Soon after it was released, I watched the movie “Lipstick Under My Burkha”. I was surprised to see a theatre packed with people of various ages and genders. I didn’t expect the movie to do too well in terms of collection, and nor did I hope to see such diversity in the audience – the diversity among the audience came as a rather pleasant surprise to me.
The movie follows four women of various ages as they navigate through life,work, and their sexuality. One of the characters was an older woman who was sexually attracted to her swimming instructor. She pretends to be younger than she is, and a lot of phone sex and masturbation later, she is found out by him and her family and is humiliated at the hands of her own family in front of everybody.
What bothered me though was that the diverse audience that I was lauding for watching a movie that dealt with such a different and stigmatised subject groaned, hissed, and engaged in mockery each time this older character was on screen engaging in something sexual. The audience that was calm and rather nonchalant during scenes that depicted sex between a young woman and her lover, and even through a scene of marital rape. However, they turned rather aggressive when it came to the sexuality of an older woman.
This reaction isn’t only limited to this movie or to the Indian audience. In various television shows and movies, characters display disgust or are uncomfortable when they find out an older character is sexually active, or when an older character makes a sexually colored remark.
Women in pop-culture are only allowed to display sexual interests if they fit the mould of attractive and young.
Examples of this aggression are all over pop-culture. Pop-culture promotes the idea that young women,who by the virtue of being young are also concerned to be innocent, are the ideal women. Examples of this range from female actresses being cast with male actors who are decades older than them, or even in porn with titles such as, “innocent, virgin teenager”.
The most telling and popular example being the fact that the ‘shelf-life’ of an actresses almost always decades less than those of male actors. Only a handful of women play lead roles while in their 50’s or 60’s, whereas male actors that age, see no decline in movie offers and continue to be well-received by the audience. Older male actors are constantly cast with young women in their 20s but the reverse is almost never true, and while no one bats and eye when the former is done, the latter certainly would attract some negative attention and leave some people angry.
This disgust and aggression is not just limited to older female characters in movies, though, women in the real world who have crossed a certain age are constantly subjected to it.
We only allow women to exist as sexual beings if they are young. Young is always considered desirable, titillating, and sexy, whereas old is always gross, desperate, and uncomfortable. The clear testimony to this is our collective belief that women should ‘preserve their youth’ for as long as they can, but this obsession with youthfulness seems to be lost by the time the discussion shifts to men.
Older women who ‘don’t look their age’ are lauded for their ability to look several years or decades younger, although, older men are never subjected to such praise.
Several beauty and skin care products that claim to reverse aging or sustain youthfulness are marketed solely towards women. Ageing products under big banners are exclusively advertised by female celebrities, with almost no advertisements starring a male actor.
This obsession with female youth robs various older women of their right to express themselves sexually, seek out sex, and acknowledge that they have sexual desires. Older women are conditioned into pretending that they aren’t sexual beings and are either forced to kill their libido, or keep it under wraps and treat it like a dirty little secret.
Our collective obsession with female youth and our systematic denial that anyone who isn’t young couldn’t and shouldn’t have any sexual desires is not just harmful to individual women. It’s also disastrous to the whole of womankind on whom unrealistic expectations of youthfulness and body image are thrust from the time they are young girls.