Hags. The Demonisation of Middle Aged Women
Review of Victoria Smith’s book
By Maria Cernat
Victoria Smith has recently published a book with a very suggestive title: Hags: The Demonisation of Middle Aged Women. Deconstructing the old age of women, the author suggests we resist the temptation to demonize them. Understanding the mechanisms behind society's revulsion towards women over 40 is also essential to building a coherent feminist movement rooted in its progressive traditions.
I'll start the discussion at the most poignant point in the book. The author describes a small excerpt from a novel written by Emma Cline, The Girls (Cline 2016). Evie, the novel's protagonist, is asked to stay with some children in the absence of their parents. Evie is a middle-aged woman with a troubled past. She has to stay with her friend's boy, Julian. The boy is joined by his girlfriend Sasha and another friend, Zav. The woman tries to relate to the young Sasha, tries to get closer to her. But her maturity and experience don't serve her well. She's like a creature screaming from behind a thick pane of glass. She wants to warn Sasha, her younger version, she wants to warn her, to tell her that no, she must not give in to blackmail. What blackmail? Julien shares with his pal Zav that his girlfriend has issues with her own body and isn't too thrilled with her breasts. As a way of solving the problem, he suggests Sasha show Zav her breasts so that Zav can judge their value. Sasha doesn't react but is clearly overwhelmed by the situation. Evie, the older woman, tries to warn Sasha, but how could she? She's a saggy-breasted, sexually worthless old woman, an old woman no one would love carnally, she's a reject! Only envy would make her talk. Only her acrimony would make her resist the "natural" course of things, and only her villainy would stop Sasha from acting "freely" and "uninhibitedly"! No, not the experience and strength that comes with it would make her speak to Sasha like a younger sister. No, conservatism, terfism – that label turned insult –, swerfism – another filth that attaches itself to you when you dare to question "uninhibited sexuality" –, your disgusting old age makes you talk to her.
Here is the turning point, the key moment in the work where we can begin to understand why today's society hates "old ladies", that is older feminists who are opposed, who are not good, cool girls.
Victoria Smith wonders: what could Evie be doing other than rooting for the boys against Sasha to be the "cool girl". She's caught in a crucible of recent feminist history here. We're invited to behave as if society is free, as if we've earned all winnable rights, as if we're participating in our own sexual torture carried out according to pornography recipes of our own choosing, as if that's the path to liberation, as if only terf and swerf "grandma" villains keep us from reaching the heights of progress. In this context where we seem to be so free, but men still hold all the strings, the only way to earn our acceptable place is to be on their side! And that's what many feminists are doing. They would say to the girl: yes, Sasha, of course, give in to the blackmail whereby these boys only want to humiliate you and say that it's your desire and choice, that you want to break free; that's how you gain power, by humiliating yourself! So sings the chorus of the liberal women the author quotes – there are many names she refers to. Yes, dear young girls: pornography is great, prostitution is just another job, and men don't have to change anything. The only villains are the carnally unadorned, frigid old women who resist, out of too much envy, the tidal wave of pornography that teenagers are gorged on. Yes, only their swerfism and, of course, their disgusting saggy flesh fails to let them see what potential progress there is in prostitution. After all, it's common knowledge that every bank executive has sex work on their CV for experience, and it's always an alternative career path for surgeons, managers and other top employees. They are all seriously considering brothel work as an alternative career strategy. It's just so empowering, bringing power and freedom!
This paper is particularly important because it shows exactly what power dynamics make feminists into the allies of pimps and johns, when they advocate the "prostitution is work" nonsense. They, if they don't comply, risk, like our character Evie, being shunned, marginalized, hooted at. So they're cool girls and they support the kind of discourse that fits the male interests, lest they be sour, frigid old ladies! The value of the book lies in this excellent analysis of the power mechanisms that have turned the feminist movement into a trinket hanging from the keys of the patriarchal prison that subjugates millions of women in the sex industry.
Empathy for younger girls is in fact envy of their firm breasts; the desire to pass on the knowledge they have acquired is a desire for domination, classism, bourgeois white privilege, a desire for exclusion. And in this sinister production, those singing louder than anyone are the "feminists" who are, of course, on the right side of history. Feminists who aren't the much-mocked "Karen" character on social media. A vile white bitch. A privileged one who needs to be shut up.
