These reflections were prompted by an interview with Renee Fleming in the Met broadcast of Massanet’s Thais.* She commented that Thais’s religious conversion is tied to her recognition that she is aging and will lose the beauty and sexuality that has defined her identity and personal power. Fleming commented that “we all” feel that way. I realized that I don’t so much. This is not to say that I am never shocked by my age. A couple of the wedding photos – not the formal ones where I’m all gussied up and wearing a lot of makeup, but the candid “getting ready” photos in the kitchen with the morning light streaming in the window – made me look so old that even my son said, “You don’t look that old in real life.” My bathroom mirror is relatively kind to me, due to the soft yellow light and the fact that I have to take my glasses off to wash my face or apply makeup. My hair is just now beginning to gray, while most of my age contemporaries were fully gray fifteen to twenty years ago. But the deep wrinkles I see in photos or television shots taken in harsh light tell the truth. I’m not young any more. This is not much of a trauma for me, it is what it is, and I’m sitting easy in this skin. To the extent I’ve had aging crises, they’ve been more typically male, as I realize I have not accomplished all the professional ambitions I’d set for myself. I was reflecting that some of this may be because I was never treated as attractive or pretty when I was young, so there was not much to lose as I aged. It has been my impression that some of the gender traumas are harder on beautiful women, as their sexual attractiveness to men gets more in the way of their desire to be taken seriously as professionals. Being taller matters too: no man has ever patted me on the head. My gender issues have been different: I’m more the Dragon Lady sort who frightens and intimidates a lot of people of all sexes. I’m naturally bossy and have often been asked questions as if I were the person in charge even when I’m just standing around as part of an audience or crowd. I’m blunt and straightforward and can be tactless and insensitive. The gender price I’ve paid has more often been that of being seen as “difficult,” while a man with these personality traits is seen as more normal. An older male colleague once told me that I seemed odd and difficult to people because I’m the sort who will walk up and shake a man’s hand and say, “Hi, I’m Olderwoman.” When I asked, he confirmed that it was because I was a woman that this was unsettling, that I was acting like a man. Yes, I can also be very warm and nurturing, and in the academic context, I’m told that I have more social skills than many of my colleagues. My persona seems much more out of place in the real world of ordinary human beings, especially White Midwesterners, than in the academy. My way of being was more troubling to people when I was young. Now that I’m old enough to be my students’ mother (and old enough to be the mother of assistant professors, for that matter), my tendency to assume authority is accepted more, as is my capacity to be very warm and nurturing in a motherish sort of way. So the sociological reflection I guess is simply that we carry many different traits with us as we move through life and these traits interact with other traits, giving us a wide variety of ways of doing gender and doing age.
*This opera broadcast was smashing, by the way. I was totally blown away by the opera and the performance on many levels. If you have any taste for opera, you may wish to look into the HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera into local theaters. This is the Saturday live broadcast that has been on radio for years. There is often a taped replay in a local theater about 10 days later. Everyone I’ve talked to who goes to these loves them (assuming they like opera): it is a great entertainment experience to see the performance close up, the behind-the-curtain footage of the scenery being put in place and the performers warming up is fascinating, and the intermission interviews range from weird to wonderful. The $20 price tag is the best bargain around for opera.