Writing a long, long time ago in a papercut delivery mechanism called “a magazine,” Susan Sontag pointed out that our culture has a double-standard when it comes to aging. That is, dudes are allowed to age into grizzled old wrinklepusses, while women are required to either maintain the skin tautness of a porcelain doll forever or banish themselves to the interior of a heavily-draped home and hope no one has the misfortune of gazing upon their timeworn eyelids.
Sontag’s “The Double Standard of Aging” was published in The Saturday Review a fairly long time ago (41 years this weekend, actually), so surely our culture’s been properly enlightened and we now, being space-traveling future people with flying cars and Tang-powered jetpacks for shorter commutes, don’t maintain that gender double-standard when it comes to aging, right? Our culture has certainly moved beyond equating a woman’s social worth with her fecundity, and when Sontag writes,
Thus, for most women, aging means a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification. Since women are considered maximally eligible in early youth, after which their sexual value drops steadily, even young women feel themselves in a desperate race against the calendar. They are old as soon as they are no longer very young. In late adolescence some girls are already worrying about getting married. Boys and young men have little reason to anticipate trouble because of aging. What makes men desirable to women is by no means tied to youth. On the contrary, getting older tends (for several decades) to operate in men's favor, since their value as lovers and husbands is set more by what they do than how they look,
it’s like looking in a time capsule full of proof that we used to be a much more patriarchal and narrow-minded culture. Except that, ohwaitnotreally, because this double-standard is still alive and well in pop culture, a fact Sociological Image’s Lisa Wade illustrates by juxtaposing some movie posters from that upcoming Texas borderland drug war romp The Counselor.
Behold the rugged, dirt-spackled dudes, their worry lines bespeaking troubles and anxieties unfathomable:
And the women, so airbrushed, observes Wade, “that they look inhuman”:
Wade’s example, though illustrative of our culture’s persistent, pervasive double-standard about aging, is by no mean peculiar — this sort of contrast is everywhere, and it’s one of the big reasons why the careers of major actresses take a much different mid-40s trajectory than the careers of their male counterparts. These posters have essentially airbrushed Cameron Diaz to look exactly the way she did in There’s Something About Mary, one of the biggest comedies of fifteen years ago. Do we just expect to see Cameron Diaz in movies while she remains within photoshopping range of her late 20s, and then simply vanish?
To be absolutely fair, Hollywood is hard on all aging actors, who have to find ways to overcome their sagging chins or burgeoning paunches or retreating hairlines (sad Jude Law) and re-endear themselves to audiences who’ve come to typecast those performers. Is Jude Law still a dashing British romantic lead if he’s just a short bald guy with angry eyes? Is James Spader still serpentine and vaguely evil if, after several decades of acting, he’s turned into Falstaff Lite? Tom Cruise has been playing the same role for almost 30 years, and it’s because he has managed to look basically the same. Would Tom Cruise still be a thing if he’d lost his hair in the early 00s?
Still, opportunities for male actors to reinvent themselves seem endless, and that’s probably a symptom of a problem that runs deeper than just our inability to let actresses age in plain sight: roles for women, either on TV or on film, are still depressingly limited. Recently, comedies like The Heat and Bridesmaids have pushed against those limitations, but we’ll probably have to wait a long time for a movie about Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton or Holly Hunter as an aging detective/gunslinger/Swiss Army knife badass who has to solve one last murder mystery for the LAPD a day before she retires (Copycat doesn't really count).
Wrinkle-Washed: Female Faces in Film Marketing [Sociological Images]