Deborah Hill Cone and Simone de Beauvoir

I have warmed (at times) toward the new, sometimes softer Deborah Hill Cone. I don’t always read her column, but in the past few years, she’s been through some stuff that has greyed out her black-and-whites. Apparently (and all this is based on her writing), her marriage ended,  she became a solo mother, (and sometime defender of same)  she went back to university as a mature student, her dad Hill_Conemoved into a rest home, more recently, she began confronting the loss of her “sexual currency”. This was revaled in a column headlined “It wasn’t just depression that claimed Charlotte” (Feb. 24, NZ Herald)  and its follow-up “Mea culpa, but it’s dangerous to be always nice” (March 3).

I’m not going to address the controversy that blew up over that first column (on 24 Feb.) that focuses on her treatment of Charlotte Dawson  (and that led to Hill Cone’s mea culpa – sort of – response), but the issues she raises around women and ageing.

In that Feb. 24 effort, Hill Cone noted that she is the same age as Dawson, and “it is hard”: “It is hard being 47. At the crisis of middle age, losing your sexual currency, becoming invisible.”  Later: “Ageing is brutal. I definitely think we need to find a new way to age as women, to feel valued, to not be wiped out.” She then points to hope in “a fledgling new movement for women of a certain age to get stroppy, to boil with fury, to refuse to go beige, to refuse to become invisible”.

It was pretty obvious this article was as much about Hill Cone as it was about Charlotte Dawson, and she made that explicit in her follow-up mea culpa: “For some time I’d been grappling with the special horror of ageing for me and for other women, and then when Charlotte Dawson died I just sort of hitched my thoughts to her death; ill-advisedly, as it turned out.”

I’m sure Hill Cone has read at least some Simone de Beauvoir (and I can imagine her making a few acerbic cracks). For one thing, in The Second Sex (Chapter 9 Simone-de-Beauvoir“From Maturity to Old Age”) Beauvoir uses the very same phrase Hill Cone does: “the horror of ageing”. There, Beauvoir explains how it is that the story of woman depends so much more than man’s “on her physiological destiny”. The male grows older continually, while the woman must go through stages that Beauvoir calls “dangerously abrupt”: puberty, sexual initiation, menopause. Ultimately she is stripped of, as Hill Cone put it, her “sexual currency”.

Interestingly (or not, as the case may be), parts of of Beauvoir’s argument run in the opposite direction to Hill Cone’s: Hill Cone argues women who have traded on their youthful good looks will suffer more from the “horror of ageing” than others, like herself she says, who have not. Not so says Beauvoir: “The narcissist is too attentive to her person not to have envisaged the ineluctable moment and not to have worked out an alternative position”.  Yes, the “narcissist” will suffer from ageing (Beauvoir actually uses the word “mutilation”! Eeek!) but she won’t be caught short and she will adapt.

Rather, Beauvoir argues, it is the woman “who has forgotten, devoted and sacrificed herself” who will be more disrupted by growing older: “ ‘I had only one life to live; this was my lot, so here I am!’”

Hill Cone likely falls wholly into neither category: looks-trader nor sacrificial wife and mother. But it’s pretty clear that you’re going to suffer from this “loss” whether you relied on your looks or not. Otherwise Hill Cone wouldn’t be feeling it. As Beauvoir puts it: “The woman who ‘never felt so young’ and who never saw herself so old is not able to reconcile these two aspects of herself.”

(Editorial aside: Uh, you think you’ve lost “sexual currency” at 47? OMG, I suspect at 75 or so you’re going to find this a tad risible. Not to mention the fact that you had some sexual currency to lose in the first place.)

This chapter on ageing is, I think, one of Beauvoir’s weirder chapters, and I’ll tackle it separately and probably from a different slant when I actually get to it in my “Rereading Simone de Beauvoir” series (to which I’m adding this post for fun). There’s a lot in her diagnoses that seems terribly sweeping, and the question “based on what?” kept bouncing around in my head as I read it. (She was 41 when The Second Sex was published, so must have been writing it in her late 30s, around the time she might have started to feel, or at least anticipate, Hill Cone’s loss of “sexual currency”.) But it’s also a pretty sobering chapter and one I think sheds some pretty interesting light on all these “third age/stage” notions (I’ve had them myself); on hopeful “movements” of older women becoming stroppy and eccentric. Indeed, according to Beauvoir’s account, that’s precisely the script, or one of them, the older woman will follow in reacting against (and therefore, I’d say, reinforcing) her losses.

