I’m happy to have despatched another one of her assumptions – jeez, you like sex and you tweet, awesome!
Picture credit: Ban by Mzacha
About the author
Karen Ross is professor of media at Northumbria University and describes her professional persona with many labels, including feminist, academic, political and social media activist. She researches and teaches on aspects of media, gender and politics and WLT connect with women who are interested in her work and who might find the outcomes of her research helpful in pushing their own agenda for gender equality forward.
Email: [email protected]