Age Before Beauty: Fear of ageing

Age Before Beauty: Fear of ageing
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Women, both old and young, attending the International Women’s Day (IWD) march in Sydney in 1980, talk about how they feel about getting old. Summary by Adrienne Parr.

In this clip Sarah Gibson talks to two older women and one younger woman attending the 1980 IWD march in Sydney. She asks the women about getting old and the differences between how men and women deal with ageing. Earlier in the film, conventional notions of femininity are discussed. The film points out that the conventionally feminine characteristics of ‘dependency, helplessness and being nice’ are held in common with conventional notions of the old. For young women, these are counterbalanced by sexual and procreative potential, making young women ‘useful’ to society. For older women there is no counterbalance.

The apprehensions about ageing, expressed by the women in the clip, are all about functioning as an older woman. They are not, however, about how they would function, but about how others would perceive them as functioning. The fear of being perceived as ‘old’ (and therefore useless) is exploited by what the film later refers to as the ‘youth industry’, into which category it would place the ‘creams’ the young woman in the clip talks about ‘plastering’ her face with. One of the aims of feminism was to eradicate the emphasis on physical appearance, to which women were subjected to a far greater degree than were men. One of the great disappointments of older feminists – and not so much a failure of feminism as a victory of the global market-based economy – is that today both women and men are subjected to an enormous emphasis on looks. However, Age Before Beauty was made some years before the first men’s moisturiser appeared on the department store shelves.


Age Before Beauty synopsis

Designed to provoke thought and discussion, Age Before Beauty examines the issues around ageing, as it relates to women. The film combines interviews with women (young and old), with observational footage and narration to cover topics like social perceptions of ageing, housing, health, sexuality and dignity. Along the way, it touches on the broader issue of the (then fledgling) industries surrounding the growing aged population – the aged care industry and the youth (or how to avoid ageing) industry.


Age Before Beauty curator's notes

Age Before Beauty was one of the first Australian documentaries to address the topic of ageing. With today’s increasing aged population, the ground it covers is familiar. This was by no means the case when the film was made. Prior to Age Before Beauty, Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert had made Size 10, which looked at women’s dissatisfaction with their own bodies. Age Before Beauty was a logical follow up. Although formally not one of the strongest of the films made collaboratively by the two under their Red Heart Pictures banner, Age Before Beauty is generically and politically an important inclusion in their body of work. One of their earliest projects, the film was made at a time when the two were still exploring ways in which they might work and survive as feminist filmmakers.

A confluence of factors in the 1960s and 70s saw a major shift in the ways documentaries were both produced and viewed. Social and political reform, thwarted for decades by the First and Second World Wars, the Depression and the Cold War, was long overdue. Among young people, an awareness of the power of mass communication was growing as media studies entered curricula in schools and universities alike. At the same time the means of producing media, in particular film and television, were becoming less expensive, more portable and more accessible. The union of political action and documentary filmmaking was a natural one. Like many young women filmmakers of their generation, Gibson and Lambert had been active in the Women’s Liberation movement. When they first picked up a camera, it was with a view to reaching an audience of women at a grassroots level. But while the Australian film industry was undergoing its renaissance in the 1970s, developments were very much feature film and drama driven. For documentaries, reaching an audience was as tough as it had ever been. And for Gibson and Lambert, who preferred to broach what at the time were taboo media subjects, it was even tougher.

Age Before Beauty, produced with the assistance of the Women’s Film Fund, was designed as a low-cost production which would reach its audience not via any type of broadcast media or general exhibition, but via screenings run by community organisations and groups. Where once only a few of these groups had owned 16mm projectors, many were now investing in the latest low-cost viewing formats of three-quarter and half inch video cassette. And many were beginning to use film and video on a regular basis as a resource, in conjunction with community workers or facilitators, to educate, raise awareness or provoke discussion. Age Before Beauty, with its narration by Queenie Ashton of Blue Hills fame (an extremely popular figure for the generation depicted), skillfully targeted its audience and cleverly identified what was to become a huge social issue for most of the western world. Not only was the film successful on these levels, but it was also part of a vanguard of short films that ushered in an era of educational media production in the decade that followed.

