In the last few months I have been asked – as an expert on old women in films – to be a panelist at two festivals, and to present a film at a literature festival. I declined the first two invitations. I accepted the third one.
To explain my refusal, the excuse I gave my younger friend who is a lecturer at the RCA was that I did not want to antagonise the audience by my intolerance and extreme views. She replied: ‘Intolerance and extreme opinions are no reasons for not taking part in a panel’.
I was forced by this exchange to examine my reluctance to take part in public discussions about the representation of old women in films and my preference to present and explore films in small workshops.
Am I intolerant? Yes. I am. After 15 years of researching and analysing films featuring an old woman protagonist and showing them to old women, I am intolerant of films which do not fulfil any of the functions that I expect of a film. I believe strongly that films are very important in shaping our identity as old women. They also influence how old women are perceived by younger people. Films can reflect accurately our place in society and challenge ageist assumptions, can show the psychological feel of being old and give us the pleasure of recognition, can mention disability, can lift the taboo of considering death. Films can make us think about ourselves and promote solidarity between women of different ages, inspire us into action, provide us with dreams and fantasy and make us laugh. I am not talking of the deliberate production of what is usually called ‘positive images’ of old women with the ‘still doing it’ * attitude like The Marigold Hotel, I am talking of works of art (mentioned below) that make us think or feel differently or films that do not fit this description but stimulate our intellect to ask questions about us as old women.
Do I have extreme opinions? No. I have a special point of view. Over the years I have seen a great change in the film industry’s and the academic establishment’s attitudes to ageing women. When I started my research there was little academic work on the subject of representation of the old woman and new films featuring us were few. Now there are books and research papers being published. Seminars and conferences abound and I find it difficult to keep up with the films featuring Judy Dench or Maggie Smith. But as a woman aged 78 I find I can make no difference in participating in public debates, or disagreeing with members of either of the above institutions. To challenge the film industry and the film critics – in the majority male – is a project in itself. To challenge some academics’ shoddy film analyses and their assumptions would be fruitless. The evidence I gathered in my film group that some old women found Cloud 9 risible and boring, that The Mother and Notes on a Scandal combine masterfully ageism and sexism, and that the Marigold Hotel is a meaningless frothy confection, would cut no ice. Viewing figures would be thrown at me. From my point of view ‘popularity’ of a film does not indicate its worth. It is true that the better the director is, in this seducing medium, the more difficult it is to remain critical. It would be futile in a panel discussion to put my objections to certain very ‘popular’ films. The debate about them should be reasoned and based on a detailed analysis.
Our sexual life and the enduring of our sexual desire is important (see blog of January 2013 The Mother and Staging Age) but the lack of explicit images of love-making is not our main concern. I understand the attraction of Nancy Mayer’s later life romantic comedies and similar films for women over 50 anxious about their sexuality. They are the subject of many papers and positive reviews. But we women over 65 deserve more understanding and visibility of all aspects of our lives. We are more than sexual beings, feminists have said this long enough. See Alexandra visiting her grandson in an Army camp for an example of a representation that we can identify with (this blog on February 2010), or Pauline and Paulette the portraits of three sisters one of whom is mentally disabled.
I could not convey in the few minutes allocated to members of a panel the greatness of certain classics: The Ballad of Narayama, Fear Eats the Soul, The Grapes of Wrath, Make Way for Tomorrow, Night of the Hunter, The Record of a Tenement Gentleman, Tokyo Story, The Whales of August. These films are seldom considered as films about old women but rather as ‘Great’ films. Neither would I be able to interest other panel members or the audience in other films outside the classic label. They are many, ranging from light comedies to more serious challenges to ageism. They appeal to us because they understand us. These films are neglected and often misunderstood, they are not widely distributed, they are badly reviewed, and soon disappear from the DVD market if they appear at all.
On the other hand to demonstrate the ageism and/or sexism of certain popular films would require more than a panel contribution.
But if my voice is not heard in public discussion and debate I know that I make a difference in my ‘ Old Women in Films’ groups/workshops and this blog. I share with other women my love of the medium and help them to cast a critical on films. Mainly, I think, I help raise our consciousness as old women by exploring the films and our feelings about ageing and ageism. Long conversations and sharing of experiences gives us a very special point of view.
Views about old age are changing dramatically. It seems that the Feminists who ignored old women in the 80s when the Older Feminist Network was formed are noticing the issues that concern us – women over 65. At the beginning of my research I had to rely on American feminist academics for some dialogue. Now Lynn Segal is launching her book about ageing and Birkbeck is organising a panel discussion and debate. A Charter on Ageism and Sexism in the Media is being launched. Many Universities and Colleges have events on ageing and culture. Will we be asked for our point of view?
* the actual title of a documentary of the diversity of sexuality of old women.