The Pirelli calendar, one of those status symbols you cannot buy for yourself, has been a perennial on the walls of the rich enough to receive it, and it has always featured beautiful young women scantily dressed. An upmarket version of the calendar on your mechanic’s wall. Last year, Pirelli, probably noticing a cultural shift, commissioned Annie Leibovitz to shoot accomplished women, of various ages and body types: some household names, and some less so.
This year, they took the concept further still – photographer Peter Lindbergh approached different celebrities – no, let’s call them mega-stars of the silver screen – to be shot completely make-up free and unretouched. The photographs are stunning: Helen Mirren, at 71, in a close-up, with a shawl around her shoulders, looking fierce. Uma Thurman, with pores and all. A strangely bare-faced Nicole Kidman. And on and on. Utterly beautiful. (As an aside, if I had the money these women have to spend on beauty routines, fillers and Botox, and I were shot by Peter Lindbergh, I would probably look pretty stunning too).
But as I admire the sentiment behind the photographs, I can’t help thinking that this cultural shift, that suddenly elevates middle-aged and older women in publicity campaigns, is half-hearted.
Brands who have chosen Joan Didion, Yoko Ono, Iris Apfell to advertise their products are (finally) tapping into the idea that women of a certain age are the ones with the disposable income for such purchases, and are a bit tired of being marketed at with pretty young things. On the other hand, while I love seeing Joan Didion advertise Celine, I can’t say I recognize myself either in someone nearly 30 years my senior. It feels like the intention behind using models well in their 70s and beyond was to shock, not to change the viewers’ perception.
In the meantime, middle-aged women everywhere are hardly made to feel that aging is good for us – between the pressure to conform to an aesthetic that still invokes youth, and the lack of career access at the top (Hillary Clinton comes to mind), we are still fighting an uphill battle.
Interesting how, just recently, in accepting the Woman of the Year Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards, it was Madonna who reminded us of just such a battle. In a not so veiled reference to the recent presidential elections, she said: “Women have been so oppressed for so long, they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done.”
Madonna spoke about the rules of “the game” — the established ideas that she said women are pushed to abide by. “You are allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy, but don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness and do not — do not, I repeat — share your own sexual fantasies with the world.”
While Madonna might not be my personal role model on aging gracefully, I share her point of view and I abide by the belief she should be left in peace to age and express herself as she sees fit, and not crucified.
It will take decades of women making a point over and over – whether through artistic choices like Madonna’s, Patti Smith’s or Alicia Key’s and the way they choose to present themselves to the world, or through women being allowed on the upper echelons of business and politics – before being a middle-aged woman will be as unremarkable as being a middle-aged man.