At the Oscars this Sunday, older women are being celebrated. Four of the five nominees for Best Actress are over 40; Cate Blanchett, nominated for Tar, is 53, while Michelle Yeoh, nominated for Everything Everywhere All At Once, is 60. When Yeoh won the Golden Globe for her performance, she said: “as the days, years, numbers get bigger, the opportunities get smaller”. At the same ceremony, when Jennifer Coolidge, 61, accepted her award for her performance in The White Lotus, she said that getting older caused your dreams to be “fizzled by life” – but that Mike White had given her “new hope” with the role of Tanya.

That women later in their careers are being given new leases of life by a famously punishing industry is at odds with what’s happening elsewhere in pop culture. Following conversation in recent weeks about her plastic surgery, after she was photographed at the Grammys looking unnaturally smooth and puffy, Madonna has made headlines again today with the news that she is indeed dating the 29-year-old boxer Josh Popper (with whom she has a 35-year age gap). Though the tabloids know better than to insert explicit judgement into their copy in 2023, all the tools are there for people to gawp at the – admittedly curious – spectacle. The Daily Mail, for example, notes that in the photographs Madonna looks “youthful”, inviting speculation on how her 64-year-old face is that smooth and whether it should be. None of the stories reporting on the new relationship omit the couple’s ages.

Keira Knightley has commented on the Madonna story this week. In a cover story with Harper’s Bazaar, she said: “You’ve got Madonna on the one hand – and we’re told that’s not the right thing. Then you have someone else, where we’re told, ‘They looked better 20 years ago’. How are we, culturally, meant to age?” At 37, she said she feels “caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny” that still pervades the media.

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The problem is not only the unrealistic standards that Knightley touches on – but that we are being fed conflicting messages. Our collective anxiety around ageing is fuelled by the fact that we don’t know how we’re supposed to feel. In some ways, particularly after the Madonna-at-the-Grammys debacle, is clear: stop trying to pretend you’re not as old as you are and instead “age gracefully”. But what does ageing gracefully actually look like? Madonna is a pop star and a sex icon: she is simply carrying on the persona, and success, she found when she was in her 20s. The idea that she should change this, or retreat into the background, is directly at odds with what’s happening elsewhere.

Some women are celebrated and some are still derided, fuelling a culture of anxiety among the young. As I and most of my friends approach 30, our conversation often veers into the topic of ageing. Not just the question of babies, and that doom-laden “biological clock”, but into hangovers being worse, knees hurting, shoulders aching – and, most often of all, the lines appearing on our faces, which in turn leads to heated discussions about SPF, retinol and Botox.

We are still subject to the beauty standards, to the fact that we feel of less cultural value as our sexiness diminishes, that we have all been fed the myth that fertility “falls off a cliff” at 35 – but we are also told that age is just a number, and life goes on just the same. Which is it? I hope, of course, it’s the latter – and I hope Blanchett or Yeoh takes the Oscar on Sunday. But I also think we should be allowed to feel scared of the one thing that is, if you’re lucky, guaranteed to happen to us all.

By admin