Esquire published Tom Junod’s piece “In Praise of 42-Year-Old Women” and hopefully the editor who okayed the piece is now kicking him/herself. In the article, Junod writes about the hotness of 42-year old women – and pats himself and society on the back because unlike before, society now finds women over 40 sexy. Oh, and the women he’s praising? Sofia Vergara, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Christina Applegate, among others. So let’s review, we’re talking about women who have millions of dollars so that they can compete with women half their age. This comment doesn’t take anything away from Vergara, Poehler, Rudolph and company, but as Rebecca Traister writes in the New Republic, “Except that of course most women…may not be able to pay for Pilates, let alone for day care or contraceptives, who may need but not be able to afford drug treatment, who Esquire would likely still rate as not-hot or more likely not rate at all, but whose fates nonetheless rest in the hands of empowered committees on the general value and status of womanhood in America.”
What’s so problematic about Junod’s work is that he’s not a misogynist or someone who hates women – his piece is probably coming from a sincere place of celebration. But what exactly is he celebrating? Famous, beautiful women? He thinks that because the women are middle-aged there’s been some kind of shift. But there hasn’t been. It’s just that we’ve expanded our range for objectifying to include women over 40 – is that progress? We set the male gaze on women in their early 40s in the same way that we do to women in their 20s.
But what I like about Traister’s comment is that if we were to take women in their 40s are largely invisible unless they look like runway models. Our definition of beauty is very narrow – despite our trumpeting of how open-minded we are because we find Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez beautiful – and because showbiz (like many industries) loves youth and said narrow ideal of beauty, then it’s not a head-scratcher that the actresses listed by Junod manage to hold on to the Hollywood-style of beauty – there’s no choice. It’s either that or retire gracefully and disappear.
Because let’s be honest, Junod’s examples of beautiful women over 40 all are beautiful, but in the Hollywood way. Everyday I run into gorgeous women in their 40s and 50s – but their beauty is not augmented, molded, or shifted by exercise or plastic surgery. And Traister’s right – the beautiful women that work on their feet 80 hours a week and are raising a brood of children are invisible to most Esquire readers.
And why are we still harping on beauty at he expense of other qualities? Being beautiful is important to most – but why are we spending ink and bandwidth space to validate something that really doesn’t need to be validated. I mean, do we need an Esquire article trumpeting that Sofia Vergara is hot?
And why are we still writing about women as if we’re anthropologists studying a new species? As offensive as Junod’s piece was, I also find it kind of appalling that men are still writing pieces that work to placate, mollify, and validate women. The message is “Don’t worry, ladies – even if you’r over 40, you’re still hot.” The problem with this rhetoric is that a) last time I checked, I didn’t think women were holding their breaths, waiting for men to reassure them and b) we still think a certain kind of women over 40 is hot. Because, let’s be honest, when’s the last time we celebrated women with dark skin, women who were a size 14, or women in wheelchairs? Yeah, I thought so….
I’m waiting for the companion piece, where we reassure our readers that men like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Pierce Brosnan, Denzel Washington, or Daniel Craig are hot. Oh, wait a minute, that won’t happen. And even if Hollywood is more receptive to hot 40-year women, we’re still watching films and TV shows where good-looking middle aged men get women a good decade younger than they (I won’t even go into the schlubby guy gets the hot wife trope, because that’s been written about before). And these 40 year old women are merely arm candy now for 60 year old men (or they’re playing younger).
Hopefully in the near future, articles like “In Praise of 42-Year-Old Women” will become obsolete. Ostensibly a puff piece that trumpets progressive attitudes, it neatly revealed just how backwards we are in our unceasing desire to rank and rate women.