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While on the set of HBO’s Getting On, I watched as an 87-year-old actor undid his buckle getting ready for his sex scene with one of the elderly women who resides in our fictional Billy Barnes Extended Care Facility. I watched in awe as these seasoned professionals got busy. Why was I riveted? After all, it’s not that unusual to see a man in his golden years having sex on TV or in the movies. It’s just that we’re used to seeing him give it to a woman half his age. Bogart gave it to Bacall, Connery gave it to Zeta-Jones, and Allen gave it to his de facto stepdaughter (still does).
But to show a woman in her 80s as a sexually active being is a big, fat, dry vaginal taboo. Even with Hillary Clinton inches from the White House, women are still up against age-old ideals of how and when we should properly delight the senses. I recently read a review of Sarah Silverman’s latest offering, the hilarious We Are Miracles, and found myself not at all surprised to be reading less a review, more a lecture, from a man on how a woman should act in public. To summarize his “review”: A woman should behave like a lady.
That said, I noticed that the older actresses on the Getting On set, as well as the real patients in the many nursing homes that I visited while doing research for this project, seemed to enjoy the freedom afforded them by their age. For many of the women I met in the nursing homes, it seemed that “senility” and being “combative” weren’t necessarily maladies, but badges of hard-earned freedom. Gone were the sexual mores of the ’40s. Gone were the rules of etiquette that suffocated women in the ’50s. Gone were the “ladies.” Such a wonderful state of reckless abandon seemed to be alive in these women.
Which led me to ponder some interesting thoughts: Is diagnosed depression in elderly women really just a woman who is finally able to abandon her annoying role as family cheerleader and seeker of the silver lining? Perhaps dementia is really just a woman no longer having to keep a goddamn schedule and stay on top of everyone’s names and birthdays. Maybe senility is just a woman trying to forget most of the unpleasant shit she had to deal with for most of her life?
Old age is starting to look a little better, huh? Many of the actresses on Getting On are in their 80s, and their performances reflect the freedom that their years have given them. These women, most of them born in the 1930s, spent a great part of their lives being told how to speak (and when not to) and how to look (so as not to be looked down upon). Is it a coincidence that also born in the 1930s was the infamous Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code, or as I like to call it, The-Uptight-White-Guy-Who-Probably-Never-Went-Down-on-His-Wife-Code)? The code basically threw a big wet blanket on everything and everyone in the media, in particular, women. No longer allowed to f— onscreen, women had to settle for “losing their virtue,” “being taken” or “making love.” This inane piece of puritanical bullshit also led to specific onscreen depictions of a lady of divorce; she was invariably portrayed as miserable, bitter and busy atoning for her sins (because it must have been something she did that led a man to leave her, right?). And for f—‘s sake, a woman on the f—ing screen was definitely not a lady if she used foul f—ing language. She was either a woman of loose morals feigning power, or a flat-shoed lesbian. Or both.
Once this ridiculous code fell by the wayside in the ’60s, there was a kickback that brought us some heavy-handed woman-as-hero characters: women who could turn the world on with their smiles, strong women, perfect women who could do it all. From an almost naked Wonder Woman to the Bionic Woman, to Xena who was both Warrior and Princess, to perhaps the most unreal of them all, Clair Huxtable, a full-time partner in a law firm who still had time to bake and sing with her five children every day. While finally released from the prison of being a damsel in distress, these new characters were still skewed visions of how a woman should look and behave.
Thanks in large part to the success of movies like Bridesmaids and TV shows helmed by and starring women (Girls, Weeds, 30 Rock, The Mindy Project, Veep), we seem finally to be on our way to throwing off our heels and capes, and allowing ourselves to be broads, dames, girls and bitches. I’m excited to be part of what feels like a great renaissance of female characters. Real, unpolished, flawed and ugly characters who might respond to someone calling them out for not being a lady with a middle finger and a belch.
Alex Borstein, who wrote and produced on Showtime’s Shameless, voices the part of Lois Griffin on Fox’s Family Guy and co-stars in HBO’s new series Getting On, airing Sundays at 10 p.m.
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