In recent years, the media’s been promoting a kind of empowerment for women of a certain age—that age being over, say, 25. It involves telling us that very beautiful actresses who aren’t 20 anymore aren’t necessarily decrepit. Last year, in a spread featuring Sofia Vergara in a bustier, Esquire helpfully pointed out that 42-year-old women are sometimes attractive enough to catch the eye of 56-year-old men. A 54-year-old Julianne Moore impressed the Daily Mail Online with “her youthful complexion.” Most recently, People named 50-year-old Sandra Bullock the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman,” evidently the oldest woman yet to win this.
Such gestures seem, on the surface, like progress. After all, beautiful older actresses are, yes, beautiful! And ordinary older women don’t have some kind of sell-by date, either! But articles in this vein tend to come across as patronizing rather than empowering. It’s not just that few women, at any age, look like their movie-star equivalents. If you read between the lines, these articles are presenting certain celebrities—and it's usually the same handful of actresses—as exceptions to the rule. Calling women "age-defying," explicitly or implicitly, only reiterates what women already know: Female beauty, as constructed in our society, fades.
With time, and with more equal-opportunity objectification, there may come a greater acknowledgement that male beauty isn’t so eternal, either; or, to go still more utopian, that those of all ages and genders can be beautiful. But we’re not there yet. Hollywood, as Amy Schumer recently reminded us, continues to place a desirability age limit on women, but not men.
If one wants to have a superficial allure into one’s dotage (and why not?), there’s another option: eternal cool.
The coolness pageant of life is about one’s similarity to Patti Smith, not to a swimsuit model. If striving for eternal hotness involves denying one’s age, achieving eternal cool is, if anything, about embracing it. This is an empowerment message that might, for a change, actually be a step in the right direction.
Alice Hines’s New Yorker profile, “Chloë Sevigny at Forty,” is ostensibly about the actress and fashion icon’s new book, but it’s also, more broadly, about an “It Girl” reaching middle age with her coolness intact. If this seems like déjà vu, it could be because we were only just reading about how Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame (and author of the foreword to Sevigny’s book) is, as Ann Friedman put it, “still really cool, though more like a world-weary older friend than a living, breathing list of life goals.”
While Hines’s overall point is that Sevigny’s still got it, there’s one moment where Sevigny’s coolness truly announces itself:
Sevigny spots a Sharpied ‘X’ on my hand and asks me where I was last night. I tell her about a party in a bus yard in Gowanus. "You’re young," she says. "I’m forty. What am I going to do, go to a party in Gowanus with like, a 'tall boy'?"
Sevigny flips the script here, coming across as cooler for having not been at some cool party in Brooklyn. She manages to make beer-drinking among Brooklyn hipsters sound like pog-collecting, Britney Spears fandom, or whatever other uncool thing the little kids are into these days.
Hines attributes Sevigny’s appeal to her ability to evoke a cooler New York than currently exists, writing that "Sevigny’s new book is a window into a less-networked, less-corporate New York with particular appeal to a new generation…. We can’t live in the nineties, so we simulate them, with Polaroid cameras, vinyl records, or a notion to move to Detroit.” That’s certainly part of it. Sevigny—especially KIDS-era Sevigny—represents not just a cooler New York, but a cooler era, one before helicopter parenting and smartphones arrived. The overprotected childhood of yesterday is the typical upper-middle-class one of today.
But I think something else may help explain the collective swoon of female writers and journalists in response to the piece. It’s that Sevigny’s continued charm isn’t presented in terms of her continued sexual desirability to men, or indeed to anyone. The “it” that Sevigny still possesses certainly doesn’t preclude that other kind of appeal, but it’s of a different nature. This is a (refreshingly) different conversation. Articles about a female celebrity’s persistent cool are still a bit fawning and flattering, of course, but not nearly as patronizing as ones about her persistent hotness. And coolness, while a daunting metric itself, seems a lot more achievable. Most of us know we’ll never be as cool or hot as Sevigny, but the former is something we can reasonably aspire to—and we wouldn't be doing it, not principally, to please the male gaze.