Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women by Victoria Smith review

·5-min read

In the US comic Amy Schumer’s sketch Last Fuckable Day, Schumer is out walking when she comes across a picnic. There, three actors – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette – are celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’s last day of being “believably fuckable” in the eyes of the entertainment industry. “If you shoot a sex scene the night before your birthday everyone’s, like, ‘Hurry up, hurry up, we’ve got to get it before midnight’ because they think your vagina is going to turn into a hermit crab’,” Fey tells Schumer.

I kept thinking of this while reading Hags, Victoria Smith’s account of the way older women are treated by a society that deems them unsightly and past their sell-by date. In discussing the precedents and structures behind this unholy collision of ageism and misogyny, the book draws on Snow White, the Malleus Maleficarum (a German treatise on witchcraft), Fatal Attraction (featuring Glenn Close’s fabled “bunny boiler”) plus the work of feminist theorists and campaigners such as Andrea Dworkin, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem. From “Karens” (the entitled middle-aged complainers demanding to see the manager) to witches (read: sexless, embittered, ugly), Smith examines the thriving stereotypes used to sideline and vilify older women, often by young people who call themselves feminists. She recalls the New Yorker cartoon depicting a Puritan delivering a speech as a woman is about to be burned as a witch. “Let me start by saying no one is a bigger feminist than me,” he says.

Like me, Smith is in her 40s and came of age in the 1990s, when notions of female equality and empowerment were watered-down, commodified and draped in irony. It took until the early 2010s for high-profile women to be able to publicly embrace feminism without being derided as killjoys, misandrists, or both. But, in recent years, our view of feminism, what it means, who it is for and how it should conduct itself has become fractured and, as Smith tells it, battle lines have been drawn: on one side, Gen X women who say their sex is inextricably connected to their biology, who want to preserve single-sex spaces and who find themselves denigrated as Terfs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists); on the other, the younger smashers of the gender binary who believe a person’s sex is unimportant and who, Smith maintains, cannot accept that one day they will be middle-aged and have to deal with this crap too.

Of course, the story on both sides is complex and, to readers not au fait with the intricacies of gender politics, or who don’t spend their downtime scrolling through Twitter to keep up with the latest permutations of the culture wars, some of this might seem bewildering. Nonetheless, Smith puts forward a grimly compelling portrait of the middle-aged woman as unfairly maligned, punished first by patriarchal systems that have sought to keep her in place and now by a new generation high on righteousness and determined to be “on the right side of history”. She observes the disgust for women’s menopausal bodies, seen in the money-spinning industry devoted to treating “that terrible sickness, growing old while female”, and an exasperation at their perceived lack of productivity, which of course doesn’t take into account that, along with holding down jobs, many are simultaneously caring for children and ailing parents.

Smith also notes the disregard for older women’s wisdom accrued from moving through the world and navigating the many obstacles in their path, which is often seen as at odds with the more enlightened values of younger people. For instance, a middle-aged woman might reasonably express reservations at the notion that hair-pulling and choking by a man during sex signifies liberation, on account of her 40 or so years watching the goalposts being shifted around sex and sexual abuse for the gratification of men.

What Smith describes goes beyond what one might fairly expect from a younger cohort keen to reject the values of their parents to define their own. The vitriol is alarming. But Hags’s us v them narrative doesn’t always allow for viewpoints that sit in between. For instance, what of us fortysomething women who acknowledge the ways biology has affected our lives but who don’t feel erased by hospital literature addressing “women and birthing people”? Those whose hearts break for the trans people whose existence is endlessly debated, and often cruelly framed, in the media? With grey hair surely comes an increased awareness of the grey areas. It feels odd, too, to find the author applauding Ricky Gervais’s account of the tension between trans activists and feminists over bathrooms for capturing “the manifestation of misogyny that is real” in his Netflix special SuperNature, while overlooking, in the same show, his jokes about trans women and their genitalia.

Smith’s book deftly illustrates how ageist misogyny remains an acceptable prejudice and, in laying out the ignominies visited upon middle-aged women, feels justifiably livid. But in emphasising the battle as a generational one based on clashing ideologies, there is a danger of taking the spotlight off women’s biggest and most powerful oppressors: men.

Hags: The Demonisation of Middle-Aged Women by Victoria Smith is published by Fleet (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.