LEXI Autumn Season and “Look at Me”

21st September 2010

After a long summer recess we are back at the Lexi for the new U3A academic year. It is wonderful that the cinema is hosting us again and that we are given the freedom of programming our sessions. I realise how difficult programming is. I thought originally that I would pursue the aim of the U3A film group to explore and publicise films that feature old women. There are over 100 such films that I would have liked to share, but after  a year of keeping to this guidelines I find there are not enough of them available to show publicly. So I decided to include in our programmes  ‘classic’ films and ‘art house’ films  and keeping the season as  varied as possible. So here is our programme for this autumn:

September 29th: Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder,  October 27th: Went the Day Well (1942) dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, November 24th: Baghban (2003) dir: Ravi Chopra, December 15th: Babette’s Feast (1987) dir. Gabriel Axel

On the subject of the images  of older/old women I was surprised and deeply disappointed this summer.  Thirteen years ago the ‘Film and Society’ white haired professor replied to my request to apply for a PhD: “Who is interested in old women?” Since then I have pursued this interest on my own or with a group of older women. In our efforts to make ourselves visible we have had contacts with some academics, cinema programmers and distributors. At best we were treated with amusement, at worst completely ignored. When there was some interest shown it was always concentrated on the appearance of the old woman and her sexuality.

In 2010 The University of Sheffield launched  a high profile  programme :   ‘The Look at Me! Images of Women & Ageing’ Project aims to transform the way society views older women. This is a unique project which will challenge the current perceptions of older women in our society. The Second World Assembly on Ageing in 2003 recognised a need to challenge stereotyped images of ageing, particularly in relation to older women. “ I thought at long last somebody is interested in old women. When finally their website went on line I was puzzled. Three images loop on the title page. In what way do  these three images challenge images of older women?  Representing self, representing ageing is illustrated by a close up of only part of a hand and  fingers holding a camera. The liver spots on the part of the hand is I suppose a sign of age but the photo is less than interesting. Exploring images is illustrated by a smiling woman’s face looking up (to what authority?) . She is holding a picture out of focus. She is lipsticked and rouged and her hair, greying, immaculately coiffed. The image illustrating Creating images is puzzling: A woman stands in the middle of a room. Is it a private or public space? the furniture is modern and cold , there is a large empty expanse of wooden floor and functional tables.   Her clothes are restraining with a high collar and long tight cuffs,  a wide tight belt joins  the grey skirt to the white shirt.  What do these images convey to the viewers?   I see in these images no “challenge to current perceptions of older women in our society”. If any of my readers have suggestions of images they could have used, please comment. I would have loved to see a succession of old women’s faces in all their variety of ages, physical appearance and ethnicity.  I imagine that the two portraits are the products of two women representing themselves and they would be interesting in a gallery of other portraits. As challenges of conventional images of ageing and introduction to new ways of seeing old women  they are meaningless. As I am writing these lines and referring to the site, I notice that the ‘creating images’ photo   has been changed to a sculpture made for the art workshop. At least this illustration is interesting and has the potential to stimulate thoughts and discussion.

But I would like to refer to the film chosen for the launch of this ambitious programme. It is called “Still doing it”. I found the title offensive and feared that ‘It’ did refer to sexual activity and nothing else. And yes when I viewed the DVD (ordered at great expense from the USA) it did turn out to be a film documenting the sexual lives of 8 old californian women.  The film in itself is not worth commenting on. In the first scenes we are told that old women have still sexual feelings and over 50 boring minutes we are subjected to 8 variations of its expression and no information about the other aspects of these women’s lives. What interest me is why of all the misrepresentations of old women the team has chosen to redress the impression that old women have no sexual desire in the launch of a research   programme. Is it because they imagine that sex is the most important component of old  women’s lives? surely not. It is interesting that the choice echoes the attitude of some younger women  as I said earlier.   Is it because they think they are breaking a taboo? They should have been at our showing of Cloud 9 where old women talked freely about sex without any prudery. Is it because they are unaware that old women can be represented in other ways? Personally I do not know the documentary filmography but I know at least a handful of   feature films that would have elevated the launch to another level where the old woman is seen as having not only sexual desires but general desire for living, experiencing, sharing, caring.

