Oscar and Tony award winning actress Frances McDormand has always relied on her immense talent, remaining committed to a Botox-free existence. At 57, she saw the need to develop her own material since the film industry has no hunger to portray women of a certain age, as if “older” should mean “unseen.” Soon to star as the prickly “Olive Kitteridge” in the HBO miniseries she also helped produce, McDormand’s views on aging have caused a big dust-up, garnering both praise and threatened reactions. As she told The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:
“We are on red alert when it comes to how we are perceiving ourselves as a species,” “There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45 — sartorially, cosmetically, attitudinally. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.”
“Looking old should be a boast about experiences accrued and insights acquired, a triumphant signal that you are someone who, beneath that white hair, has a card catalog of valuable information.”
“I have not mutated myself in any way,” she said. [Husband] “Joel [Coen] and I have this conversation a lot. He literally has to stop me physically from saying something to people — to friends who’ve had work. I’m so full of fear and rage about what they’ve done.”
Perhaps Ms. McDormand’s rage comes from realizing that we are encouraged to be unhappy with ourselves and buy into the message that we must nip, tuck and rip away anything resembling character in our faces or bodies. The hyper-sexualization and objectification of women, and increasingly, of men leads us to believe that something is wrong with us if we are not young and perfect, raising a generation who think airbrushing is natural instead of the Barbie doll phoniness that it is. It saddens me to see the still handsome Robert Redford, now 76, recently had a face lift and installed a new set of chompers. Was this trip necessary?
In that regard, McDormand’s is a welcome and refreshing voice.
Film trends do not lead the parade but reflect what society is influenced to want by big media and advertisers that tout appearance over substance. Desperate to maintain an easily pliable consumer class, they push the latest face cream, Ram truck or diet drink in an effort to delude us into thinking we will somehow be better for the purchase.
Our American Idol culture has ramifications in the political sphere as well. Older politicians like Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry look to have had “a little work done” – Kerry in particular looks all but unrecognizable. The desperation to appear more youthful or vital does not alter their message for better or worse.
Yet we can understand why, like those in the film industry, they feel pressured to go under the knife – whether or not we individually approve their decision to do so.
Women in politics are regularly plagued by male pundits who complain they are past their “sell by” date.
Our society often seems predisposed to the new or unknown, as if a new face spouting the same bromides, albeit in younger or different packaging, is going to lead to a different result. Logically, that is impossible, particularly if that person hasn’t the first idea how to navigate the toxic environment that is Congress today.
A new idea will always benefit from the voice of experience that already knows enough to have worked through other options.
Ageism in the work place is worse than ever, with many prospective employers operating on destructive and often inaccurate beliefs regarding the loyalty, longevity, ingenuity or even tech-savvy of older workers.
It is disrespectful in the extreme to assume that because someone is older, they have lost a step in mental acuity or discipline. Or worse, because they have a few wrinkles, we will be less inclined to hear their message or welcome their talents because they don’t fit a certain physical mold. There is no answer at the back of the book or set formula that predicts when someone has outlived their usefulness or lost their vitality or brilliance.
Ms. McDormand makes a great point when she urges us to celebrate the triumph of “experiences accrued and insights acquired.” Some seem to forget that in matters of leadership, whether in politics or business, you can’t know what you don’t know. Technology may change. Human nature doesn’t. It takes long experience to acquire a b.s. detector and the know-how to negotiate egos and the human factor at the root of most crises and discord.
As far as appearance is concerned, there is no judgment in someone doing whatever they want to make themselves feel more comfortable in their own skin, yet if they are doing so because of a sensed pressure to increase their value, then as a society we are sending a dangerous message. The danger is also in allowing packaging from one part of pop culture to exert unconscious influence over our choice making outside the movie theatre.
Too often, aging in our society signals an expectation of invisibility when really those elders should have a larger voice and be solicited, not ignored.
What Ms. McDormand calls the “card catalog of valuable information” is available to anyone smart enough to seek it out, whether via entertainers, business or political leaders. Just as I would rather see a movie populated with actors who have the life experience and nuance to illuminate human behavior with a comfortable and enriched shorthand, I also have respect for my contemporaries and those senior in all walks of life, understanding that they still have a lot to teach me.
Ironically, many of the actresses and actors who still work in their fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond have allowed themselves to age gracefully, opting against pulling or pasting their faces into a permanent surprised expression. Betty White, now 92, is hotter than ever.
We don’t have to be repelled by a wrinkle.
(featured image, live screen capture from Olive Kitteridge trailer/HBO)
Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin. Sharing the untold story of Hillary’s 2008 campaign, Dirty Words exposes media sexism in a society not as evolved as advertised. “The book tells it like it is for women aspiring to power.” #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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