Once upon a time, all of femininity was will-o’-the-wisp, flibbertigibbet, a bit of banter, a bit of blush-blush. Lasses, a slip of a thing, briskly taking care of nonsense as men went about making sense. These girls, who emerged giggling in large numbers from the male imagination, served as literary muse for ages. With life imitating art, women trained themselves to go googoo gaga when the occasion demanded. Their only weapon against the male baritone was to go to pieces with a tee-hee.
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tanuja in Jewel Thief. They gasped and grew giddy. Barbara Cartland heroines in their teens spoke mainly in stammer and ellipses while touching base with men pushing 40. ‘I… l… love… y… you…’ they said to the duke, earl or viscount concerned. Soon the prototype began to exhaust with the sameness—the ingénue debutante prattling away.
Needless to add, when the current crop of comely maidens had irrevocably aged and were matronly to the naked eye, there was no general consensus on what was to be done with them. It took a long time for them to figure out that you could make passes at girls who wear glasses, so they did not want to be in a hurry with this one; it was decided to grant them MILF status, a kind of visa to stick around after the party had ended.
Older women were either worshipped or put to pasture in kitchens or as nannies. Married women who managed to lust after non-husbands, like Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, were plain pervs. Just like widows were shunted out of sight to some holy city as a promotion from being burnt in husband’s pyre, society is still unsure how to tackle the excess womanhood, graying and thickening at the waist, spilling out of their beds and larders—too young to die, too old to darn a sock. A good daughter went on to be a good wife, a good mother, a good granny, and then an amiable corpse. If only a woman could convert herself to water vapour!
But suddenly there are women everywhere, of all ages, of all shapes and sizes, and they may be taking over the planet. No one saw this coming, not even the women. As alpha men nervously clutch their briefcases and passive-aggressive men rephrase their grunts, the male monologue has started to switch tracks. Clare Beams’ novel The Illness Lesson brings out a mysterious malaise that can strike younger women. In Sally Rooney’s story, Unread Messages, a male character defends the not-so-young woman. Kate Winslet’s Mare of Easttown celebrates the jiggly belly.
‘Crone’ is a dead word. Hags, nags and old bags are history. Now cover your ears, ‘middle-aged’ is about to self-combust.