Are middle-aged women ‘invisible’? And if they are, what are the benefits and detriments? Using funding from the Art Council, three Yorkshire artists started from this premise to create an exhibition of artworks based on conversations with women over 50, which will launch this Friday in Bradford.
The lady vanishes at menopause?
In 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called The Lady Vanishes, which relies on the perceived invisibility of middle-aged women to underpin a spy mystery. The premise for this concept is that once women enter the pre-menopausal stage of their lives, they lose their place in the centre of the male gaze. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf comments, “often now this body she wore … with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown”.
However, in the same manner as Hitchcock’s spy, women can use this invisibility to their own advantage. For example, in the recent historical movie Being the Ricardos, Lucille Ball visits the head of her film studio following excellent reviews in her first Hollywood movie starring role. She expects to be offered another top-of-the-bill part, but is in fact told that she is too old at 38 to expect to be offered female leading roles anymore. In the ensuing argument, she is advised to seek out roles on the radio.
After her initial hurt and anger abate, she does just this, scoring a huge success in the starring role of housewife Liz Cooper in My Favourite Husband. In 1951, the show’s format was translated into the television show I Love Lucy, which attracted 16 million US viewers per episode between 1953 and 1956. It became the most watched show of the decade, both in the US and via international syndicate.
Invisibility as an asset … with a price
However, while Lucille Ball became the world’s first television superstar in I Love Lucy, the stereotypes purveyed within it are quite shocking for 21st century television viewers. Her character is portrayed as a competent and devoted wife and mother inside the home, but as highly (and comically) inept when she ventures outside. Consequently, at the end of each episode, she typically retreats into domestic ‘invisibility’ again – to the relief of her husband, family and friends.
And sadly, not much has changed for female actors in the 21st century. In 2018, actor Nicky Clark launched the ‘Acting your Age’ campaign, which seeks to question a culture in which male actors can maintain their mainstream career for two full decades longer than female actors, who are likely to get dropped from leading roles during their late 30s, just as Ball was in a pre-feminist world.
Female stars who manage to defy this culture typically make increasingly desperate attempts to curate a youthful image, as most recently demonstrated by Madonna’s highly airbrushed Instagram pictures. Her response to criticism was characteristically pithy.
So, 70 years after I Love Lucy made the home-based, domesticated woman an icon, there may be a wider range of ways for middle-aged women to manage their ‘invisibility’ in innovative ways in the public arena, such as in politics or in business – though the ‘mum’ stereotype is never far away (see, for example, the ways in which Margaret Thatcher and Jacinda Arden are presented). Sandy Toksvig once reflected:
And there is still a huge pressure for entertainers who work in the public (male-focused) gaze to maintain a youthful appearance. This highlights the many unaddressed gender equality questions that remain for contemporary and future generations.
Investigating the questions
One of the most recent attempts to raise the profile of this dichotomous debate will be on show this month in the heart of Yorkshire. Three Yorkshire artists received funding from the Art Council to create artworks based on conversations they had with women over 50 who came to six drop-in workshops held at Oastler Market in Bradford city centre.
The artists, Ruth, Vic and Helena say:
“We are three grandmothers who wanted to explore the subject of ageing and invisibility. The artwork that will be displayed in our exhibition was completed in twenty days and is dedicated to all the amazing older women we worked with who showed their lives to be colourful, interesting and extremely valuable. We heard stories, made art, swapped advice and recipes, laughed a lot and listened to the concerns and positive things in the women’s lives today.”
The artwork celebrates the wisdom, experience, knowledge and strength of older women. It is a mixture of print and collage that draws heavily on recycled materials. When one of the artists told her grandson what she was doing at the workshop he said, “wow, invisibility is a superpower”, which gave the group the title for their exhibition.
It will be held in the Trapezium Gallery in Bradford between 5 and 26 March, with the launch event on Friday 4 March between 6 and 8pm.