Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Gender and Aging: Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians

Laurie and Debbie say:

Gina DeVries at The Bilerico Project has run across a rather silly blog devoted entirely to pictures of “men who look like old Lesbians.” Gina is amused, and feels like she probably should be offended.

We, on the other hand, are amused, interested, and not offended. When this conversation arises, it’s almost always about how aging women “look male,” so we started off by enjoying this framing.

Merv Griffin, talk show host

(Merv Griffin, talk-show host)

Looking just a little deeper, we see a comment on how this culture deals with aging. Aging is not masculine, because it diminishes the culturally defined core male qualities like strength and hardness. Aging is not feminine, because it diminishes the culturally defined core female quality of youth itself.

This insight cuts two ways: first of all, it pushes everyone who is aging and showing it out of the center of gender definition. The reason these men look like old Lesbians rather than old women is that they are not wearing make-up, skirts, or women’s jewelry, the signifiers that aging women wear if they want to appear feminine. This is intensified because we live in a time and place where much casual clothing is completely ungendered–to present yourself as female you have to wear clothes that most men won’t wear; to use your clothing to present yourself as male is difficult if you’re not wearing a suit and tie.

Because aging is outside of gender, people who are aging, unless they make a significant effort at presentation, are going to look like *drum roll* people on the margins of gender, such as Lesbians.

Bruce Cockburn, singer-songwriter

Bruce Cockburn, singer-songwriter. (Gina says, “Bruce Cockburn manages to combine the aesthetics of THREE different women’s studies professors I had when I was in college. The earring, the hair, and the glasses were each rocked by a different prof.”)

Gender itself is somehow defined by and reserved for the young. Some of this is biological, of course, but most of it is symptomatic of the narrow definitions of the culture. To look male or look female, you have to look young. Otherwise, the best you can do (assuming you want to have a clear gender identity as you age) is to work very hard on your presentation, doing your best to minimize signs of age.

This provides a key insight into the drive toward face lifts and other anti-aging procedures, not to mention cosmetic Botox and drugs: it’s not just your hyper-valuable youth that must be preserved; it’s also your gender. We’ve built a set of cultural definitions so limiting that everyone who lives long enough is forced out of them.

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4 Responses to “Gender and Aging: Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians”

  1. RW Says:

    Hmmm… I love your analysis, but I’m not sure you are spot on this time (although as always your wisdom shines out and it scares me to even start to disagree…)

    I did a quick experiment – putting ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’ into the search on Flickr, and looking at the best full face, close up, portraits. Now clearly the results of this will be influenced by how contributors label their photos, but…

    I’m not sure that the ‘old men’ do lose anything of their gender (when looked at through a typical cultural lens). What they do lose is an the image of strength and power I think – they tend to look weaker (in terms of power).

    On the other hand, I completely agree that the ‘old women’ look less female (viewed through the same lens of course – otherwise we go to all sorts of other discussions about what we see as female and so on). But I think they do gain, hugely, an image of power. I wouldn’t want to argue with any of the ‘old women’ I looked at. I think that I think that that must be a good thing – although I probably want to mull the idea over for a bit.

    But then the whole exercise takes me on to further questions…

    What happens if we aren’t looking at still photographs? I think I’ve learned that this is a very important question. In reality I think we respond very differently to people to how we respond to still images. How someone moves, speaks, smiles, frowns, and so on, are very very strong influences.

    Then there are questions about whether what we’re talking about are typical images of younger women, as opposed to real images of younger women. We’re so steeped in ‘typical’ (unreal) images of women (in which gender is emphasised), that we must be influenced by this.

    Could it be that ‘feminine’ is a bit of the ‘typical cultural lens’ that we’ve been taught – which actually no real women manage to fit within. Something that we see on films and still images, but not in reality. Whereas ‘masculine’ matches reality more closely?

    OK – I sense that I might be making this all much more complicated that it should be so I’ll shut up! Disagreement welcome!

  2. Rachel Says:

    Interesting analysis. I often wonder if people in other cultures look on American women – those who sport makeup and hoop earrings and teased hair, etc.. – as alien-like as we perceive African tribal women who wear rings to elongate their necks, or other ethnic cultures who deliberately scar the face and body as a sign of beauty to be.

    Oh, I have to say, that is a very OLD photo of Bruce Cockburn. I just met him again at a concert last year. He definitely is looking more rugged in the photo my husband took of him with me. God, I love that man.

  3. Debbie Says:

    RW, please disagree! I think that part of what we were trying to say is that losing power in men is, in fact, a feminizing process. Masculinity is fragile: as Jaime Cortez says in Familiar Men, losing any signs of masculinity is a loss of masculinity itself. The still photograph question is fascinating, and I agree completely. (And you can never irritate Laurie or me by making things more complicated …)

    Rachel, great question!

  4. Laurie Says:

    RW,

    That’s a very thoughtful comment. We were talking in the context of the “cultural lens”. This is a conversation about perception of gender, and I think that is predominantly cultural. So we are talking about the “typical lens”.

    I’m sure I would agree with you about the photos of older women. But that’s not the perception or reaction to older women “on the street” in this country. Japan is another story.

    As a photographer, the difference between someone in life and in a still photograph is profoundly important to my work. Part of my choice of the image I use for a portrait is how much it will convey that.

    You’re not making it more complicated. It is complicated.

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