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Middle Age

Beyond the Golden Girls: Telling Women’s Stories in Midlife

Updated June 27, 2024
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Although it’s been more than a decade since I turned 40, I still remember what it felt like in the waning days of being 39. I became achingly aware that, as far as the culture was concerned, the entire purpose of my life was starting to come into question. Specifically, my fuckability was ostensibly declining.

In the months before that milestone birthday, I would go around and whisper to myself, “I am a 40 year old woman.” It was an effort to get used to such a dizzying, culturally (and personally?) offensive idea. Back then, I was still a mother to a young child, so I still had some cultural purpose. In archetypal terms, I had ascended from maiden to mother.

But I didn’t know what the period between mother to crone was supposed to entail. So I’d whisper my refrain, sometimes with contempt, often with marvel, always with uncertainty.

Now I am 50, and I see my crone status firmly on the horizon. Surprisingly, my overriding feeling is…relief. Part of this has to do with the fact that being 49 was a little bit like getting 79 on an essay in school: incredibly annoying.

I either wanted to be 48, so I could still consider myself to be properly in my 40s, or to be 50, with the bandaid well and truly ripped off. Instead, 49 felt like purgatory, a hideous waiting room on the other side of which promised…what, exactly?

Being 49 felt like purgatory, a hideous waiting room on the other side of which promised…what, exactly?

But 50 feels like I’ve firmly arrived in a new kind of territory. Unquestionably past the mid-point of my life, there is a certainty about 50 I had not expected.

There is a permission, too, to go deeper into the out of fucks to give that’s been growing inside me over the past decade. A part of me feels excited, even, about getting closer to being a batty old lady who slips so far through the cultural cracks that she gets away with doing whatever the hell she wants.

Given what I know about midlife from popular culture—which is to say, almost nothing—I sure hope that’s the payoff on the other side of this growing invisibility.

A part of me feels excited about getting closer to being a batty old lady…who gets away with doing whatever the hell she wants…I sure hope that’s the payoff on the other side of this growing invisibility.

Which brings me to popular culture, and the profound lack of proper stories we have about midlife from women’s POV.

Quick question: 

When you think of a television show that showcases women living their best lives at 50+, what is the first thing you think of?

  • Golden Girls
  • Grace and Frankie
  • Sex and the City
  • Anything featuring Angela Bassett’s arms
  • Other

I have always loved the Golden Girls and I always will. But the fact that a TV show that stopped production over 30 years ago is STILL the bar for women’s midlife narratives reveals the absolute fucking DROUGHT of storytelling we are in when it comes women’s mid-life.

WHERE THE FUCK ARE OLDER WOMEN’S STORIES IN POPULAR CULTURE?!

Underlying the lack of older women’s stories simply points to a deeply fucked reality: women over 50 have very little cultural currency in our society.

Women over 50 have very little cultural currency…It is unclear what function we serve or what power we hold.

On a cultural level, it is unclear what function middle aged women serve or what power we hold. We are no longer sex objects, but we’re not yet grandmas. We dwell in the grey zone between Sex and the City and Grace and Frankie.

(Even those who are early grandmas get their cultural currency from being mothers and caretakers, not from their own lives or accomplishments. If you never become a grandma, you simply don’t have a defined function in our society.)

The result? Without much cultural currency, there is very little impetus to tell our stories.

A story takes a reader or viewer on a journey. But once you are done being a mother or a sex object, we don’t think you’re going on any journeys anymore.

If your life has no stories to offer the culture, you are of no cultural value.

A story takes a reader on a journey, but once you are done being a mother or a sex object, we don’t think you’re going on any journeys anymore. If your life has no stories to offer, you are of no cultural value. 

And yet! Most of us get to this age with more boldness and bravery than ever before. Is this not a recipe ripe with storytelling possibility? Midlife is a time when we feel intense longings to smash what we’ve created, leave the past behind, start our lives anew. Are there not countless “hero’s journeys” woven into older women’s lives?

The contrast between the rage and intensity so many women feel at this time of life and the paucity of stories about it is simply extraordinary. Think about it: there is vastly more storytelling in us at age 55 than age 25.

Are there not countless ‘hero’s journeys’ woven into older women’s lives?

So take this analysis as a clarion call, my fellow Gen X women. This dearth of stories about our lives is actually an opportunity. There are vast canyons of untold stories that other women our age are desperate to hear. There are experiences you have had that mirror so many other women’s, and we are dying to learn about them.

We need to hear your stories so that other 39- and 49- year old women can anticipate what to expect from this middle period of life.

And hey! We get to to be the ones to create meaning in mid-life. It’s something that goes well beyond magazine articles about being “50 and frisky!” or “maintaining life-long bone health.” This is the realm of the cultural and the spiritual, the space where our deepest questions are asked and played with.

Yes, our stories are unwritten. So consider this an invitation to write your own.