It was the tweet heard around the world. Eternal arbiter of “good taste” Piers Morgan, called Susan Sarandon “very tacky” for wearing showing off her ample cleavage in a white suit and black suit during the SAG awards. Though Morgan was quick to defend himself, the obvious implication was that a woman of her age (69 to be exact) should not be sporting cleavage, particularly in a such a blatant way. However, the real issue is not Morgan’s bumbling ignorance or his hypocrisy. Or the fabulousness of Sarandon’s bosom. What’s underneath all of this back and forth is society’s collective fear of a woman old enough to be a grandmother flaunting her sexuality. Women “of a certain age” are traditionally offered a limited range of activities; wearing muumuus, baking cookies and/or knitting. When a woman challenges that stereotype, it can and often does ruffle feathers.
Dr. Jenn Brandt, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at High Point University, tells Bustle, “we have two roles for women: when they're young, a femme fatale sex object and then after that a mother or caregiver role.” In film and TV, rarely is a woman shown being sexual past the age of 49. And even that's pushing it. Even when she is shown as embracing her own sexuality, that becomes the central plot point of the film — consider How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which the entire point is that Stella Payne (played by Angela Bassett) is a 40-year-old stockbroker can be both sexy and captivating.
Women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
“We don’t see this with men,” Dr. Brandt continues. “We associate getting older with wisdom, authority, and power. Those are things want to attribute to men, but we don’t necessarily want to attribute to women. We want to attribute women’s value to their appearance. We say their appearance is only valuable for a very limited time undercutting their participation in other aspects of the world.”
By reducing women to simplistic roles, we strip them of their power effectively reducing women to units that are only valid in so far as they can serve men. When women own their own sexuality, particularly as they age they are often chastised or ridiculed for being age-inappropriate. It's as though the mere suggestion that a woman postmenopausal enjoys sex and is desirable is absurd.
We see this simplistic categorization of women in many other arenas as well. In politics for example, Sarah Palin’s ability to stir up the loins of her Republican base (she was 44 at the time) served as constant fodder during her vice presidential run. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton’s age (69) has caused some critics to claim that she’s"too old" to run for president, nevermind that Ronald Reagan was sworn into his first term at the exact same age.
Women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t; they are either too sexual or too old. In a game set up by a patriarchal society, women ultimately cannot win. And though men do not flaunt their sexuality in low-cut tops, they do so in different ways. An older man can choose a much younger woman as a partner — Hugh Hefner and Crystal Harris, for example, or Donald Trump and his wife Melania — in an effort to show how virile and therefore powerful he still is. Even after the veil is pulled back and the illusion is exposed, it is still largely acceptable for men to assert their power and sexuality as they age in ways that are generally not afforded to women in the same way.
In many ways, women’s sexual power is still not often based on their own agency, but how they appeal to the male gaze. In other words, a women’s sexuality isn’t their own. For Sarandon to embrace her body and sexuality on her own terms, bucking society’s request that she “dress for her age” and showing up to the SAG awards without a partner — who could by mere presence bestow his approval — is an act of self-ownership. And while a woman over 50 doing so is apparently something that scares some men, for her act of total agency, I say "Bravo, queen."