reading the signs

As Older Women Fight Trump, Hollywood Hands Them Pom-Poms

It’s a commonplace — and accurate — to note how few film roles exist for mature actresses. Older women have long clamored for films depicting their lives with humor, complexity, and nuance. Last week, the splashy opening of the comedy Poms, featuring Diane Keaton and other actresses over 70, seemed to suggest that Hollywood had at last heeded those calls. Not exactly. The film offers nothing of substance for its target demographic, which is likely why it’s tanking at the box office. Ticket sales aside though, Poms merits consideration for how symptomatic it is of our current cultural climate.

Billed as an “uplifting” story about “following your dreams,” the movie is instead confirmation of our culture’s ongoing, deep discomfort with older women. This is especially disappointing — and perhaps predictable — given that lately the political spotlight has been shining on older women like never before.

Consider some of the recent iconic moments featuring mature women: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 86, marking her 25th year on the bench (and having two films chronicle her life). Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, 70 next month, reading the Mueller report into the Congressional Record. Representative Maxine Waters, 80, deftly shutting down the condescension of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin at a hearing (“Please do not instruct me as to how I am to conduct this committee”). Or Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 79, doing just about anything — from spearheading the Democrats’ midterm success to standing her ground in the Oval Office.

Okay, now imagine all of these accomplished, serious women … in little cheerleading outfits. If the implicit indignity of that image troubles you, then so will Poms, in which a group of women in a retirement village — all age peers of Waters, Warren, et al. — get their groove back by becoming late-life cheerleaders.

Poms stars the divine Keaton (73) supported by a fine, mostly female cast, including Pam Grier (70), Jacki Weaver (71), and Rhea Perlman (71). Its director is a woman too: British-born Zara Hayes. Hayes sees Poms as an empowering tale that questions the societal limits placed on older women, a film that will “realign what someone thinks about what their grandma might be capable of.” Yet Hayes’s remark betrays her film’s inherent problem: Categorizing women as “grandmas” instantly frames them as harmless, cuddly creatures whose identity derives solely from their benign relationship to younger people. That is precisely the societal blindness the film purports to dismantle but instead perpetuates.

It goes without saying that women of any age should be free to do whatever the hell they want — dance, cheer, shake pom-poms. But given the vanishingly few movies with multiple roles for older women, why did we need this particular retrograde fantasy about mature women revisiting their high-school yearnings to be cute, popular, and sexy? How might a more thoughtful film have represented fulfillment for women over 70? How about showing them chairing a Senate hearing? Writing a book? Sculpting a masterpiece? Why not depict senior women pursuing activities that require experience and expertise, rather than those best accomplished by bendy teenagers?

Instead, we get Poms, which accepts and glorifies the very constraints it claims to defy, most notably the presumption that all women, regardless of age, yearn to be peppy and cute, that their value lies in, if not actually being young and viable as sex objects, then at least simulating those things in an adorable, defanged, “you go grandma!” way. A movie in which Diane Keaton finds inner peace by exchanging the chic T-shirts and jeans she wears (à la Annie Hall) in earlier scenes for a sequined letter sweater and ankle socks.

At one point in Poms, cheer captain Keaton attempts to rally her dejected troops with a self-esteem exercise. Face the mirror, she tells them, and say what you “like about yourself.” The women stare mutely for a while, but finally answer: “My hair,” says one. “My hands,” says another. “My wrists,” says a third. It’s an astonishing moment. Not one personal quality is mentioned. Not wisdom, or kindness, or wit. Only body parts. And not even very “major” body parts. (Of course not, they’re old! They’re down to liking their wrists for heaven’s sake.) But the moment is depicted as inspiring. Newly bolstered by this charade of body positivity, the cheerleaders resume rehearsing.

Poms’ climax occurs when the women, triumphing over the taunts and disapproval of neighbors, their grown children, and malicious high-school girls (another sexist cliché), successfully perform at a tournament. Swiveling their hips in tiny skirts to thumping music, the women beam with satisfaction as the once-skeptical crowd hoots enthusiastically. I admit, it’s somewhat satisfying and cathartic to watch (as is a more serious subplot about loss and friendship). But we should question any movie that encourages us to root for older women striving so mightily to earn the approval of sneering ageists.

Popular culture does not exist in a vacuum. And so we must read Poms within today’s schizophrenic gender politics. On the one hand, we are witnessing a newly awakened feminist activism: the #MeToo movement, the new women in Congress, women presidential candidates. On the other hand, we are seeing catastrophic damage to reproductive rights, the appointment of a Supreme Court justice credibly accused of sexual assault, and a president who seems to view women as little more than commodities composed of grab-able parts.

Let us also recall that our president once declared that 35 was “check-out time” for women he dated, because after that age, women had “too much life experience.” The remark explains much about how sexism and ageism fuel each other: Grown-up women simply know too much. The societal punishment for that is to be exiled sexually, to be “cute” no longer.

Women are still valued in inverse proportion to their life experience. That’s why we continue to mull such empty issues as the “likability” of women politicians — especially those of senior age. It’s the reason why Hillary Clinton (now 71), the most experienced candidate ever to run for president, could be so easily vilified and caricatured. And it’s the reason why, despite mature women’s recent significant strides in politics, we still seem unsure about accepting them as leaders. Leaders, after all, need gravitas, and gravitas is the opposite of “cuteness.” Leaders may happen to be grandmothers (just as they are often grandfathers), but they are not “grandma cute.”

But in Poms, women the same age as Secretary Clinton, Senator Warren, and Congresswoman Waters are cute, or rather, they play at re-cute-ifying themselves and call it freedom. That this is passed off as a tale of empowerment proves how deeply pop culture absorbs and internalizes sexism and ageism. It does not feel like an accident that this movie appears now, just as we see increasing numbers of older women in power, acting with authority and conviction, and just as we once again contemplate electing a woman president.

Poms seems to have surged up out of the pop-culture unconscious, a symptom of our lingering resistance to full acceptance of senior women’s authority. Its characters, these retiree cheerleaders, are like negative imprints — the inverted alter egos — of the current crop of fascinating older women making news. Let’s hope Hollywood turns its attention to making movies with characters closer to these real-life heroines. I’d be first in line to cheer for them.

As Older Women Fight Trump, Hollywood Hands Them Pom-Poms