thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Get Older!” Women, Aging, and Adventure

In Aging, detectives, feminism, TV on May 30, 2014 at 5:42 am

Jessica FletcherPhoebe B.

“You silly old woman,” a murderer mutters as Miss Marple reveals him to be a killer. His dismissive words signal his assumption that because of Miss Marple’s age and gender, she should not be taken seriously.

This prejudice is not unique to freshly unmasked murderers. Men of many stripes frequently insult and dismiss women they perceive as threats in much the same way–particularly when age is added to the equation. As women age, at least in the U.S., our power and visibility in pop culture decreases, even as men’s status grows: older women are often constructed and perceived as useless; men only become more distinguished in the eyes of our culture.

My grandma Elsa spent part of her retirement volunteering at a wildlife habitat on Long Island, where she handled snakes and other seemingly scary reptiles. During the summer, she’d walk with me down dirt roads in rural Massachusetts pointing out beaver dams and teaching me to make plaster casts of deer hooves. After she and my grandfather moved to the West Coast, she took jewelry-making classes and dance lessons. A crossword wiz, she was unbeatable at all word games from Scrabble to Boggle.

Both of my grandparents made aging look active, interesting, and engaging. They also had pensions from the New York school system, so that helped. Growing up, this was what getting older looked like to me. She was fun, silly, always smart, and for her, being old seemed nothing more than a circumstance of aging. Certainly, aging was nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away. As I got older, however, I realized that this image was not one often reflected in pop culture.

But women don’t always age out of the pop culture imagination. There are a few wonderful exceptions within the murder mystery genre that feature elderly lady detectives: Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple (both available on Netflix).

missmarple-1

Against prevailing notions that women become less socially useful as we age, these shows model an active and exciting version of older women. Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher are not bitter spinsters, old maids, or caregivers (in fact, neither has children). Rather, they are heroines who use their brains to solve problems that no one else can.

Hollywood can hardly imagine women outside the confines of patriarchal structures that position them as wives and mothers first and foremost. However, Jessica Fletcher and Jane Marple are never the butt of jokes about their age. Instead, the shows unfold from their unique perspectives. Both their lives remain full of excitement and their age proves a benefit, not a hindrance, to their phenomenal detective skills. Indeed, both heroines possess an intellect to rival that of any mystery-solving character on TV, and they occupy a rare place in the detective canon because of their age and gender.

Neither narrative deems the fact that their protagonists are single–Jessica is a widow and novelist and Jane is an unmarried woman of leisure and independent means–worthy of mentioning. It’s not age or sexual orientation that foreclose either character’s romantic possibilities; they both simply have a vested interest in the freedom and fun of being alone. Of course, in every location, each lovely lady encounters crime, mayhem, and often murder.

What’s more, they are pushy in the best possible way. When women are assertive, they tend to be labeled as pushy, condescending, and aggressive. As Jill Abramson’s recent firing from the New York Times reminds us, professional women are expected to walk a tight-rope act between being smart and adept yet undemanding, lest they threaten patriarchal structures. But these detective ladies have nerve and gumption that only can come from age, experience, and confidence. They are unafraid to push back against those who think them pushy.

Jane, for instance, travels throughout the show, visiting her friends and family and staying in beautiful hotels and homes. Similarly, after Jessica is widowed, she travels the world from Ireland to New York, California, and New Orleans–a feat made possible from the proceeds of her bestselling books.

Throughout her travels, Jessica pursues every mystery to its depths, often putting herself in danger. In the second episode of the series, she follows a suspect down a dark New York City alley on her own, almost getting mugged (and then saved by a lovely young man). Later in that same episode, she rushes  from her seat on the train to an empty country house, putting herself directly in the killer’s path.

Like Jane, Jessica never takes the easy way out. The women often contradict the police and other authorities, going behind their back in order to help justice prevail. Both women’s active pursuit of the truth pushes against notions of women as passive and decorative, occupying–often to the frustration of the male characters that surround them–historically male detective roles. These lady detectives stomp all over the limits of our cultural imagination when it comes to both women and aging.

Midway through the third season, a young maid at a hotel helps Miss Marple solve a seemingly impossible mystery. But she’s missed a few key observations and so Miss Marple helps her finish solving the case. Upon realizing that she is not as keen an observer as Miss Marple, the maid turns to the older woman and tells her what a talented detective she is and comments on her own lack of abilities. Miss Marple responds with a coy and loving smile: “Get older, my dear.”

Perhaps these are the wise words we should all live by. I would love for television to take Miss Marple up on this proposition and feature older, assertive, and brilliant women all the time and everywhere. These depictions dispel myths that women’s use value is tied to our reproductive organs and that women–in film and TV–should function as window dressing for the stories of straight white men.

In making visible aging and activity, we can begin to see drive, curiosity, and excitement reflected in women of all ages. In Miss Marple and Mrs Fletcher we have a model for Veronica Mars, the women of Bletchley Circle, Robin in Top of the Lake, or Stella Gibson in The Fall to grow older.

It’s true, however, that the representations of these two shows fall short in that they cannot by any means encompass some universal experience of what it means to grow old. Jessica and Jane are two well-off white women; they certainly can’t–and shouldn’t–shoulder the entire burden of representation.

I do believe there is a real market for shows about women like my grandma and the many other strong older women I’ve known. After all, we do all eventually age. The more we see women who can teach us the value of aging, the less daunting Miss Marple’s command to “get older” will be.

 

Related Posts:

Under her Wing: Fraught Female Mentorship in Damages

How to Be Awesome like Jessica Fletcher

Review of Gotta Dance and the New Jersey NETsationals”

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