In the eight chapters, the author describes how the old lady is attacked and detested. Curiously you become an old hag very quickly, around 35. If you have children, too, you are likely to fit the label of "old hag" even sooner. In the first chapter, "The Ugly Old Lady", Victoria Smith discusses how women's old age is infinitely more unkind with the gift of urgently expelling women from the ranks of beings it makes sense to talk to (Smith 2023, 32).
The author states flatly that she does not wish to write a pro-aging guide to make aging a new identity worthy of celebration. “Old woman” is an insult in the eyes of man. It is well known that women exist to give him pleasure, as Sheilla Jeffeys (Jeffreys 2005) analyzes well. The moment her flesh degrades, she is no longer of any use. Outward appearance, says the author, "situates us in relation to everyone else and establishes our position in the market hierarchy determined by the three Fs (fertility, femininity, fuckability)" (Jeffreys 2005, 33). The author insists that the ritual of vanity must be obediently performed even after you have grown old because you have to show that you still care. If we watch the "Bravo, you've got style" profile shows, for example, we see how the new beauty gurus, these aesthetic cherry-pickers, such as Cătălin Botezatu and other stars, denounce the lack of interest in beauty practices. It's not ugliness as a natural given that is angrily condemned, but negligence, the fact that you don't strive to be beautiful. That is unforgivable. You have to invest, but not too much. If the investment crosses a certain threshold, as was the case recently with Madonna with her plastic surgery, then here comes the same aesthetics police again, this time to throw anathema. An old lady has to know her place and try hard, but not too hard.
Despite what we might think, Victoria Smith's writing is by no means dull and 'sour'. It's even cute and playful in style. In the chapter "The Ugly Old Lady" she invokes a very personal episode of sad awareness which she treats with a fair amount of self-irony. Go and see the latest screen version of the famous story "Snow White". It's when she realizes that she herself has become... a stepmother. There are a number of books that deal with the feeling of aging from a feminist perspective. She cites Elissa Melamed Mirror's Mirror: The Terror of Not Being Young (Melamed 1983) and Sheilla Jeffreys 'Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West (Jeffreys 1997) to detail how beauty acts as a social dividing filter, a badge of admission.
And things are no better in the progressive camp. Julie Bindel recalls a sinister 2018 episode in which a group of lesbian women demanded better representation at Pride events, only to be met with lines like: they should be dragged by their saggy boobs! (Smith 2023, 39). More curious is how in the take-no-prisoners progressive camp, concern about sex is seen as essentialist, biologizing and retrograde. And yet saggy breasts are likely to cause real dramas in which revulsion is matched only by the avidity with which they are denounced online.
Another very important observation concerns the peculiar way in which older women are ridiculed. Often patriarchy in general and misogynistic men in particular need a pool of detestable women on whom to pour all their hatred. If a woman has politically incorrect views, then no joke about her is too misogynistic. I myself was the subject of a cartoon "meme" by a self-identified female male in which I appeared with my head cut off between a woman's legs. As soon as you step out of line, all misogynistic vitriol is justified by progressives. Margaret Thatcher, with whom I share no ideas and whom I hold responsible for catastrophic policies not just for Britain but for Europe in general, is burned at the pillar of infamy like a witch. Max Blumenthal says of Victoria Nuland – another politician who holds herself responsible for catastrophic interventions, including in Ukraine – that she should sit in his bedroom in a pose for when she takes too much Viagra. This misogynistic venom is directed at older women who politically tread crookedly. It's important that our society always has a supply of abusive women towards whom no malice is too much. And more often than not, the pool of abusable women is made up of... old ladies! The ones who say "no!", the ones who have ideas we don't like. Like I said, the progressive camp has proven extremely creative and resourceful when it comes to secreting the purest misogynistic venom to women who challenge the pro-trans, pro-sex work canon. J. K. Rowling says she received so many death threats after writing a benign piece about domestic violence and the terminology we refer to women that she could have wallpapered her entire house with them. Recently, a women's rights activist, Posie Parker, was branded a "Nazi" by the mainstream media in New Zealand and had to be removed at a public event from the crowd of angry men threatening her life by claiming she was the danger! ("Posie Parker attacked by trans activists: 'They turn to violence because silencing didn't work'" 2023). What's more, the activists gloriously announce that this is the way forward.