Beauvoir runs over a bunch of stereotypical reactions, including mothers in their 40s and 50s (now probably including older mothers) trying to live by proxy through their now-adult children (particularly sons), rebelling in various ways, taking younger lovers, becoming pious, joining charitable clubs and exerting a conservative influence on society (by things like, to quote Philip Wylie, frightening politicians into snivelling servility…driving all the young harlots out of town…nosing into other people’s business…). Honestly, the list of roles and personas Beauvoir argues that ageing women take up is a pretty depressing one.

And even if you get past those initial reactions to the loss of your “sexual currency”,  don’t think it’s going to be plain sailing. Here’s Beauvoir again: “From the day woman agrees to grow old, her situation changes. Until then, she was still young, determined to fight against an evil that mysteriously made her ugly and deformed her; now she becomes a different being, asexual but complete: an elderly woman. It may be thought that the change-of-life crisis is then finished. But one must not conclude that it will be easy to live from then on. When she has given up the fight against the inevitability of time, another combat opens: she has to keep a place on earth.”

In the end, Beauvoir seems to give ageing women no way out. There is a glimpse of light at one point, where she briefly discusses “some women [who are] entirely committed to a cause [who] truly have an impact. These women are not merely seeking to keep themselves busy, they have ends in view; autonomous producers they escape from the parasitic category we are considering here”. But, she says, “this conversion is rare” and she promptly ends the chapter on a very dismal note: “Amused or bitter, the old woman’s wisdom still remains completely negative. … At no time in her life does she succeed in being both effective and independent.”

So is there any hope for Deborah Hill Cone? And for the rest of us? What about those plans for that age of being stroppy, boiling with fury, refusing to go beige?

To my mind, that has long since joined the list of slightly humiliating older-woman stereotypes. And, really, is it the best idea to cement in yet another strait jacket: that of the eccentric older woman? There’s something creepy about these “movements”, which have actually been around for a while in their more modern form, growing in size and visibility as our longevity has increased, our fertility control has improved and as more of us (in some societies/situations anyway) have had access to higher education and paid work. The “second wave” feminists started writing about this as they aged, of course, like Betty Friedan’s The Fountain of Age, Gloria Steinem’s Doing Sixty and Seventy, and Germaine Greer’s The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause. (Links to works on ageing by non middle-class white women would be welcome in comments, btw!)  Guess what, there’s even an academic journal called the “Journal of Women & Ageing”. (I’m going to check that out later.)

Because this cohort of women losing their sexual currency and then becoming “elderly” is only getting bigger and bigger,  there will only be more of these books and “movements” and media excitement over women like Jacky O’Shaughnessy, the 62-year-old American Apparel model, or series like NBC anchor Jane Pauley’s “Life Reimagined” in which Pauley is, as one interviewer put it, “showing baby boomers how to move gracefully, even enthusiastically, into the next phase of life?”

How will we be able to stand them all?

In the end, I suspect all of this (including the bold, outrageous eccentric route) just reinforces the notion of the older woman as outlier, joining all the other outlier groups –  all the other “others”. It’s a bit like the stories about plucky people with disabilities who overcome the odds (see, they’re not “normal” like “us”); or those who come back from serious injury or hardship to “make it”. Wow look at that 62-year-old model! How about Josephine Bloggs who, though she was an ancient 55, started a successful online business selling posies! How about Miriama Bloggs in her outrageous non-beige outfits? Whoa!

No, I don’t have any answers. (Or I’d write one of those books.) Every stage/age of life has its anxieties, and when you’re in each one, it’s that one that seems the most important and overwhelming, and you feel like its victim. How unfair! But there’s no escaping them, and it’s a waste of time trying.

How about living steadily through them – growing older “continuously”, as Beauvoir says the male does? Yes, we’re stuck with some physiological “stages” the male doesn’t have (fertility then menopause etc.), though he has his own. But this society – which I consider to be miserably rigid in so many ways (that’s another blog post) – does more than enough categorising and stereotyping already (cougar, MILF, stay-at-home mum, tiger mom, rake, slut, nerd, teenager, millennial, blah blah blah) without adding more to the list.

We rightly rebelled against the pinkification of breast cancer. Time to rebel against locking ourselves into new “third age” categories of our own making, and “grow old continuously”. Of course, I don’t actually know what that means. Sorry.

p.s. I can’t help but shamelessly point you to a post I wrote a couple of years ago that gives some very good reasons for why we might adopt the little old cat lady persona, though.

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