Do we listen enough to older women? A few conversations recently have made me think about the way in which the opinions and work of older women are swept aside in progressive and feminist discussions. I suspect this is a particular risk for men who work alongside feminism or regard themselves as feminist. But not only for them. The attention of our society, and particularly our media, is geared towards those who fit existing standards of authority and attractiveness. This will usually equate with whiteness and an upper middle-class accent, and frequently also with youth. It would be doubly unfair to blame young people for being used to perpetuate a “cult of youth” in our society, when that perpetuation frequently involves their image being exploited by other people. But it seems undeniable that youth, a certain version of good looks, and “newness” are continually packaged as naturally demanding attention.
Economically this may have to do with the higher percentage of disposal income which young people of a certain class enjoy before they accrue more responsibilities. It may also be a convenient way for advertisers to capitalise on the desire of those who are older to identify with their younger selves, when they had not made choices which defined them. One of the elements behind the astonishing success of the show Friends was probably the writers’ stated intention to make a sitcom in which the characters had not made their major life decisions yet, unlike the main figures in other shows. Part of the fascination of the storylines – as well as reason why they ultimately became unsustainable – was this undecided quality to the friends’ lives. It may also have provided an attractive fantasy mode for viewers whose lives (for various reasons) were less mercurial and open to change based on any decision they made that week.
Steven Metcalfe has talked entertainingly about being in a marketing category which defined him as a “male, 18-24” when he was a young man, and finding when he got a little older that he was still in the same category, which now stretched to 28, then to 36 and then to 42, as advertisers gradually extended the age at which men should still regard themselves as just post-adolescent but not yet adult. Maybe the same category will soon unselfconsciously market the same kinds of music, leather jacket and motorbike to teenagers and men involved in a mid-life crisis. The economic realities behind traditional “milestones” in adult life may have a lot to do with this effect: when the 1950s stereotype of going from college to a house, partner and children (itself both a historical blip) is no longer possible, the landscape of “adulthood” becomes more difficult to define. But anecdotally it looks as if “youth” is becoming the defining feature of a larger and larger category of media and advertising, which demographically must be consumed by those who are not young. There is an unpleasant irony in the supposed limitless possibilities of “youth” being used as the keynote of marketing to older people when that state may feel much more like uncertainty and insecurity than mercurial freedom to those actually in it at the moment.
That sense of possibility makes sense for groups looking to change the status quo. Feminism needs a powerful idealistic impulse, the sense that change is not only desirable, but possible and can begin from actions in everyday life right now. It also needs a healthy strain of progressive scepticism about received doctrines and the traditions which it finds itself working within. If inclusiveness means more than “allowing” other people into a social and political space, it means having that space changed and questioned by others. And the scepticism which feminism has inherited about personal motives, the power of social structures, and the effects of vested interests on supposedly objective reasoning, makes feminists alert to the danger that their own ideas are still in hock to conservative and unjust traditions. The awareness of any progressive movement that it needs to keep progressing, that it has not completely overcome the ideologies as well as the forces it struggles against, requires an eagerness to find the next insight which may discredit some of what is currently believed.
I wonder whether this idealistic – even utopian – impulse towards change, and this necessary scepticism about traditions, has helped push “new” and “young” forward in feminist discussions, to the detriment of older women. Whether the emphasis which marketing and media place on “young” and “new” as the major standards of value has slipped alongside the tradition of internal critique to produce an assumption that “old” is inherently a negative term; that older women themselves will inevitably be discredited eventually, and that their ideas are inherently suspect. And when self-critique is such a strong part of feminist activity, it makes sense to distance oneself from those who will probably be discredited, in order to protect that self from its own strictures.
The utopian impulse may even be a cause of this, since being desperately aware of the need for change in an unjust situation, coupled with the need to believe that change can come from immediate actions, may cause older women to feel like an embarrassment to younger feminists. If revolution is possible in a generation, then what was the previous generation doing? Discrediting feminist fore-mothers may feel like an emotional imperative, a necessary way for younger feminists to convince themselves that the struggle is not futile, and that their contribution will be meaningful.
There’s a striking passage in V.J.D. Smith’s writing where she talks about persuading herself that her mother was a conservative, wrong-headed person, trapped in outdated gender roles, because the alternative was recognising her as a complex, troubling human personality who had struggled against difficult circumstances and had not won the total victory which the young V.J. thought was just around the corner. It is easier sometimes to lionise the heroic figures from a hundred years ago, and identify ourselves as their spiritual heirs, than to come to terms with the previous generation of our group. Particularly since, unlike the heroic generation, they are still around speaking for themselves and therefore not available to be co-opted in our rhetoric and reshaped to fit the imperatives of the present.
All these impulses are a particular risk, as I mentioned, for men. Looking at the media over the last few years, it seems the gap between “aren’t girls just wonderful?” and “I’m a feminist” is too easily elided. Good Men Project is only one of a handful of examples of men’s writing on feminism which has a uncomfortable element of going on about which women they find sexy and exciting. The protean forms which a patriarchal society takes mean that it is too easy for men to congratulate themselves on their feminist opinions and activities, when they may be shading into sexism.
The necessary solidarity with young women speaking out on sexism may become paternalistic and “chivalrous”. The support for women’s sexual self-expression and rights may become a queasy male “sex-positivity” which spends too much time demanding that women be “allowed” to fit male stereotypes of sexual identity and availability. The engagement with developing new waves of feminist thought may become an unhelpful need to be “involved” with the latest ideas to bolster an individual profile. None of these are inevitable, nor should they prevent men from working alongside feminism. But I think they can work to validate the forms of feminist activity and speech which fit easily into men’s agenda and a sexist society’s image of what kind of women are worthy of attention. This is different from the question of which women are understood as authoritative, and I am certainly not suggesting that we should listen less to young women! But the dismissal of older women does seem to be a problem to me. Is this something which chimes with the experience of readers? I’d love to hear responses in the comments below.