“This piece was originally published on The F-Word” 12 October 2011 http://www.thefword.org.uk
WHY I BLOG ABOUT OLD WOMEN AND FILMS It is through films that I became aware of the all-pervasive toxic combination of ageism and sexism in our visual culture. I had always loved the cinema and on my retirement 17 years ago, I decided to study for an MA in Film and Television. I wanted to understand why, both in my teens and as I entered my 60s, I felt so at odds with film critics.
BE YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL IF YOU WANT TO BE LOVED For my MA dissertation I chose to study Le Chat, a film featuring Simone Signoret and Jean Gabin as an old couple ageing very badly. To my surprise, I found in my literature search that, in spite of an extensive body of feminist work on the cinema, there was next to nothing on the older/old woman. In the few mentions available ‘post menopausal’ woman was the expression of choice to describe people like me – a term that offended me deeply. On close analysis Le Chat reveals to us an ageing woman derided and rejected time and again by a husband who projects onto her his fear of ageing and death. But this woman is not ‘the Mother’, the mild comforting, wise woman. Neither is she the meek passive victim. She is full of anger, despair, passion and tenacity. She demands to be seen, heard and even loved! I compared the reactions of reviewers with that of a group of my friends – all retired women. Although very different, the comments of both groups showed a failure to perceive the general tenor of the film and concentrated on certain scenes while others were not mentioned. Some of the reviewers (male) expressed overt hatred of the old woman.
WHO IS INTERESTED IN OLD WOMEN? Armed with these findings I went to see the Professor of ‘Film and Society’ course to ask him if he would supervise me for a PhD on the representation of older/old women in feature films. His negative response was unashamedly unambiguous: “Who is interested in old women?”
OLDER WOMEN IN FILM GROUP The women who watched Le Chat so enjoyed viewing it and talking about it in a group that we decided to keep meeting as a film group. I also formed a University of the Third Age film group which was more general. For the women group I selected the films exclusively for the presence of an old female character. We discovered a few unknown films –The Company of Strangers, Pauline and Paulette, Spider and Rose, Innocence. They dealt with issues relevant to us and the women were not stereotypes. We viewed others with a critical eye. In time the two groups merged and became the Older Women in Film Group (U3A in Brent)
OLDER WOMEN SEX AND DEMENTIA In 2001 Iris was released, in 2003 The Mother opened the London Film Festival, and in 2004 Ladies in Lavender breezed in on the scene. I was dismayed. A powerful female intellectual reduced to the last stages of dementia, a victim wife ‘liberated’ by her sexual desperate desire for the young despicable lover of her daughter and friend to her son, and two charming spinsters in picturesque England. It was time to put our anger to work so we suggested to the BFI a study day at the NFT on the theme of older women in feature films. The film we chose for the screening and academic talk was The Whales of August (1987). The audience filled Screen1 and the very helpful BFI library produced a printed guide of our background work. (It is still available online: http://www.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/publications/olderwomen.html) Alas, the interest of the BFI for the subject was short-lived as it only resulted in the innovation of a free senior matinée session. However, academia took notice; the lecturer that we invited to give a talk after the NFT screening was inspired to organise a conference.
ACADEMIC CONFERENCE: Ageing Femininities: Representation, Identities, Feminism (University of the West of England – October 2007) The group proposed to present a paper to this conference. I found that since my last academic research, more work had been done on the representation of the old woman. A paper by Markson (2000) found that there has been no change in the portrayals of old women in American films between 1927 and 1990. There were the same ageist stereotypes: Self sacrificing or controlling/domineering wives/mothers, frustrated spinsters and rich dowagers. We decided to examine the films produced in England between 1997 and 2006. We found 17 films featuring an old woman; many more than we expected. Our findings were very instructive for us and the report www.oldwomaninfeatureflms.wordpress/resources was accepted for the conference, but rejected for the conference book. The paper was deemed not academic enough and the changes we were asked to make were not acceptable to us. It is true that our findings raised more questions than answers, but it was a work done by a grassroots group of old women about old women and did not seek academic status but recognition. One of our findings was that two, albeit minor, films that we as old women found worth viewing, were badly distributed advertised or targeted. Mrs Caldicott Cabbage War and hold back the night together were viewed by 4917 people. On the other hand, three films that we found disturbingly ageist and sexist, Iris, The Mother and Notes on a Scandal, benefited from huge publicity and were seen by over 2 million people. Yes the first two films were not ‘great films’ but they dealt with issues that we recognised as relevant to us. The other 3 films, while extremely well made, dealt with Alzheimer’s disease, destructive sexual desire and lesbian predatory behaviour. And this is the image that the majority of viewers will remember. The seductive power of well-made films made these three films acceptable, even to women.
THE LEXI CINEMA By 2009 the group was running out of steam. It became more of a social group than a group of women studying films. A new social enterprise cinema opened in Brent and our U3A branch obtained the facility of running a film group at the cinema. It is an all-digitised cinema and we have a restricted choice of films, but we are given complete freedom once a month to programme a film of our choice. I have, up to now, concentrated again on films about older women. The audience, a majority of whom are women, is bigger than our small select group. I give a background talk to the film and mention its reception and distribution. The exchange of views is extremely interesting and people love expressing their opinions and listening to the opinions of others. It often happens that the audience reactions to the films differ considerably from the critics’ consensus. But I found also that I was frustrated that I could not express my own old feminist’s analysis as this was not a course, and I could not replay certain scenes to shore up my arguments.
OLDER WOMAN=35+, FILMS=PORN I felt restricted by the films that are available for public showing and by my inability to express my own views on the films. Some – by no means all – of the best films about old women, that is the woman 60+, are available on DVD and can only be seen by a few people in a home context. There is now more recognition that there are few films featuring a woman over 40. However the problem with films about women over 60 is not that they are rare but that they are misogynistic and ageist. The ones that are not, are just not distributed or programmed.
The need to share my feminist feelings and knowledge about the representation of the old woman in films spurred me to learn how to blog. I report on the U3A group, express my own thoughts and sometimes analyse frame by frame. My blog occasionally slips into a rant on ageism. The initial address contained the words ‘older’, ‘women’, ‘films’. It attracted too many clicks from people looking for porn. It is now www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com .