‘Public voices, private voices: an investigation of the discourses of gender and age’
‘Beyond 40 there is silence’ (Twigg 2010: 485)
I have recently completed my PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham, UK. It reports on an investigation of discourses of age and gender as realised in the language used by and about ageing women. I focused on the complex relationship between the private voices of individual lived experience of ageing, and the public discourses of ageing generated by the beauty and media industries. My research data had three components: spoken data from 19 qualitative interviews (the private voices), a range of anti-ageing skincare advertisements, and selected media texts (the public discourses). I chose as the principal focus for my research mid-life women (i.e. 40 – mid 50s); the mid-life has become a particularly fluid, transitional lifestage – no longer young, but not yet old – in which the cultural premium on the values of youthfulness must be balanced with the cultural requirements of “appropriate” ageing.
Kathleen Woodward observed that ‘along with race, gender and age are the most salient markers of social difference’ (1999: x), yet the lack of a coherent body of background literature suggested that the intersection of gender and age, and the impact they have on each other at a linguistic level, was under-investigated and under-theorised. Julia Twigg’s comment (see above) refers to this gap in understanding, not merely in terms of the relative invisibility of older women in many media domains, but also as an area of academic enquiry. The significance of what Sadie Wearing terms ‘the often unexamined links’ (2007: 84) between these two fundamental markers of identity can be seen in the interview data I gathered for my study; understanding how the relationship between gender and age is expressed by the voices of lived experience is critical to real understanding of the complex personal impact of the ageing process – socially, emotionally and physically.
My findings showed that the intersection of age and gender remains profoundly problematic territory, defined by cultural unease about accommodating the older female body both discursively and visually, and personal uncertainty about the process of growing older in the absence of a clear – and approved – cultural model of female ageing. Detailed analysis of my spoken data showed that for the women in my study ageing is a complicated, multi-dimensional, universally unwelcome process, and whilst ageing was experienced as a highly personal and individual phenomenon, there were striking similarities in the way they perceived and talked about their experiences.
Participants attempted to make sense of the amorphousness of ageing by conceptualising multiple kinds of ageing which they evaluated differently, using different degrees of distancing and engagement. They achieved this complicated and continuous positioning work through a variety of linguistic strategies such as pronoun shifts, i.e. the change from ‘I’ to ‘you’, specific positively/negatively loaded language choices (‘I’ve got this image of kind of shrivelling up and drying…’) and intensification/ minimisation features (‘I’m petrified of ageing actually petrified…’). My analysis showed that the process of ageing is inseparable from the appearance, and most immediately experienced and constantly monitored in the mirror. These “mirror moments”, common to all participants in the study, irrespective of age, were central to the way they interpreted and evaluated their ageing. The language of the mirror moment was rooted in the body, expressed through language which deconstructed the body and scrutinized it part by part (‘I see the lines of age… I see the bits I’ve had done the bits I haven’t had done’). As a consequence, without exception, all bodily changes were ascribed to the ageing process and negatively evaluated, often using powerfully intensified vocabulary. The recurrence of ‘should’ in many participants’ accounts was significant, signalling the complex and conflicting pressures many of them experienced: the obligation to conform to cultural requirements of the ageing female appearance whilst disguising the visible signs of ageing; the tension between the subjective and external gaze, i.e.
‘I don’t buy a lot of Clarins but I think maybe I should…’
‘in theory I think cosmetic surgery’s a bad thing and we should all be happy with who we are but I want to meet society’s definition of beauty…’
‘I actually think I look pretty good for my age but that in itself is suggesting that I’m working to a standard I should look…’
Sandra Bartky talks about ‘the gaze of the Other’ (1990: 38), whether this is the gaze of youth, of men, or as seems increasingly the case, of women turned upon other women. All female participants were aware of its constant presence, and tellingly, none was prepared to step outside the cultural “rules” which continue to drive what Laura Mulvey calls the female duty of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (2009: 19).
My analysis showed that for the women in my study the process of ageing appears more, not less difficult in a postfeminist cultural environment which serves only to intensify the uncertain status of older women, and in which the reciprocal impact of ageing on femininity – linguistically, socially and emotionally – signifies a double powerlessness. Over 20 years ago Woodward asked
can we invent in our culture new meanings of old age so that we need not fight this battle with ourselves and others? Can we imagine mirrors which reflect other images of old age back to us? (1991: 70)
My research suggests that these questions remain largely unanswered and that furthermore, one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary culture is to develop the ideological suppleness to accept that an ageing body can continue to be a site of femininity and desirability, and that there is a notion of femininity which can accommodate the ageing body.
Contact: langmechanics52 at gmail dot com.