1992, pp. 105-107)
Despite this stereotypical portrayal of powerful male sexuality and passive female sexuality, we do note the progress shown in the film version of the novel where Meryl Streep, a female actress over 40 years of age, was actually cast in the lead role. Perhaps this would not have happened 20 years ago, although we might cynically argue that the purpose was to make the Clint Eastwood (an actor in his 60s) character more believable.
From the media come other messages. In a 1993 episode of CBS’s Picket Fences, menopause was used as a defense against a murder charge (cited in Jessee, 1993). The controversial Murphy Brown became a single mom in one season and then regressed to fretting over her lover seeing her mid-life body in the next. Although blatantly sexual, Cybil Shepherd is the constant brunt of aging women jokes in her television show. Although mid-life women are becoming more visible in the media, the picture is still largely one of rewarding those who can pass (i. e., continue to meet cultural prescriptions for beauty) or who can relieve our anxiety by making midlife funny.
Still another example of this emphasis on looking sexy (passive and unrealistic) rather than being sexy (active and realistic) can be seen in the October 16, 1995, issue of People magazine, which showcases a pictorial of women over 40 who met the “sexy criteria,” that is, looking at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. In other words, the unrealistic standards of beauty foisted on the young are being extended to older and older women. Again, we ask who benefits from this construction? Certainly not women whose resources support the cosmetic, surgical, and fitness industries. When will we collectively say, “Enough is enough!”
These examples are particularly disconcerting in light of a recent study of 500 highly educated mid-life women. Sixty-five percent claimed to obtain their information on menopause from books and magazines, whereas only 16% listed their physician as a primary source of information. Although 75% of the women looked forward to the cessation of their menstrual periods, the majority had negative views and attitudes as they approached menopause (Mansfield & Voda, 1993). We contend that women lack a sense of achievement or freedom at mid-life partially because their primary sources of information are negative. Since so many people rely on the mass media for information, others have suggested that feminist sex researchers work to become influential through writing popular books, consulting with journalists and script writers, and participating on talk shows (McCormick, 1994).
Despite the plethora of negative examples, we are optimistic that changes toward more positive and diverse images are being fashioned. Powerful and highly visible mid-life women such as Lauren Hutton, Goldie
Hawn, and Meryl Streep are blazing new territory in Hollywood. Highly competent and successful television personalities now include women over 40, such as Oprah Winfrey, Connie Chung, and Cokie Roberts. Gloria Steinem, likewise, is continuing her feminist activism on behalf of women. It is our hope that we are experiencing the beginnings of a sea change that will produce changes in long-held cultural stereotypes regarding aging women and sexuality. Certainly, until more widespread changes in media portrayals occur, entrenched stereotypes of gender, aging, and sexuality will continue to proliferate.