Earlier this month, when 61-year old actress Jennifer Coolidge won the Golden Globe award for her role as the ditzy, rich Tanya in The White Lotus, not only was it a testament to her talent and her newfound (previously niche) popularity, it was also an acknowledgement of this golden moment that older women are finally having. Coolidge has been the toast of this season, walking breathlessly up the stage, dressed in a glittering dress that is not expected to squeeze out an hourglass figure. And then she drops some truth bombs. About ageing, about being forgotten, about clinging on and not giving up when dreams don’t come true, when life doesn’t follow The Plan. Most people laugh, some shift around their chairs nervously.
Her neighbours did not invite her for their parties, she said, and while this is a commentary on the brutality of the Hollywood lifestyle, it can also be easily extrapolated to the rest of the world. The narrative around older women is almost entirely about their invisibility. Depending on the publication and the author, the tone about this is either indignant or indifferent. Occasionally, it is apologetic. But what it most certainly hasn’t been is celebratory.
Living their best lives
Truth is, whether it is hidden under a cloak of invisibility or the world has just been too blind to see it, all around us, older women are living their best lives. You see them on walks in the park, talking loudly, taking selfies, discussing careers and politics and fashion and whatever else. They go on trips together, in fact there are travel companies that cater exclusively to groups of women travellers. Liberated from the performative pressure of the male gaze, endowed with extra time now that the children have grown up, and usually having saved enough to ensure relative financial security, women over 50 are having the time of their lives.
“I had such big dreams and expectations as a younger person,” Coolidge said, “but they get sort of fizzled by life or whatever. I had these giant ideas and then you get older and you realise it’s just [expletive] not gonna happen anymore.” It was clear that she had stopped playing by the rules a while ago. She couldn’t be bothered to self-censor herself or edit out the expletives. Why should she? She had done her time, trying to fit into other people’s expectations and now she was just going to live by her rules, of which essentially, there seem to be none.
I watched the video clip of Coolidge’s acceptance speech several times. The first few in utter amusement and later as a source of great inspiration. I am not far from turning 50 myself (not to suggest the number 50 is loaded with some meaning, a switch that flips) and I can already feel the sense of lightness. My daughter is 17, she is navigating her own life in a new country, and my parenting responsibilities have shrunk to one phone call a day. Added to this is the realisation that some of my personal ambitions were unrealistic, unachievable and not likely to be the source of the contentment and happiness that I seek. Now my expectations from myself and the world are more realistic, saving me from the endless cycle of lofty ideals and crushing disappointments, such a sharp contrast from my 17-year-old’s anxieties about herself and her future.
Friendship, the real superpower
Though Coolidge stole the show, there was another significant moment at the Golden Globe awards ceremony. The 60-year old Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh won the best actress award. When her name was announced, her colleague, the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was sitting next to her threw her arms up in the air like a boxer who had vanquished her opponent, her mouth a perfect O as she whooped with joy for her friend. The real blessing of older women is not the absence of the male gaze that leaves them free to do what they want, but the gift of female friendship.
There is enough research to support the theory that women invest more time in and reap greater rewards — happiness, support — from same-sex friendship than men do. That is their real superpower, this support network of other women, who goad you on, who have your back, who pick up the slack when you slow down, even though the historical storyline has been that female friendships are usually competitive, one glass of wine away from a catfight. It was evident from Lee Curtis’ big smile that she was not in competition with her friend; she knows that there is room for everyone.
Lived experience illustrates well enough that life and work are not zero sum games, and that as our world expands, we ourselves recede a little bit from being the principal focal point of our own selves. What bigger relief from anxiety can there be? That, and the realisation that there are second and third and fourth and fifth chances. Nothing is over till it is over. As Coolidge herself said at another awards function, “It’s not over until you’re dead.”
Veena Venugopal is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.