The Double Standard of Aging by Susan Sontag

I'm sorry to have missed out on February. Life got really busy, which is a shame, because I was (and am) very excited about both social justice and French literature. I suppose we'll just have to continue to discuss these subjects throughout March, since we got nowhere near completing our readings or exhausting our thoughts.

The one thing I read was a very interesting essay by Susan Sontag: The Double Standard of Aging. I was pretty familiar with the argument through cultural osmosis, but I had never read anything by Sontag.

The essay discusses the double standard in how society perceives and treats aging in women and men respectively. Sontag's conclusion is that there is a far higher pressure applied on women with respect to age, which leads to higher psychological costs for them. Old age is something no one is very happy about (from a social capital point of view, nevermind the biological aspects), since it involves a diminishing of one's sexual attractiveness, but in men these negative aspects are somewhat compensated by an increase in the respect they get, from being perceived as wiser or more interesting. For women, being older is being less attractive: there is no achievement that can compensate for wrinkles. 

Since "being old" creates a different status in society for men and women, "growing old" becomes associated with different psychological processes and costs. Women start perceiving they are growing old far earlier than men (sometimes even as early as their mid-twenties) and they see this as something that must be fought against. They invest a great deal of resources into maintaining the appearance of youth, which takes its toll on their energy and well-being. In the end, they always suffer defeat, and even if they manage to postpone wrinkles by half of decade, they fight the battle knowing all along that they will lose. This knowledge, too, hurts them. 

Sontag argues that the double standard of aging is a consequence of the different standards for beauty and, indeed, worth, we have for men and women. Female beauty is associated with grace, frailty, innocence and the accomplishments that are expected of women are passive: to look a certain way, rather than to do certain things. These qualities wither with age. The masculine ideal, on the other hand, is strongly associated with energy, force, accomplishments, which are enhanced by age. 

The double standard is particularly visible in the way marriages between older women and men that are 20 years their juniors is almost a taboo, while the reverse situation is considered completely natural and subject to sympathetic gossip rather than outrage and scandal. Of course, this is not enforced by any law, or even by any conscious decision on the part of the public: when people say that they find older women repulsive not as a part of a greater woman-hating scheme, but simply because it is their personal taste, they mean it. But their revulsion nevertheless contributes to oppression. This process is nicely summed in a phrase I like quite a lot: "rules of taste enforce structures of power". It is a complex sociological theory, standing at the basis of much of feminism's relationship with pop culture and media, packaged in a memorable one-liner, and it is a very good illustration of what I liked about the essay: the combination between sociological insight and compelling writing. 

But while I really liked the argument as well as the style, I do have some problems with the ending. They are mostly the same problems Claudia has with The Second Sex (my feminist history could be better too, but I suspect that Sontag draws a lot on the tradition established by de Beauvoir). Sontag argues, just like de Beauvoir, that society's norms and standards are designed to keep women "in a life-long minority" and, as such, women never become fully realized as human beings. The bottom line of this theory is that the wrongdoing of the patriarchy consists in not letting women become people, rather than in denying that women are people. While I understand that this view doesn't deny the injustice against women and acknowledges that their potential value is as great as men's, I'm still very uncomfortable with what it says about women's actual value. I suppose it will take me some time to work my way through the implications of these two positions: their relationship with wider philosophical systems, the historical advantages adopting one of these positions has had for feminism and so on. 

Until then, I would still recommend The Double Standard of Aging to anyone interested in sociology or feminism (or Sontag).

9 comments:

  1. It would be hard to argue with the thesis were it written by someone else. However, it feels a bit ingenious coming from Sontag who carefully cultivated her image as a young, attractive, sexy intellectual woman to become famous early in her career. One might be able to overlook that had she used her fame to mentor and help other women break through gender barriers. The many tales of her selfish careerism (like this one: http://nancykricorian.net/2012/12/packing-books-with-susan-sontag/) make the whiney quality of this essay hard to swallow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I don't know much about Sontag's image (or her careerism, or anything really), but I think it's irrelevant to the argument. Even if, let's say, she wasn't sincere in her concern for women and the psychological costs aging has for them, this reflects badly on her, not on the argument: it is still a valid observation that there is a double standard of aging and that women suffer for it.
      As for the whiney quality of the essay, that's legitimate too. Even selfish careerist (again, no idea if this is true about Sontag) have the right to complain when they are treated unfairly because of their gender.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I completely agree that the argument is valid. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that while it may be true that China’s economic and currency policies hurt the U.S., doesn't it make you feel a bit odd and uncomfortable when that argument comes from Donald Trump?

      http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2011/04/gross-hypocrisy-trump-clothing-made-in.html

      Delete
    3. Yes, I see what you mean with Trump. But I'm still not sure if it applies to Sontag: did she profit from the very thing she was decrying, like Trump?
      I can imagine becoming skeeved by this essay as I learn more about the author, but I'll withhold judgement til then.
      Thanks for dropping by again!

      Delete
  2. I have a real problem with the 'men stop women from being fully realised' argument too but for me it's more about the negative light it shines on successful women. I just don't see how it that argument helps anyone when it undermines every powerful, role-model woman by suggesting that she's done well but... she could do so much more if she grew up/was fully formed too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be honest, I don't think I've seen that kind of dismissive behaviour all that often. When successful women are dismissed it seems to be more about how their potential value is lesser than men's: she's done well in engineering but... imagine what a man could have done with the same luck and ambition.

      Delete
  3. I had heard of the author and do see your point "the wrongdoing of the patriarchy consists in not letting women become people, rather than in denying that women are people."

    This is a tough question. From my point of view - and I can't wait for my Gender and Diversity MD to start next September so that my point of view is challenged - women are considered people, but second-class citizens. Yes, we are labelled as "people", but somehow the patriarchy sees us lacking something. Why is that, I have no idea and I think feminist still has a lot of work to do.

    I was wondering if you knew about this website. http://femininemystiquetwra.wordpress.com/frequently-used-terms/
    It really depicts women as second-class citizens (and don't get me started on the ethnic discrimination they make with their pictures).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't know about that site, but wow. Is it really written by women? Because I've seen women advocate traditional feminity, but they usually sugarcoat patriarchy, and praise women and their different set of virtues. That site uses downright insulting words. Whatever, I'm not gonna go digging any further.
      Your MD sounds cool. Hope it turns out both instructive and fun :D
      Thanks for your comment!

      Delete
  4. Get some great topics for argumentative essay writing. E.g. it will help you to write more successful articles

    ReplyDelete