You’re Only Old Once

The following article was written by Diedre Macken, who writes for the The Australian. Macken lists some older women who are powerful, and the lessons we might take from them. Especially remarkable is 94-year-old fashionista Iris Apfel, whose name I just learned. However, I had seen this picture of her and was captivated. There is also a documentary about her called Iris. She once said, “I don’t have any rules, because I would just be breaking them.”

Gotta love her!

Ageing Baby Boomers Say No to Nice Little Old Ladies

When I grow up I want to be like Iris. And it’s perfectly OK to say “grow up” rather than “grow old” because Iris Apfel is still growing into her style even as she hits 94 and her trademark glasses have become so big on her face they look like Harry Potter glasses on Hedwig the owl.

Iris is being celebrated in a movie bearing her name and the only surprise is that filmmakers took so long to find this style meister, with a sharp wit and bluntness that is forgivable only in the very old. The self-titled “geriatric starlet” is an oddity and not just because her necklaces look like anchor chains. She is proving to a ­starlet-obsessed society that a woman can be self-assured, stylish and, even more important, attention-grabbing into her 10th decade.

She’s not the only older woman fighting the cloak of invisibility with an in-your-face attitude. Lily Tomlin recently marked out the territory for ornery old women in the series Grace and Frankie; Jane Fonda is taking on roles that make fun of her dolly-bird background; Helen Mirren flaunts an ageing figure and drug-taking past; and there are any number of go-girl older women in the dark Danish genre of TV series.

Even in Australia we’ve had something of a 50-plus femme fest, with Noni Hazlehurst hauntingly homeless in the play Mother , Miriam Margolyes centrestage with the aptly named I’ll Eat You Last, and Marina Prior tackling the gender and age card in the play Jumpy.

This is all good news because until recently there weren’t many role models for older women. Basically there were two ways of ­growing up/old as a woman: the desperately-hanging-on-to-sexuality sort perfected by Hollywood actresses whose names you’d forgotten because they weren’t on the screen any more, and the classic, cardigans-and-grandchildren oldies who were never noticed anyway.

More recently, it must be said, there are a few powerful old women who are redefining age as they reshape economies and governments. We have Hillary, who is pushing to become US president by her 69th birthday; there’s Janet Yellen, who has just turned 69 and waves a fiscal sword over the markets; there’s Angela Merkel, who at 61 is still exercising power in Germany and beyond; and, of course, there is the Queen, still reigning at 89. The fact so many powerful women are relatively old might say more about how long it takes women to get to the top, but theirs is a double victory — they’ve done it as women and they’ve done it as oldies.

Except. Not many of us are going to get to positions where we can push around Greeks, Republicans or Wall Street traders. Most middle-aged women know they’ll have to settle for less when it comes to charting a course through late life. As Prior says in Jumpy, “gender is burying us alive. Old women. Our only chance is to run a country or some vast significant organisation. That’s all that’s going to save us from invisibility.”

Which is why Iris and her eccentric sisters are such an inspiration. Every woman can aspire to have an eccentric old age, with grey, flowing locks (Tomlin), anchor chain necklaces (Iris) bad habits (Mirren) and scary habitats (Hazlehurst). As Fonda said in an interview for Grace and Frankie, “What do we have to lose to not be brave?” Or as Iris says in her movie, “I don’t have any rules because I would only be breaking them.” Leonard Cohen put it more succinctly: “crazy has places to hide in”.

Rule-breakers abound in this generation of women. The oldest of the boomers is about to turn 70 and they can remember sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll (or at least they knew they were there, even if they don’t remember whether they inhaled). Finally relieved of kids, parents’ stuff, jobs and sometimes partners, women of the first youth generation are in the mood for breaking out again.

It might not be pretty. Cohen probably won’t write lyrics for it. Chanel isn’t going to design for it. Their kids will hate them for it. But we’ll know we’ve got there when we hear a presidential speech by a grandmother with a chooky neck. So bring it on. You’re only old once.

macken.diedre@gmail.com



Never Too Late To Bloom

Never Too Late To Bloom