Notes by Adrienne Parr


Education Notes

This clip shows three women of different ages commenting on how they feel about ageing and whether society values older men more than older women. The interviews were conducted during the International Women’s Day march in Sydney in 1980. The responses of the women to ageing range from a concern about being 'a nuisance or embarrassment to my family’ to the fear that growing older will mean a loss of sexual attractiveness.

Educational value points

  • The clip provides examples of women’s attitudes toward ageing. While the documentary Age before Beauty was made in 1980 the fears expressed by these women about the ageing process are shared by many women today. Women in a 2003 British study on ageing all regarded ageing negatively because they felt it made them less attractive. The women associated this perceived loss of attractiveness with the invisibility of older women and a decrease in status and power.
  • Age before Beauty was one of the first Australian documentaries to tackle the subject of women and ageing. It challenges stereotypes of older women as either compliant or eccentrically disagreeable and suggests positive alternatives.
  • The issue of women’s ageing was made visible through the women’s liberation movement, which developed during the 'second wave’ feminist movement. The movement adopted the slogan 'The personal is political’, and women were encouraged to speak out publicly about issues such as health, body image, ageing, reproductive rights, sexuality and discrimination. In doing so, they pushed these issues onto the public agenda. In Australia, women were active in the movement from about 1969.
  • Age before Beauty is an example of the work of filmmakers Susan Lambert and Sarah Gibson. Lambert and Gibson were members of Feminist Film Workers, a group that formed in Sydney in 1978 and operated into the 1980s. They also made Ladies Rooms (1977), Size 10 (1978), Behind Closed Doors (1980), On Guard (1983) and Landslides (1986) and have since worked on separate projects in film and television.
  • Lambert and Gibson’s approach to filmmaking is illustrated by their description of their films as 'us[ing] the examination of issues of personal importance to explore larger issues – taking the personal to explore the political’. Age before Beauty uses interviews with, and the stories of, 'ordinary’ women to explore sociocultural constructions of femininity and, in particular, to highlight the way in which the media links youth and beauty with a feminine ideal to the exclusion of older women. The film also sets out to provide positive role models for older women.
  • Three thousand women attended the International Women’s Day (IWD) march in Sydney and the clip suggests that the Sydney march was successfully attracting grassroots support at that time. IWD grew out of protests by American and European socialist women in the early 1900s for suffrage and improved working conditions. In 1975 the United Nations officially recognised 8 March as IWD. Although the first Australian IWD rally took place in the Sydney Domain on 25 March 1928, rallies were generally small until the 1970s.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Red Heart Pictures
Susan Lambert
Sarah Gibson
Celeste Howden

This clip starts approximately 8 minutes into the documentary.

The International Women’s Day March in Sydney, 1980. Women, young and old, are casually marching down a city street with banners.
Sarah Gibson Do you think of yourself getting to 95?
Woman 1 Oh! I don’t think I want to get to 95.
Sarah Why not?
Woman 1 Oh, I’m just frightened I might slow up too much in the brain and get to be a bit of a…a nuisance or… an embarrassment to my family, or something like that.
Sarah How old are you now?
Woman 2 I’ll be 70 next February. I just turned 69.
Sarah Gibson And do you see yourself living to 95?
Woman 2 Oh, no!
Sarah And do you think it’s different for women, getting older, than men?
Woman 2 I think men seem to still have more interests than – women have more interests than men. I belong to a women’s group, a school for seniors, and it’s mostly women who go there, although it’s open to men and women.
Sarah How do you feel about getting older?
Woman 3 I’m frightened about it.
Sarah Are you? Why?
Woman 3 Because when you lose your looks, you lose your ability to track other people and women are always judged on how good looking they are.
Sarah Do you think it’s different for an older man than an older woman?
Woman 3 Oh, it’s much easier for an older man. It’s much easier for them to achieve dignity in age than it is for a woman.
Sarah So has that made you think about how you look when you’re older?
Woman 3 Oh well, I do all the normal things like plaster my face with creams and buy different ones every week.
Sarah Trying to stave it off?
Woman 3 Yeah.