Fifty is the new Fifty
As Nancy in 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande', Emma Thompson shows us that sexual freedom is our feminine right and body shame has no place in our life - at any age.
Yes, of course, it’s not all about the actors. But…Emma Thompson.
We live in a world obsessed with perfection and the physical trappings of youth, but Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, reminds us to pull our sexy underwear down in protest. This movie is a bold and liberating piece of art; every woman over fifty who watches it will sigh with relief. We have been sold a lie. We can be sexy and want sex at any age.
I’ll never forget a scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when Daisy meets up with her old lover for a nostalgic liaison. There is a poignant context; Benjamin was born an old man whose age decreases until he doesn’t exist anymore, while Daisy ages like the rest of us. They overlap in the middle of their lives for a bittersweet decade, but the audience prepares themselves for the inevitable. Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett, starts to feel the conditioning of her menopausal self while her lover is entering his twenties in reverse. I think casting Brad Pitt as Benjamin was genius for many reasons, but not least to illuminate the gender lens we apply to physical beauty and ageing.
We can see where this is going; Daisy is being set up to feel completely shit about herself, which plays out in the reunion scene. After the sex, Daisy retreats into the shadows to dress, and the look on her face says it all - shame has come for her as she hurries to cover her fifty-something-year-old body. Cate Blanchett did a brilliant job because I felt her shame as an audience member, but I also became aware of something foreboding. It was as though a dark truth was being revealed.
Post-fertility shame has been socialised, and women have been unwittingly enlisted in this. I watched a Lebanese film, Caramel, in 2007, which changed my understanding of being a woman. Desperate for acting fame, Jamale attends casting calls with a fierce determination bordering on desperation. In one scene, she stands at the front of the audition line and a woman behind her points out that she has ‘period’ blood on the back of her skirt. Jamale is embarrassed but pulls herself up to take her shot in front of the director. Later, after the audition, we find her sitting on the toilet applying more fake blood to a pad in her underwear.
She did what?! I was morbidly fascinated by the shocking glimpse it gave me of my potential future. Until that moment, I had taken my ‘preferred age group’ status for granted, and I suddenly wondered if I would hang on to it for dear life like Jamale was. It was agonisingly honest in portraying women subscribing to the concept that a woman’s worth and desirability are inextricably linked to active fertility.
Women’s studies the world over examine these themes relentlessly. Every female author that writes about menopause rarely leaves out the concept of post-menopausal invisibility. I prefer to use the term post-fertility because it more accurately describes what we’re reacting to as a culture, the same culture that has oppressed women for centuries. Interestingly, it is only us and a couple of species of whale that live beyond fertility (theorising around that is a whole other essay).
A reduction in libido is a well-documented menopausal symptom, BUT there is much more to it. Firstly, not many people feel like raunchy sex when their sex hormones are playing havoc with their sex organs (temporarily!) Secondly, I’d love for someone to describe it as a libido reset rather than a decline. Maybe, like Emma Thompson’s character, the sex up until now is underwhelming, and mortality phones to ask why we’ve settled for mediocrity. Third, fourth, and fifth…women realise they’ve got heaps of other shit they’d like to do. This stage in a woman’s life is liberating and has its own flavour of euphoria if we let it. Watching Emma Thompson on various talk shows promoting this movie, you can see she gets it. Her character Nancy finally got it, but I reckon Emma has always known.
Leo Grande, played by Daryl McCormack, is the other reason I loved this movie. He is a young, physically exquisite male sex worker or “sex-carer”, as I heard Emma Thompson describe this character. His role brings an important perspective to the film's conversation about deconstructing sexual expectations. He is seemingly devoid of sexual ageism and entirely comfortable with his own fluid desires and pursuits, including his choice of profession. Of course, he has some sad parts to his soul, but they’re not shame-related. In fact, they’re to do with choosing a shameless life, which his mother couldn’t accept.
I once attended a talk by an Australian physician, Dr Carole Hungerford, an anti-nuclear activist, among other esteemed titles. One of the stories she told was about going to talk to a group of male uranium miners to educate them on the planet-destroying perils of their quest. She made a comment during the storytelling that resonated in the same way as Jamale’s period faking had, “…I was pre-menopausal at the time, so I put on a nice pair of pants, to ensure I had their attention.” A spattering of slightly strained laughter followed, “it’s true,” she responded, “I’m going to write a book about it one day.”
I didn’t doubt this woman’s ability to write a book about it or to single-handedly save the planet, for that matter. What struck me was her blatant honesty about wielding fertility to achieve a desired outcome. The concept obviously plays out in mating dances across most species, including humans, but the end goal is usually sex or conception, and some might argue material gain. The intellectualising and conscious manipulation for ‘the greater good’ was another level of awareness for me. However, this discussion is not about ovulatory power but sexual freedom regardless of ovulation. Carole used what she knew to achieve what she wanted, for men to listen to her. A shallow anthropological norm backfired.
It is time for women to reclaim their birthright, and actresses like Emma Thompson are leading the way. We can choose to have a love affair with our bodies and move gracefully and sexily through our life stages, or we can subscribe to a ‘use-by-date’ mentality. In the movie's final scene, Emma’s character Nancy stands nude in front of a full-length mirror, and you sense a release. It is as though societal standards and expectations disappear, and she realises the full glory of her physical and sexual self. I love the human potential of acceptance, transcendence, and connection without boundaries that this movie teaches us. My response was one of intense emotional gratitude, and my faith in human evolution was briefly restored.
I could read your style of writing all day long Melissa! As for Emma, the movies on my list. And to "move gracefully and sexily through [my] life stages" on my radar. Thank you for being a beautiful woman M. Xo