Sara De Vuyst on grumpy old women

Creating a patchwork of unruliness

In ‘Creating a patchwork of unruliness: The grumpy old woman as affect alien’, Sara De Vuyst explores how ideas on ageing and old age are deeply entangled with ideas on happiness. Previous predictions commonly resulted in a slippery slope in which ageing is – especially for women – seen as an irreversible trajectory to decay, loss of sexual desire, and unhappiness. However, in the last few decades, this narrative of decline is making place for an alternatively formed and more rosy picture of later life. Even if there is nothing wrong with wishing for a healthy and happy old age, the road to this haven is overflowing with tips on how to discover the secret of eternal youth and the upswing of the curve is reserved for a privileged group of people. Happiness becomes a duty, something that we have to be all the time, in a particular way.

The happy ageing woman is represented as a woman who does not show any visible signs of ageing. Happiness is found in pots of anti-ageing cream and other cosmetic products that conceal, counter or prevent wrinkles and other physical signs of ageing. Those who are queer, disabled, or cannot keep up with the demands of anti-ageing are portrayed in media as unhappy, depressed and miserable. Feelings of unhappiness expressed by older women are often categorised as “grumpiness”. Media representations often depict older women as bitter, mean, complaining, grumpy, and whiny. Their grumpiness is positioned as a side effect of the ageing process.

Based on an analysis of different representations in films, television series, cartoons, digital platforms, photography and embroidery, this article argues that grumpiness should not necessarily be something to be avoided at all costs but can also be a part of a strategy for resistance of older women. In a context where there are so many norms regulating their sexuality and sexual desirability and there is a constant pressure to be happy in ‘the right way’, older women have every right to be grumpy. The study explores how grumpiness can be a way of speaking up about sexism, ageism and other inequalities. It contains examples of films such as ‘Hannah Free’, ‘69: Love, Sex, Senior’, ‘So I was silent’, online platforms of collectives of older women such as Omas gegen Rechts, the Raging Grannies and profanity embroidery groups.

De Vuyst S (2021), Creating a patchwork of unruliness: The grumpy old woman as affect alien. International Journal of Cultural Studies. September 2021. doi:10.1177/13678779211041378
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