Wanna see something really scary? According to Hollywood, it’s a woman getting old. That’s one of the unspoken themes of M. Night Shyamalan’s new summer thriller, whose ads feature a pair of female legs relaxing on the seashore. One leg is young and shapely; the other withered and skeletal. The title succinctly names the horror unfolding: “Old.”
We get the picture.
A woman aging, especially an attractive one, is still considered uncanny and unnatural. This source of horror should be long past its expiration date, but continues to haunt Hollywood because it reflects our society’s misogyny and fear of mature female power.
In Shyamalan’s film, visitors to a tropical island resort are invited to enjoy a secluded beach, where something mysterious makes people rapidly age: Every half an hour, they grow one year older. The alteration (spoilers to follow) becomes apparent first in the kids, but soon the adults begin to feel and look older, too. The men acquire wrinkles and gray hair, but their essence isn’t really changed. They just look like mature, even more distinguished versions of themselves.
But for the females, accelerated aging is denaturing. They are subjected to terrifying physical changes, from a melon-sized tumor to warp-speed pregnancy to a fatal heart attack. The worst is saved for Chrystal (Abbey Lee), the young mom who looks like a swimsuit model.
For the females, accelerated aging is denaturing. They are subjected to terrifying physical changes.
We first meet Chrystal imperiously ordering a health beverage, obviously obsessed with keeping her scantily-clad bod in top form. When she ignores her husband on the beach to take selfies, the message is clear: Things will not go well for her.
Chrystal is the “vanity, thy name is woman” character, and whatever happens, it’s not going to be pretty. How do we know? Because movies have long been the place where male filmmakers get to enjoy the fantasy of torturing the hot girls who rejected them in high school. (For more on how thoroughly male Hollywood remains, even in the wake of #MeToo, see “This Changes Everything,” a recent documentary that actor Geena Davis executive produced.)
Gorgeous blondes don’t do well in “Old.” The first one who appears is stripping nude for a swim and saucily fluffing her hair. Her next scene shows her as a waterlogged corpse.
Chrystal’s fate is more protracted and gruesome. Her painful demise is the film’s visual piece-de-resistance. Her delectable body’s repulsive transformation echoes a pivotal moment in H. Rider Haggard’s famous Victorian adventure novel, “She.” Filmed multiple times, most famously starring Ursula Andress in 1965, the story concerns a beautiful 2,000-year-old queen who retains not only her looks, but power over men so potent she is nicknamed “She-who-must-be-obeyed.” That’s a big no-no. Her punishment is insta-aging in a pillar of fire, shriveling down to pathetic monkey-like creature.
For Shyamalan’s Chrystal, suffering through the deaths of her daughter and mother-in-law, plus the psychotic breakdown her husband, is not enough retribution for the sin of trying to appease the male gaze. She must be broken — in this case, literally. Pride in her beauty is laid waste.
Tellingly, Shyamalan makes plenty of woke-ish references to racism in his film, but misogyny goes unnoticed. It flows as naturally as the tide.
The filmmaker is tapping into a whole cinematic tradition known as “hagsploitation” that centers on attractive female characters who refuse to accept aging.
The filmmaker is tapping into a whole cinematic tradition known as “hagsploitation” that centers on attractive female characters who refuse to accept aging and seek to hold the spotlight. Some classic examples include “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) and “Death Becomes Her” (1992). In Hollywood’s brutal logic, women are allotted a brief period of desirability and then encouraged to disappear, a tradition satirized in Amy Schumer’s dead-on sketch “Last F**kable Day,” featuring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette as mid-life actors celebrating their freedom from patriarchal demands of beauty.
It is a standard idea that age confers power and added dignity on men. The silver screen may be hospitable to the silver fox — but mature women who refuse to fade away are monsters: evil witches, demonic nuns, horrible bosses, and grannies-gone-mad, all bent on sucking vitality from the young and generally wreaking havoc.
Hollywood’s accelerated aging trope highlights not only the fleetingness of socially prescribed hotness, but the reception that awaits women on the other side. Fans of “The Shining” (1980) will recall the terror Jack Nicholson experiences in the Overlook Hotel when the young beauty he caresses transforms into a decrepit crone.
Rapid aging is also the ultimate torture device for female characters deemed unacceptable. In “Bad Girls from Valley High” (2005), a trio of beautiful high school mean girls receive justice in the form of rapid aging that has them sagging, farting and peeing themselves. The film’s original title, “A Fate Totally Worse than Death,” says it all.
In Hollywood, as in life, society ensnares women in a Catch-22 where they are expected not only to remain preternaturally young and attractive, but punished for trying to fulfill those expectations. At 81, actor Kim Novak found this out when she dared to appear at the 2014 Oscars ceremony with a surgically-altered face far different from the flawless fantasy in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
The maddening irony of the outrage over her failure to “age gracefully” is that, early in her career, male movie moguls had forced Novak to drastically alter her appearance so she would fit the mold of the quintessential cool blonde. As an older woman, she was vilified for following this logic to the end.
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were just 43 and 47, respectively, when they played aging beauties gone mad in “Death Becomes Her.”
Scary movies are supposed to conjure up what’s threatening while keeping it at a safe distance. But for women, the horror of aging hits especially close to home. In the social media era, there’s hardly a woman over 30 who hasn’t experienced the creeping dread of seeing an image of her face that doesn’t look quite right — “quite right” meaning appearing to be roughly age 27.
As women approach menopause — a time when experience, wisdom and freedom from pregnancy ought by rights to propel them into their most productive stage of life — they begin to panic that they are being deleted. Gloria Swanson was only 50 when she portrayed the hag Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” and Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn were just 43 and 47, respectively, when they played aging beauties gone mad in “Death Becomes Her.” According to the upside-down rules of patriarchy, women must be annihilated early on because older women pose a threat: They are unruly and poised to operate beyond the bounds of male power.
This is a losing game not only for women, but for society, which desperately needs their mature powers. This point was made in a rare film to depict older females positively: “Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Women are the savior of civilization in that George Miller movie, which not only starred Charlize Theron as fearless hero Imperator Furiosa but featured a motorcycle-riding band of fierce older women who guard the seeds that could re-green a post-apocalyptic world.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take a real dystopian future to bring this point home.
For now, it seems, movie-goers will continue to flock to watch women punished for aging, transformed from titillating to terrifying. And here’s a plot twist for you: They will actually be replicating the horror of the film because a study shows that watching scary movies can actually accelerate facial aging. Grab the popcorn and enjoy!