The reality of a woman's body is never more apparent than in middle age. The author says what most of us women have experienced: all our adolescence we have been running away from ourselves, our bodies and especially our shameful becoming. Of motherhood as a place for bleeding, breastfeeding, addiction. There is a terrible hypocrisy in our society that supposedly supports motherhood. And yet, women learn from an early age to hate themselves and to hate this hypostasis of dependency.
Naturally, don't blame them and don't blame the singer who recently dared to rebel against this codependent state that is motherhood. In the chapter "Beastly hag", Victoria Smith again attacks, with the same courage, the subject of motherhood as a place of weakness, pain, decay. How can women love the idea of motherhood in a society in which the individual, alone and self-effacing, separates himself from the community and manages to boldly make his way along the path of progress? Even feminism wants abortion and autonomy more than anything, because motherhood is that painful and shameful experience in which you depend, bleed, suffer and... love. As long as we sing odes to individualism, no wonder women run away from motherhood. Who wants to sacrifice today, who wants to give up a big party to hang out with a crying baby? And why should only women sacrifice? On this consumerist-narcissistic path where selfishness borders on sociopathy, we will mold women who want to be single, young and daring. And we'll cleanse ourselves in a generation if they stop having babies. And why would they? To see themselves alone, scorned for their scabby, milk-filled breasts, for their accumulated fat, for their embarrassing preoccupations with the baby's welfare, marginalized, reviled and considered stupid for simply giving birth to a child? Much of today's feminism is ultra-individualistic and does not aim to socially recodify motherhood, but to provide women with strategies to escape motherhood. So mothers find themselves abandoned even by those who should be championing their causes. Feminist activists are often very young people who repudiate old age and accept older women only insofar as they support causes that do not threaten the liberal ideal of progress. The author brings up all these themes and fears of motherhood as a place of dependency and of mothers as beings who must be 'good' and 'behave'. Naturally, a whole economy of unpaid domestic labour underpins the public economy, the economy we recognise as an economy. The solution would not be to bring unpaid labour into the capitalist circuit (Marçal 2016), but to take labour itself out of the circuit of competitive profit production (Azmanova 2020). The author does not discuss these issues, but explains that motherhood is that place where individualism cannot arise without dramatic consequences. She insists that women and feminism have always wanted to separate females from their reproductive abilities precisely because they were reduced to these abilities for so long. Now, however, they find themselves in the position where they have ignored their own bodies for fear of being reduced to them, only to now see their erased bodies as simply "real".
It is interesting that Elly Schlein, the leader of the Italian opposition, says "we are not walking udders, we are people with rights". Yes, but it is equally true that the progressive camp calls women "womb holders" (Financial Times 2023). So? Perhaps the answer comes from Julie Bindel, quoted by Victoria Smith: "We have long tried to shy away from emphasizing the biological differences between men and women for fear of being seen as inferior. (...) We have fallen victim to a patriarchal mob-like protection that, in exchange for the right to be seen as something other than walking wolves, has taken away our right to define ourselves by our gender" (Bindel 2021).
In chapter five of "The Frigid Old Lady," Victoria Smith points out that there is a difference between being right and being glorious. Many feminists have pointed out, for example, that there is a great danger about the safety of children and that progressivism can mean, as Louise Perry put it, that you are releasing the minnows as well as the sharks into the same pond. Feminist old ladies have always pointed out that we need to ask ourselves who benefits from unconditional support for sexual liberation for everyone. Because in this liberation race we don't start from equal positions (Perry 2022). She brings up the fact that it has always been feminists who have drawn attention to the pedophile potential of big celebrities, only to be seen as silly, unloved old ladies. Famous is the case of "old lady" Denise Bombardier, a journalist who had the courage to denounce pedophile Gabriel Matzneff, despite the fact that at the time great gurus of cultural life such as Michel Foucault, Jean Paul Sartre and even Simone de Beauvoir were campaigning for the right of children to sexual liberation. In a progressive climate that was very lenient towards pedophilia, Denise Bombardier was burned at the progressive stake as a frigid and frustrated old woman. One of the victims of the horrific abuse, Vanessa Springora, has detailed point by point how the whole of society contributed to this horror in an extremely powerful book-testimony that has also paved the way for the investigation of the monster dressed in the glittering clothes of literary genius (Springora 2020). Victoria Smith calls into question the way in which 'old ladies' have always warned of the danger of pedophilia, only to find themselves sent to the corner by progressives who know better and have nothing but contempt and loathing for them. The author also insists that they are more often than not proved right, but we seem to learn nothing from this lesson.
