On Saturday I watched Miss Americana, the new Taylor Swift documentary on Netflix. In it, Taylor bemoans, “We exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they are 35.” And yet, the next day, on Superbowl Sunday, there was 50-year old Jennifer Lopez putting on an exuberant half-time show, featuring complicated choreography, social messages, and sexy costumes.
To resolve these two truths, look no further than the sexist, ageist, racist criticism both JLo and the show’s co-star Shakira (age 43) received for their performances. Full disclosure, I was at first amongst the pearl-clutchers who tsk-tsk’d at the gyrating, crotch-grabbing, stripper pole dance moves, but after listening to and learning from others have since changed my tune (and deleted my outrage Tweet). Instead, I started thinking about the idea of reinvention in the context of age and societal expectations.
You can google either one of the superstars’ names plus the word “reinvention” and get pages of results. When you search for the more generic “women” and “reinvention” though, the results are ten-fold and skewed more toward JLo’s demographic—women fifty and older. So what is it about the cult of reinvention for midlife women? And what can any thirty-year-old, even Taylor Swift, possibly add to the conversation?
The standards for the way women should look, dress, sound, move, and feel are established for us. Okay, maybe by us too, but the point is there is this esoteric benchmark by which women are judged—by society at large, by each other, and by themselves—which is constantly evolving and impossible to meet.
We hear “get loud,” “lean in,” “be kind,” “don’t apologize,” “shatter the glass ceiling,” and “practice self-care,” and a thousand other affirmations all at once. Midlife women are urged that it is never to late to be what we should have been, and it’s our time to blossom. Just don’t blossom so much or in a way that might make us uncomfortable, okay?
“Women are constantly having to reinvent. Be new to us. Be young to us,” says Taylor. “Reinvent yourself, but only in a way that we find equally comforting but also a challenge for you.” (So that’s what a thirty-year old can add!) I’m confident that JLo was challenging herself on the Super Bowl stage, but how could she (I ask you, clutching my pearls) have the audacity to challenge us!?
I am in the middle of a reinvention of my own and while I haven’t attempted pole dancing, my choices are not always comforting to others. “A tattoo at your age?” or “You’re not retired, but you’re not working? I don’t get it.” or “When are you going to start making money from your writing?” To them I will reply by quoting JLo. In a short video, “How to Reinvent Yourself,” she puts it bluntly. “You’re here until you’re dead. So, you might as well do shit.”