The New Republic’s Laura Bennett has something important to say about Betty White’s recent roles in her essay “Betty White Is Not a Sex Machine: Our Cruel Obsession with Dirty Old Women.” While she acknowledges that elderly women in the media have gained traction, ceasing to be mostly “sexless [...] prudish nags,” she sees an increase in sexual exploitation of older women. From Betty White’s role in Hot in Cleveland to Cloris Leachman’s Maw Maw on Raising Hope, older women in the media are often over-sexualized and sexually deviant. Their sexuality is characterized as “dirty” and laughable.
Cloris Leachman, Raising Hope
In Hot in Cleveland, older women relocate to an area where men fawn over them like “porn stars,” and in her latest SNL gig, White’s “bits involve references to crotch massagers, lap dances, squirting muffins [... and] suggestive hot-dog eating.” Bennett sees White’s recent performances as degrading, and she mourns the loss of complex female characters we once saw on shows like Golden Girls. She, like most of us, wants to see older women with real sexual and romantic desires. Bennett writes, “The story of how such a versatile actress was reduced to an adorable receptacle for penis jokes is also the story of the condescending way we treat old people on television today.”
Older women in TV seem to be the object of much of our culture’s “dirty” or perverse sexual fantasies. Viewers are encouraged to laugh at these women if they have natural, healthy sexual desires. The most concerning example of this trend might be the WWE’s treatment of 90-something female wrestler Mae Young. Mae argues with attractive, scantily clad young women to defend her championship title. Every so often, she will be paraded onto the screen to give birth; in the past, she has pushed both a hand and a New Years baby out of her vagina. Her fertility is a joke; she farts throughout her labor. Viewers are asked to revel in her bodily humiliation.
Where is this “cruelty” discussed by Bennett coming from? The sexuality of older women has long been a source of terror in folklore and fairy tales. Legendary Bloody Mary drinks the blood of young girls to remain conventionally beautiful. Hans Christian Anderson’s sea-witch steals the young little mermaid’s voice and seduces a prince. The old witch in Snow White poisons the girl to remain “the fairest in the land.” Perhaps elderly women symbolize an unbridled sexual freedom; they are women who can enjoy sex without bearing children. Maybe that seems “dirty” or unnatural to some people, like something to be feared.
I think it might be because of this fear of elderly sexuality that the media is now flooding us with caricatures of older women. If they are no longer sexless shrews, writers relegate them to a sexuality that is filled with “yeasty muffin” and feces jokes. If the sexuality of older women is displayed as ridiculous and funny, then people are less afraid of it.
But I’m not laughing. Older women do have sexual desires that are just as healthy and natural as an older man’s (or a younger man or women, for that matter). Our bodies and all their needs don’t just shrivel up and dry out as we get older. And that fact isn’t disgusting, terrifying, or funny; I actually find it beautiful. The bodies and physical desires of older women are just as dignified as those of any other human being. And it’s about time they get treated as such!
What do you think of representations of older women on TV? Are there any encouraging examples of strong, sexually engaged older women to give us some hope? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks to New Republic