What's more: not only do we not learn, but a network like Mumsnet that was supposed to be just another place for corporations to shove products down the throats of mums, pretending to provide an online space for dialogue, becomes a place where grannies conspire, as we learn from the chapter "Conspiratorial grannies". The author examines the ways in which progressives stifle Mumsnet 'grannies': they consider their concerns trivial and embarrassing, they consider them incapable of thinking for themselves, vehicles for conservatism, vile and dangerous. Today, as in the witch-burning days, older women who talk outside the mainstream are weak and stupid, but also evil and powerful. However, the author notes that today, more than ever, mothers need support– but admitting you need it sends you to the conservative sucker's bench. Motherhood is just another identity you've assumed and you have to deal with it on your own. There's nothing about class and politics here. A very interesting point about lack of autonomy and initiative is brought up by the author when she talks about the women who campaigned for peace in Britain in 1981 by setting up camp at Greenham Common in Yorkshire. The camp was set up after a feminist peace organization arrived there to protest against the fact that the storage of cruise missiles had just been approved there. They were portrayed as sexually frustrated women paid off by the Soviet Union. Pro-Russian conspiracy bimbos! The author draws parallels with the accusations against the Mumsnet mothers in terms of lack of autonomy and self-determination.
The book is written in a very condensed style and full of references. It is a dense book rich in valuable ideas. In conclusion, I can't help but notice how concepts like "individual choice", "agency" and "empowerment" only work when women accept pornography, prostitution and the degrading sexual acts it promotes. If women say "yes" to strangling, beating and maiming during sex, then they choose freely! If she organizes a group for mothers, if she protests against the war, well, then she's a conspiracy-minded Russian-agent, mindless brainwashed old woman!
Azmanova, Albena. 2020. Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis Or Utopia. N.p.: Columbia University Press.
Bindel, Julie. 2021. Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. N.p.: Little, Brown Book Group.
Financial Times. 2023. "Letter: Schlein's not a mother, but no less a woman for that." March 16, 2023. https://www.ft.com/content/80166304-8e37-43b4-baae-2a7ddd7c862e.
Jeffreys, Sheila. 1997. The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930. London: Spinifex.
Jeffreys, Sheila. 2005. Beauty and misogyny: harmful cultural practices in the West. Melbourne: Routledge.
Marçal, Katrine. 2016.Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics. Translated by Saskia Vogel. N.p.: Pegasus Books LLC.
Melamed, Elissa. 1983. Mirror, Mirror: The Terror of Not Being Young. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Perry, Louise. 2022. The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. N.p.: Wiley.
"Posie Parker attacked by trans activists: 'They turn to violence because silencing didn't work.'" 2023. YouTube.
Smith, Victoria. 2023. Hags: 'Eloquent, Clever and Devastating' The Times. London: Little, Brown Book Group.
Springora, Vanessa. 2020. consent. Iasi: Polirom.
This article was originally published in Romanian in the journal Anthropos, here.
Maria Cernat graduated from the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) (2001) and from the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Bucharest (2004). In 2002 she graduated from the master's program at FJSC. Since 2008 she has a PhD in Philosophy. She is currently a lecturer at Titu Maiorescu University, Department of Communication, Foreign Languages and Public Relations and associate professor at SNSPA, Faculty of Communication and Public Relations. Since 2011 she is author of articles published on political debate websites (CriticAtac.ro, Ce Outra Agendă, România Curată, Gazeta de Artă Politică, etc.).