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 about ageing and old age are deeply intertwined with ideas about happiness. Earlier predictions typically led to ageing - especially for women - being seen as an irreversible path to decline, loss of sexual desire and unhappiness. In recent decades, however, this narrative of decline has given way to an alternative and rosier picture of later life. While there is nothing wrong with wishing for a healthy and happy old age, the path to it is full of tips on how to discover the secret of eternal youth, and the upturn of the curve is reserved for a privileged group of people. Happiness becomes a duty, something we always have to be in a certain way.

The happy ageing woman is portrayed as one who shows no visible signs of ageing. Happiness is found in pots of anti-ageing cream and other cosmetic products that conceal, combat or prevent wrinkles and other physical signs of ageing. Those who are queer, have a disability or cannot keep up with the demands of anti-ageing are portrayed in the media as unhappy, depressed and miserable. Feelings of dissatisfaction expressed by older women are often categorised as ‘grumpiness’. In the media, older women are often portrayed as bitter, mean, complaining, and whiny. Their grumpiness is portrayed as a side effect of the ageing process.

Based on an analysis of various representations in films, television series, cartoons, digital platforms, photographs and embroidery, this article argues that being grumpy is not necessarily something to be avoided at all costs, but can also be part of a strategy of resistance by older women. In a context where there are so many norms governing their sexuality and sexual attractiveness, and where there is constant pressure to be happy in the ‘right way’, older women have every right to be grumpy. The study explores how being grumpy can be a way of speaking out about sexism, ageism and other inequalities. It includes examples from films such as ‘Hannah Free’, ‘69: Love, Sex, Senior’, ‘So I Was Silent’, online platforms of older women’s collectives 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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