How Old Is Old -Women, Aging and Art

How old is old is, an age-old question and the answer keeps changing especially for women. Forty may be the new thirty and sixty the new fifty, but aging itself continues to be seen as diminishment and decline.

Long ascribed aging myths are really tough to bust.

That is the subject of my collage “How Old Is Old” which is part of Agency : Feminist Art and Power currently on view at the Museum of Sonoma County  Santa Rosa, California.  I will be discussing the piece and my process as part of an artist’s talk at the exhibit on Saturday, April 9th, 2022 followed by a reception.

For those in the Bay area able to attend I would love to meet you.

The hand-cut collage is composed of hundreds of appropriated vintage images from the 1950s to the 1970s that helped inform our perceptions of aging women. The piece is part of a large series entitled Media Made Women an autobiographical grouping about the fractured pieces of a collective female past whose images made an imprint on our psyches and are powerful enforcers of gender stereotypes.

How Old Is Old?

collage art Sally Edelstein

Detail, “How Old is Old” by Sally Edelstein. Hand-cut collage of appropriated images on view at Museum of Sonoma County

Growing up, being an older woman was not a pretty picture – literally.

Whether in our picture books, comic books, television, or advertisements, post-menopausal women were predictably pictured pleasingly plump, overweight with sagging jowls and sagging breasts, their sedentary, asexual lives defined by gossip, grandchildren, and unrelenting reminiscing about the good old days.

collage art Sally Edelstein

Detail, “How Old is Old” by Sally Edelstein. Hand-cut collage of appropriated images on view at Museum of Sonoma County

Despite these images having reached their expiration date, the prejudices against aging have not.

Age-based stereotypes are often internalized in childhood long before the information is relevant, where they remain calcified for decades. The current media portrayal of busy and botoxed boomers, diligently popping Boniva and those little blue pills may be redefining aging seniors, but the dated and disparaging stereotypes remain stubbornly entrenched deep in our psyches, often as difficult to dissolve as hardened plaque.

Miss Grundy Archie comics

Vintage comic Miss Grundy Archie comic books 1960s

Like most American women, I grew up with less than positive messages in the media of what it meant to age as a woman in our culture.

Limited by stifling media stereotypes of befuddled old biddies and old bags I watched from the sidelines as older women were marginalized, relegated to the periphery of culture, or when referenced at all were the target of a joke.

Next to ditzy female drivers and meddling battle-ax mothers-in-law, the older woman was a favorite target of cartoonists and Borscht Belt comics.

In short, inconsequential.

How Golden Were the Golden Years?

Little Golden Books

The original Golden Girls weren’t so golden. Our Little Golden Books often showed mature folks as lumpy old women and grumpy old men. They seemed to be pitiful little old ladies with moths flying out of their well-worn change purses. The golden years didn’t seem so golden.

Fairy tales were littered with crotchety old men, doddering grandmothers, and aging queens, whose fading beauty and power were usurped by a young, more dewy complected princess. In fairy tales, the only good women besides the young princesses were the pleasingly plump, asexual fairy godmothers who long stopped competing with the fairest.

Fairy Godmothers were no cougars.

In fact swathed in a quilted, hand crochet shawl an older woman’s chilly body temperature was matched only by her chilly non-existent libido.

Vintage cartoon Horny Granny 1974

Naughty Granny debuted in in Playboy in 1966

And if “the old biddie” had a libido it was soundly ridiculed.

The dried-up toothless horny granny created by Robert “Buck” Brown was a permanent fixture in Playboy Magazine in the 1970s.

In fact, the message I received was quite clear- we were not supposed to age…at least not visibly. Struggling to hold onto the illusions of youth we saw old age only as a decline. For all our current advancements one fact still remains-avoid any visible sign of aging or you become invisible.  Women of a certain age get used to fading compliments as slowly the attention of men fades away.

No wonder women are haunted by the horrors of growing old.

Even when the goal post keeps changing.

Instead of trying to reverse the signs of aging, let’s reverse the stereotypes of aging itself.

Please Join Me in California on April 9, 2022

Museum of Sonoma County

425 7th Street, Santa Rosa, CA 9540

http://www.museumsc.org  707 579-1500

6 comments

  1. Sally, good questions. All I know is I want to be active like Betty White was until she died. She never got old. I have read that people who live into their nineties are often in better shape than those who do not, as they have taken care of their bodies and minds. I watched a geriatric doctor in an interview who said there are two inflection points in the decline of older folks. The first is when you can no longer drive and the second is when you can no longer walk. So, my advice to all women (and men) is to keep an Uber number handy and walk/ do yoga to keep those leg muscles limber. Since older women outnumber us older men, they must be doing something right. Keith

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  2. Great thoughts and a marvelous work of art that reveals so much. Well done! I am sure your piece stands out in what appears to be a fantastic show. Enjoy your time in Sonoma. And thanks for brining this aging issue to light.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gloria Swanson was 51 when she did “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). Back then, that would have been considered “over the hill”. On the other hand, significantly older men were the romantic interests of Grace Kelly at 25 and 27 (Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” – 1954 – at 46 and Bing Crosby at 53 in “High Society” – 1956), for example, and that didn’t raise eyebrows in the otherwise stuffy 50s. Men were craggy (good), women were saggy (antique) past 45 or so then. I think today’s attitudes about age are less restrictive.

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    • I often think of Norma Desmond who was 51 and how she was a recluse and washed up. Though that’s laughable now, and middle aged keeps getting pushed up, “older” women in Hollywood are still significantly marginalized despite there being great progress. The need to botox and have facelifts, disfiguring their appearances to the point of being unrecognizable in order to secure parts is still a thing.

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