The Rembrandts, the 90s musical sensation, had a big hit with I’ll Be There For You, the theme song from the TV show Friends. Perhaps not quite as well-known is their song That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby. After reading another article about the invisibility of middle aged women, I have that song stuck in my head; it’s a persistent earworm that I am trying so very hard to kill.
Why is the lyric line “That’s just the way it is, baby” a block of concrete in my brain?
The Roundabout Theatre Company writes about the production of Skintight at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater/Laura Pels Theater in New York City. Skintight focuses on the repercussions of the cultural obsession with youth. The article itself discusses ageism and sexism, and being made to look ‘younger,’ being airbrushed to fit with the UNREAL world of the ideal image of beauty. The topic of middle aged women being I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E is mentioned. The article, Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women, says:
“Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.”
And there, the title of the article, the Invisibility part and the “traditionally” bit in that quote, that’s the reason for the bag of cement that’s solidified the Rembrandts’ That’s Just The Way It Is, Baby.
Airbrushed models, twenty-something female characters paired with fifty-something men on screen, in fiction, in advertising is the norm. Culture creates content, and content creates culture. The books you read, the movies you watch, the advertising you see matters; it shapes our identities, colours our view of the world. Girls and women seldom see realistic images of females in the media. Girls and women rarely see women over 40 portrayed in positive or realistic ways. Girls and women, boys and men are conditioned, socially programmed by the images they see–or don’t see. And what we don’t see often is middle aged women, except in stereotypes roles, sidelined roles, roles that diminish their value. That’s just the way it is, baby.
“While men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren’t) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.”
We KNOW women are underrepresented in the media, but the underrepresentation hits middle aged and older women especially hard. Women over 40 fade away until they are invisible. That invisibility is something we’ve grown used to. It’s what we’ve been shown, what we come to expect, it threads its way through film and fiction. When we are presented with a female character outside the norm we are shocked. Some of us don’t realise we’ve blindly accepted the standard, or realise that the standard does NOT mirror reality becasue that’s just the way is is…
Are you humming the Rembrandts yet?
Sexism and diversity are issues vital to address within society, yet ageism is seldom highlighted as an issue that is sexist, and it is rarely included in discussions about diversity. Ageism is insidious. The perceptions about ageing treat a natural part of life as a disease to be battled. This anti-ageing crap has an impact on men and women, but it has a greater impact on women. Older men remain visible, while women … cue the Rembrandts.
If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s beyond time to change what we’ve always done, to alter what we’ve blindly accepted to be just the way it is, baby, when the way it is isn’t true to life. We change the standard, change what we are used to seeing by being genuine, by tearing down the sexist and ageist attitudes in the media, in film and publishing industries that persist shoving the usual younger-is-better images down the throat of society. Film and fiction must stop treating older women with disdain, stop overlooking middle-aged women –a sizable portion of the population– who have money to spend if they can see themselves portrayed as they really are. We do this by writing stories that better include an array of age.
I’m doing it with every book I write. My latest, At Your Service, has a middle aged female butler. I put women over the age of 40 front and centre in narratives that portray them as whole as interesting, intelligent, capable, and attractive, sensual, sexual, and vibrant. That’s just the way it is, baby.
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Roundabout Theatre Company. (2018). Invisibility of Middle-Aged Women
[Rhino]. (2015, June 15). The Rembrandts -That’s just the way it is, baby. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/k6KfhOpq2n8