An interesting research symposium “Age Spots and Spotlights: Celebrity, Ageing and Performance”. http://agespotsandspotlights.blogspot.com/
I was so pleased to have been invited (on the strength of my blog) by one of the organisers Dr. Deborah Jermyn. Before going to the event I asked my close email contacts : can you name any celebrity who can be described as ‘old’? This was the response: Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Joan Collins, Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Germaine Greer, Mother Theresa, Barbara Castle, Yvonne Arnaud, Esther Rantzen, Claire Rayner, Jeanne Moreau, Katherine Hepburn, Yitzak Rabin’s widow (sic), Jane Fonda, Tony Benn, Michael Douglas, Hugh Hefner, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Miriam Margoyles, Sheila Hancock, Julie Walters, Helen Mirren. Two remarks were interesting: “there are lots of old women who are admired and respected but since they are not doing anything ‘newsworthy’ they do not get the attention they deserve” and ‘the terms celebrity and substance seem incompatible’.
I will express my very personal feelings about the day. (a podcast will be available on the above site for people who are interested in the proceedings). I was confused by the use of the term ‘celebrity’ and ‘celebrity culture studies’. To me celebrity culture is an essentially ‘young’ phenomenon, based on television reality shows, certain genres of music, football stars, talent shows, Facebook and YouTube etc… This world is of no interest to me and my study of ageing and ageism, specially in the field of the representation of the old woman in films and ageism as experienced in day-to-day life. The word ‘performance’ intrigued me. Was it meant to include only professional performers? obviously not, since war correspondents and a film and opera director were the subject of two of the papers. But they are men.
The day was stimulating for me and led me to pose quite a few questions.
1 – Anne Widdicombe and a flash of celebrity. It would be so interesting to explore why Anne Widdicombe (63), described as “clean-living Tory matriarch a devout Roman Catholic who barely drinks and lives alone” (Telegraph) benefited from a brief celebrity flash when she appeared on the Strictly Come Dancing show. Felicity Kendal (64) however who appeared in the same show and who is a year older than Ann did not make any headlines.
2 – Voice and ageing: it occurred to me that in the films we considered in our Older Women in British films 1997-2006 (see resources) we did not mention voice. It is a characteristic that I have also completely ignored while analysing films myself. Is there such a thing as the ageing of the voice as mentioned in the paper about the Trip?
3 – The difference between famous actor and celebrity which was made was very instructive. Brigitte Bardot was a celebrity, not much of an actor, whereas Elizabeth Taylor was actor and celebrity. Are our old actors: Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Sheila Hancock, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters celebrities ? Is Delia Smith a celebrity? Germaine Greer? Margaret Thatcher? The Queen? Are they ‘performers’?
4 – Old woman’s mask It was noted that Brigitte Bardot is still using face make up and the style of her hair was mentioned in the keynote talk. On the website of the symposium two photos of BB are contrasted. The photo of BB in her 70s? is less than flattering whereas there are online photos of BB at 50 60 70 where she looks pleasant, imposing . Why this choice? What is the mask of the older woman? From the Queen of Spades to Gianni’s mother in the highly praised MidAugust Lunch, we are offered images of old women’s faces with a lot of make up. What do they signify?
5 – Ageing and cosmetic surgery was an important topic at the symposium. The women celebrities mentioned in the second part of the Symposium ‘Ageing and the Female Celebrity’ were all actors. For actors ageing starts early – even before the menopause. Are the problems of the ageing actor centred on the body relevant to the ageing woman?
Members of the audience raised the following issues:
– the bulk of the papers were concerned with the ageing woman as Body
– a woman ‘in my sixties’ pointed out that ageing is different in a woman in her late forties or 50s and a still older woman whose friends have started to die
– Whereas the old man is shown to have sexual desire, the old woman is not supposed to have any sexual feelings…
Finally whenever I mention the ‘old woman in films’ to women of my daughters’ age ( 40 – 50) I am quoted Something’s Gotta Give as a wonderful, funny example. I know that taste in comedies differ radically but hearing again the speech by the sister of the Diane Keaton character proffer her speech about the difference of the experience of ageing in men and women, I had a sudden insight into why I so disliked this film and Potiche (see previous post). In both films feminist attitudes are expressed as if they are newfound truths. They are in your face statements that lack depth, subtlety or wit. Diane Keaton and Catherine Deneuve’s characters may be the image that younger women aspire to grow into but my goodness they do not, to my mind, provide fantasy or role models. It is as if the women’s liberation movement never existed. The dialogue, narrative, characters are so one-dimensional and predictable that as a woman who joined the Older Feminist Network 20 years ago, I found both films banal, and boring.
If celebrity culture is defined as a culture of the young I am wondering if it is the right tool to explore issues of the double jeopardy of age and gender. Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor (both celebrities when young) , Nicole Kidman, Diane Keaton, cosmetic surgery, airbrushing, digital manipulation of the image, gossip blogs. Does this approach in its blindness to old age in all its diversity reinforce our ageism or does it challenge it?