A feminist’s fear of forty

I can remember my mum turning 40. I was 11 at the time. She looked sad and told me “I feel so old” so I said “no, you’re not,” obviously thinking “yes, you are” plus “I’ll make sure I never get like that.” Deep down, some part of me felt that if my mother didn’t like being 40 so much, she shouldn’t have let it happen to her. As far as I was concerned, ageing was a failing on her part.

Now, of course, it has happened to me – today, in fact. I might be 29 years older, but I haven’t lost that sense that getting old is a woman’s own stupid fault. After all, we live in a culture in which women are constantly told that they can “turn back time” and find “eternal youth” with the latest creams and serums. Rationally, we know this is nonsense – that it means, at best, “be margially less obviously wrinkled than you would have been had you not used this product which you can’t even afford” – but still it feels as though it is literally our responsibility not to pass the age of 35 (and that should we do so, we deserve everything we get). We know what’s coming – we all get a shot at youth and plenty of time to think about how to hold on to it – therefore once the inevitable happens, we’re left feeling it wasn’t inevitable at all (obviously, I’m aware that reaching 40 is far better than not reaching 40, yet I can’t shake the feeling that it was down to me to find a middle way between getting older and dying young. Isn’t that what all women are meant to do?).

As ever, it is different for boys. However, there’s no point in me yelling “look, I’m only three days older than Russell Brand!” or “I’m almost twelve years younger than Johnny Depp!” The actress Maggie Gyllenhaal recently revealed that at 37, she was considered too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old male. That, we are meant to think, is just the way things are. Evolution or something. In such a situation, there are two things to which I currently cling which make me hope I seem younger than I really am: 1, I am pregnant again; and 2, when I’m not pregnant, I’m the same weight I was when I was in my mid-twenties. So, all in all, very feminist. Don’t worry, patriarchy! I’ve not transgressed the sex doll/walking womb directive just yet! I remain reproductively useful and am still paying attention to contemporary female fuckability standards! So perhaps I get a little more time before having to become completely invisible.

In theory, feminism should provide a bold riposte to all this yet of course, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve started to think a form of matrophobia – my 11-year-old “I’ll make sure I never get like that” – is in some ways a natural part of feminist rebellion. We become feminists because we don’t want the lives our mothers had, but in order not to feel powerless we end up blaming our mothers for not making a better go of things. This is something Adrienne Rich explored in Of Woman Born, published in 1976 (when I was one! Not old at all!):

Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her. But where a mother is hated to the point of matrophobia there may also be a deep underlying pull toward her, a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.

Feminism, I used to think, would make me, would make all of us, “not our mothers” – somehow.

Throughout the 1990s I was unable to distinguish between older feminists who criticized “raunch culture” and the sexist young men around me who saw all women as prick teases or slags. By pointing out how these men positioned us – by reiterating what these men believed, and describing the way we played along with it – I thought such women were no better than the men. Worse, in fact; it was easier to be angry at them than it was with the men with whom we were sleeping. I saw the women as a product of their time, a time that did not appreciate or understand female sexual agency. Today, this impulse within feminism seems to have become more entrenched. Feminists who question male sexual entitlement are not only seen as old-fashioned or misguided but pathologically motivated (“whorephobes”) and/or morally depraved (“SWERFs”). The older you get, the more pressure there is to demonstrate that you’re not one of them. I love sex, me. I’m not one of them “ladies what lunch.” But one cannot act like one  is 17 when one is 40. Everyone knows the ridicule that would await. Therefore, the next best option is to turn on one’s contemporaries, and especially those women – those second wavers – who are older still.

As Astrid Henry notes, this is a form of repetition. It is what second wavers themselves did to first wavers:

The ‘dead’ suffrage movement was defined as conservative, misguided, and over, so the ‘new,’ ‘real’ feminism of the present could be posited as truly radical and thus, ultimately, a better kind of feminism.

But of course, that “new” feminism wasn’t anything of the sort, was it? It was, we feel, just as “conservative, misguided, and over” as the movement from which it distanced itself. Hence the third wave – which seems to have been enduring for an awfully long time – coasts on rejection of the second wave, as though we’d lose all momentum without it. And meanwhile every woman is left to face getting older – becoming “one of them” – in her own way. If I were younger, I think I’d opt for the “rejecting the definition ‘woman’ full stop” approach. But I fear I have left it too late to be credible. Anyone old enough to be a younger feminist’s mother is cis, otherwise what would said younger feminist have to kick back against? (Suggestion: male supremacy. But don’t whisper that too loud.)

On the bright side, I look at my grandmother, who is 96, and see someone who has come out of that fifty-odd year stretch of “old womanhood” and gained a new kind of respect. Unlike my mother and me, she is cool. Her old, old age is cool, at least for everyone except her. For her the whole thing is incredibly tiring and painful as she is – in real, physical terms, not imaginary patriarchal ones – able to do less and less. She is at a point at which no one can deny that ageing is hard, and lonely, and something to be feared. That women are expected to waste so much time in-between – feeling old when they are anything but, turning on each other when there is so much work to be done  – surely isn’t the way things should be.