I do feel upset about this choice. Look at me? yes look at me as a social being who thinks and acts, who desire also, of course. I feel that the choice of “still doing it”  while trying to break one stereotype has fallen into the sex and individualist trap that  is dominant in our visual culture.

I will end with a quotation  ” We have shown for the first time, on a global basis, that people in their 60s and 70s feel fit, healthy and in control of their lives. This positivity amongst older people is refreshing and they are using this health ‘gift’ in the most constructive way; by contributing back to their societies and to their families.” Oxford Institute of Ageing


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Ageism, Conferences and comments. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to LEXI Autumn Season and “Look at Me”

  1. Naomi Richards says:

    Dear Rina, I am the researcher on the Look at Me! Images of Women & Ageing project and have a few comments to make in response to your blog. In general, it’s always useful to receive feedback on a project in its early stages: in this case, it is particularly useful to hear about reactions to the project website which is under construction and fairly frequent revision, and to be able to reflect on those reactions in the ongoing development of the research.

    In terms of more specific and immediate responses to your blog, the first important point to note is that the aim of the project is not to endorse the quote you cite from the Oxford Institute of Ageing about “positivity”, but rather to give the older women we are working with in Sheffield the chance to express, through image-making, the whole spectrum of their feelings about growing older – which includes addressing their fears and anxieties. Second, the women themselves have created the images (or they have directed a professional photographer as to how they wanted to be portrayed). This in itself means the images are an alternative representation – of older women, by older women. By collaborating with participants in this way, we have not, or course, been able to pre-determine how challenging of conventional stereotypes their images may be. The fact that they do not, to you, appear challenging, belies the fact that the women have challenged themselves through the act of making them. As the workshops only finished in May, we have spent the summer processing the images and there are now many images available to view on the website. Four films have also been made about the different image-making workshops, and I would be interested to know what you think of these. Finally, you mention the film “Still doing it” which we showed for our launch. Sex and sexuality is, of course, only one aspect of the lives of older women, but one that is often not talked about publicly (one academic working on the project, Professor Merryn Gott, has written a book entitled Sexuality, Sexual Health and Ageing). Just as it had amongst the project team members on private viewing, his film generated a great deal of discussion after the ‘public’ viewing, not just about the ‘taboo’ of older women and sex, but about a resistance to being defined solely by or through sexuality (a resistance you are also expressing). The choice of film was intended to be a stimulant for debate and was received as such by the sell out audience. We may decide to hold another such event at some point and show a documentary on a different aspect of ageing.

    I would invite your readers to take a look at the website: http://www.representing-ageing.com and send any comments to the email address listed on the site. The exhibition will launch in Sheffield on the centenary of international women’s day on March 8th 2011.

    • rinaross says:

      I would never ever dream of questioning the self-representation of a person old or young, male or female, as being stereotypical or challenging or neither. If that is the way the person wants to be seen that is fine by me. Usually self-portraits are identified as such.

      What I questioned in my blog is the team’s CHOICE of two particular images to illustrate a TITLE. This can and should be subjected to some analysis. The same applies to the CHOICE of film for the launch.

      As I said on my blog, the self-portrait of the blue-eyed woman in the blue cardigan is fine. As an illustration of “Exploring images” of a project on images of older women, it loses its status of self-portrait and invites the close examination that I subject it to, as I would the cover of the Saga magazine or a leaflet for the University of the Third Age or any other advertisement.
      In the same way, the CHOICE of a DOCUMENTARY film to launch a programme loses its status as ONE of the possible films about older women. Its subject acquires a prominent status amongst other issues.

      Thanks again for posting on my blog.

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