At 69, critic and academic Susan Douglas has deftly chronicled her generation of women as they move through popular culture, from girlhood to older womanhood. So it’s not lost on her that women 60 and over are having something of a heyday.
It’s easy to start a list. There’s Nancy Pelosi who, agree or disagree with her politics, is having the power moment of her life as Speaker of the House at 78. That was Diana Ross at the Grammys, celebrating her 75th birthday. And Susan Zirinsky took over management of CBS News this month at 66. The list could go on.
“This is a major demographic revolution and the media is just catching up,” says Douglas.
A professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, Douglas’ previous books looked at girlhood, motherhood and feminism. Her latest book, which will come out later this year, has the working title Older Women Rising—“we’ll see if that sticks” she says—and will look at the status of older women today.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
What do you mean when you say this is a revolution?
We are at a turnstile moment in our culture and in the media.
There are more older women—women over 50—than ever before who are living longer, are healthier, more vibrant, more socially engaged. Eighteen percent of women 70 to 74 are still working, 33% of women 65 to 69 are still working; some work because they have to and some because they love their work.
Women over 50 are experiencing and pushing back against two forces colliding: the old-fashioned notion that we are old grandmas and all we want to do is play with our grandchildren, be docile and nurturing.
Older women are pushing back against (both) invisibility and older stereotypes.
You’ve written that “women are pulled in opposite directions between wanting power and dreading power.”
We are seeing shifting attitudes about older women in public life. The RBG movie [the 2018 documentary on 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg] is the highest grossing film Magnolia Films has ever made. We are seeing a push and pull that older women should be quiet and go away and also that we should have a voice.
That is layered with stereotypes because if they speak up, then they are “battle-axes” or “greedy geezers.”
On the other hand, I am over 65 and I don’t give a s–t anymore. I’ve earned the right.
What are the major concerns of older women in terms of their power and invisibility?
Having their voices be heard and not being dismissed because of their age– whether that is in the workplace or trying to get a drink at a bar.
Healthcare is especially of concern to older women. How older women are regarded by doctors—they listen to women talk about their symptoms and just dismiss them. Income inequality is a very big issue. Average income for women over 55 is $17,000 per year. You can’t live on that.
What are some pop culture ways we see this?
There are older celebrities who do not want to be put out to pasture. Look at the movie, Book Club, last summer, it was a cotton candy of a movie, but a full-blown success. Grace and Frankie has legions of devoted fans. We have Helen Mirren, Judi Dench. Better Midler at 71 was a smash in “Hello Dolly.”
How do you experience this possible power shift?
It varies by women. I, personally, as well as other older women, became more involved in the 2018 elections. I went door to door campaigning for other women. That made a difference.
I do think my students respond to how much knowledge and information I have in my field. People do listen to older women’s experience. But some find themselves in the workplace silenced or ignored. I have a privileged position because as a college professor I meet 20-somethings and have a lot of 20-something friends.
Talk about the importance of friendship as you age.
I experience through them (20-somethings) the respect they have for older women. That is gratifying. We have mutually rewarding friendships. We exchange information and pop culture references. It is also very affirming to be an older women with lifelong friends; I find these friendships powerful and affirming, as I have known some of them for 60 years.
Does the #MeToo movement have anything to do with this moment for older women? Or is it most active for younger women?
A lot of what #MeToo is dealing with is sexual harassment and sexual assault. And it has revitalized feminism and very important issues about reproductive rights, careers and workplace equity and childcare.
But older women are not yet part of this revived feminist agenda. We need a lifespan feminism. Just because a woman has turned 60 and is a senior does not mean she is no longer affected by her gender.
You like to refer to older women as “vintage females.”
I love the term, but I’ve gotten pushback from my publisher. It makes some think of a used clothing store. I think, no, it’s a nice bottle of wine and there is something valuable in the old cask.
How do men experience this?
Some men have their own experiences with ageism, but it is not across the board. When men’s temples go gray, they are distinguished, not so much for women. All our lives we are assessed by our appearance and it does not change. That’s why I love some of the older influencers on Instagram.
In your previous books, you’ve written about portrayals in media differing from real life. You say it is “cultural schizophrenia.” What does that mean?
In the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was how women were leading their lives. Women were pulled between different notions of how to be. If you want to get along, you have to be beautiful, compliant and nurturing. But if you want to get ahead, you can’t be any of those.
We’re at that moment again with increasing numbers of older women who want visibility.
A lot of older women love that Patti LaBelle is touring and you can go to a Mavis Staples concert and Sally Field has a new book. Baby Boomer women have been operating with scripts their whole lives, that are so different from the old scripts that don’t work anymore. We want to be seen and heard in the world.
How do celebrities shape how we view older women?
I think it’s complicated. Celebrities have to walk such a fine line. They have to age gracefully but they can’t look like they have had too much work done and do not look like themselves. Women have been routinely ridiculed for that and the celebrity gossip industry will eviscerate you.
This is not just movie stars, this is news presenters, anchors, pundits.
As a result, the impact has been contradictory. On the one hand, we love seeing women like Jane Fonda and Bette Midler. On the other hand, women like Fonda are quite honest about having work done. I didn’t look like Jane Fonda at 20 and I don’t look like her now.
When your role models are Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon, there is a norm that can be generated that this is how older women look and that undermines the rest of us.
What are the biggest misconceptions about older women?
According to the stereotype literature, older women are technophobes, who don’t know anything about technology—like that insurance commercial where a woman posts to her board. They are clueless about popular culture, grumpy, infirm, disabled, fragile, mentally slow, incompetent, all these age-old stereotypes. Bossy.
The “greedy geezer” stereotype is applied to women as much as men. The other stereotypes are narratives about what older women should do—be docile, bake cookies, and play with grandchildren.
What makes you optimistic about the role of older women in this culture?
There are a lot of us. That makes me optimistic. More of us than ever before. We matter financially, culturally, politically.
How can we improve what it’s like to be an older woman in this culture?
Good question, and one I am wrestling with. We need to become more politically active, put more pressure on the media and forge alliances with younger women.