But we're asking. What would Thelma and Louise do?
It’s been thirty years since the cinematic Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff, their need to live free greater that their will to be alive and confined. Whenever I watch the movie on an old DVD, the ending always bothers me. Thelma and Louise were sharp and vibrant women with the glow of hours in the sun on their lineless skin and the joy of a strong, adventurous friendship. The tragic waste of their young lives taints the pumped-up energy of the rest of the movie for me, its ending nothing more than a dark-mirror reflection of the “happily-ever-after” endings of the fairy tales and Jane Austen novels I grew up on. Heroines, it seemed, exit the stage before the first crow’s foot, gray hair or complication of the middle years. Suspended, as Thelma and Louise were over the Grand Canyon, in a perpetual state of youth without living long enough in their stories to provide any guidance on how to handle the heartaches of parents or partners dying, career setbacks and the illnesses that come with aging. Or how to deal with the dismissiveness and the invisibility older women face.
I am particularly sensitive about my age and I keep it to myself when I can. Of course, my body is getting older and, of course, I am more attuned to life’s endgame. But too often, my capacity to live fully, to learn, to love, to have adventures is limited more by other peoples’ perceptions of my age than my own. Once someone knows you are older, they pigeon-hole you with that number, no matter how fit, clear-headed or au courant you may be. Or so it seems to me. I know my sensitivity comes from being a late bloomer, switching careers now and again so that I was often surrounded by younger peers. For most of my adult life, I worked in a career – broadcast journalism – where younger was seen as not just cooler, but smarter.
It also comes from being a widow – a word I detest – a word that make me feel I am seen as “finished.” The average age for becoming a widow is fifty-nine in the United States and fifty-six in Canada. Women left with a lot of potential life ahead of them. But I dare you, stop and picture a “widow” in your head.
I may be sensitive but I’m not wrong. Ageism exists, especially toward women, and is one of the last “isms,” people feel safe voicing. The other day a woman with a depth of expertise in the right field told me those hiring said they wanted someone younger for the job. To her face.
The dismissive attitude to older women is widespread, of course. When I traveled to a refugee camp in Africa on a research trip for a book, the women I met wore hijabs. But then one day, as I walked with a young man through the camp, we passed two women with uncovered heads. I asked why they could break the cultural norm. “No one worries about women over fifty,” he answered, his meaning that older women were sexless and no threat to men clear in the shrug of his shoulders.
I have many younger friends who don’t care how old I am but that ingrained message of feeling less worthy that came from the stories I grew up on and my own experiences have made me wary.
Recently, after I was interviewed for a series on gardeners in my town for a local newspaper, the reporter emailed me to ask if I would tell him my age. He said the paper’s editor insisted on including age, which I knew as a reader was, at best, an inconsistent rule. I had images of being described as “spry,” or “inspirational,” since I do all the physical work that a large plot with lawns, and multiple vegetable and flower plots demands. So, I answered back, in a friendly manner I thought, that I didn’t want to give my age and couldn’t he just say I was a retired journalist. And, what does the reporter do? Writes that I declined to “reveal” my age and quotes me: “Just say I’m a retired journalist. That should be enough.” Fair journalism practice, I suppose, but a bit over-the-top for a small-town paper. After all, I’m not a mobster or a politician declining an accountability interview.
The published piece was flattering enough but the line about not revealing my age stuck with me. It made me wonder why I just didn’t tell him my damn age and made me mad at myself for caring so much. Isn’t that supposed to be one of the rewards of being retired, of getting older, to not care what anyone else thinks? I try to keep a quote from the actress Helen Mirren in mind: “At seventy-years old, if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words, ‘f..k off’ much more frequently.”
But internalized messages are hard to shake.
I often think it might be easier to be French. Their expression “une femme d’un age certain,” suggests respect for older women and connotes not just wisdom but attractiveness, sexiness and a certain mystery. When I “declined” to reveal my age, I had just finished screening the French series, “Dix Pour Cent,” or in English: “Call My Agent,” the story of conniving agents and their demanding actors. My favorite character was a calm, competent agent named Arlette, an octogenarian, respected by her colleagues, unashamed of her cracked lipstick and her heavy-set, slow-moving body. In a series set anywhere else in the world, she’d probably be a joke or, at best, a crone-like, background character with a few pithy lines, not a well-rounded character. It's great to see this kind of representation.
But what I really need is a jolt of Thelma and Louise. I want them back, their skin creased from all that sun, their arms a little saggy in their tank tops. Survivors. Maybe Louise became an advocate for women in prison. Maybe Thelma had three children with the reformed Brad Pitt character. Maybe they both experienced a profound loss. And maybe, just maybe, they take on ageism the way they took on sexism in the day, even if it means blowing up a few gasoline trucks. Now, that’s a movie that would embolden me. Hell, just the idea of it does.
My name is Debi and I am seventy.
Debi Goodwin is a former documentary producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is the author of two non-fiction books. Her latest, A Victory Garden For Trying Times, is memoir on grief and gardening. When she can travel, she is also a travel writer.