Sunday, April 14, 2013

Aging Women and Other Horrors: In Defense of Elizabeth Wurtzel

Writer Elizabeth Wurtzel recently found herself at the center of a cranky internet kerfuffle over her recent column in the Atlantic. The article has been criticized as being self-absorbed, shallow, lacking in insight, and condescending. Which it may be, but I still really enjoyed it.

While I don’t like everything Wurtzel writes, I loved this article for exactly what it was, because I understand what she was trying to get at, and I think that the widespread irritation at her is due in part to the fact that she refuses to apologize for her choices, (including the choice not to have kids, which people tend to find exceptionally grating in women), and due in part to the increasingly pernicious belief that one person’s expression of choice is automatically a criticism of anyone else who makes a different choice.

Yes, Wurtzel can be a bit annoying at times, and even a little off the rails. I started reading this article with the idea that I was going to hate it, but I didn’t. In fact, I loved it. I found myself cheering her on: You go, girl, traipsing through New York in short skirts and heels, asking for what you want and need, drinking your red wine and chillin’ with your wolf and panther. No matter how eye-roll inducing you may think her manifesto is, I understand the underlying message to be:  I don’t have to roll over and play dead because I’m past the age of forty. I’m still a wild person, an artist, a sexual being, a lover of high-heeled boots and jeans, an un-serious person, a vulnerable person, someone who reserves the right to be a fuck-up. A person with fire and appeal and an inner life and a passionate soul and a loud mouth. Someone who doesn’t give a shit what you think of me.” 

She may not have said it perfectly, but I understand that’s what she meant. She’s not fighting aging per se; in her own loopy way, she’s fighting the perception that aging means you become a non-person, that you don’t matter anymore, that you’re “used up” and no longer have the right to access the full range of human experience.

Recently, Salon posted a somewhat related article on their site about women over the age of fifty being invisible. I have heard this complaint from a lot of women for many years now, and I have no doubt that they’re right—in this culture, sexual appeal is extremely powerful currency. Many men simply don’t know what to do with a woman who doesn’t fall into the category of “fuckable”, so they just pretend that those women don’t exist. But the fact is, this invisibility, if you know how to use it right, can be very powerful. I know, and I’ve known this a bit prematurely, because I’ve been both blessed and cursed to be a woman who has never been able to trade in “hotness”. 

Who knows what I would have become if I had been born physically different, but my looks never afforded me the ability to depend on them. Additionally, I was raised Catholic, and taught to hide myself completely in that way. Even if I had had any physical appeal, I never had the slightest clue how to wield it. I like to think that if I were “hot” and knew how to use that power, I would have been a person who would cultivate an inner life anyway; who would have made emotional and spiritual growth a priority. But I also realize that I may have been one for whom sexual power would have been too tempting not wield at the expense of everything else. And then I would be really sad now, at the “devastating” age of forty-three, with nothing but my fading looks between me and a sense of worth.

The fact is, it’s the women who cultivate something besides taut thighs and expensively-smoothed skin in middle age who have the real power. Wurtzel in some ways confuses her fierce clinging to the outward trappings of youth as power, but she doesn’t need to. Short skirts and heels are just signifiers, and she doesn’t need them. She already knows the best secret: “Nothing is more bracing than not being concerned about what other people think”.

Shh. Don’t tell anyone, but us “invisible” women over a certain age have more freedom, more autonomy, more joy, and more power than anyone could imagine. We are influencing things more deeply than anyone suspects. We are happier than young men could ever imagine we have the right to be as “untouchables.” We know ourselves, our wisdom, and our life force, and the value of all of those things. We are legion. But the best part is, no one notices the full scope of the havoc we can wreak, because no one sees us. And that’s exactly how we like it.

--Kristen McHenry


Nancy Harris said...

It is difficult to imagine that at age "43" a woman would be considered old, used up, and invisible. Wait until you become 68 years old. Then you can be that outspoken geriatric!

I always enjoy your ideas, Kristen. Keep on writing until geriatric senility overtakes you!

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks, Nancy! I know it seem ridiculous, but you would be amazed the number of people who do consider anyone over 35 "old", especially when it comes to women. Ask my friends who are trying to date in their 40's--it's almost impossible. And I swear every time I'm at the check stand I get treated to a barrage of magazine covers blaring advice about how to "whatever" after 40--look good, keep up your energy, dress appropriately for your age, etc--as though 40 is some sort of alien, awesome landscape of ancient, and once we pass that mark, it's somehow all scarily different. It's absurd, but this a youth-worshiping culture.

Anonymous said...

Wurtzel is so full of shit when she brags about being clean. "Now, More, Again" happened to be a great book about her recovery, but to keep reading these articles that mention how much wine she drinks, she apparently doesn't know that it's a mind-altering substance.