Did Tom Junod have any idea of the shit storm he’d provoke when he wrote his love letter to the slightly older female? He delivered it like roses, like a knight rescuing the formerly middle-aged woman from ignominy. He even gave a nod to feminism for empowering the object of his lust. Somewhere, there is a 42-year-old woman who read those words and felt the embrace of acceptance fall over her sculpted shoulders like a fresh blowout. Maybe it helped push her through her hundredth Pilates Hundred. Maybe there are thousands of these women clinking glasses of rosé in triumph. But I have not seen them sharing this article on Facebook with smiley emojis. What I’ve seen has been the entire internet rolling its eyes in unison.
Men’s magazines are built on the premise of man as subject, and woman as object. We can (and should) rail against this all we like, but these are old brands with no vested interest in making radical change. Women in Esquire are not supposed to be people, they’re supposed to be sexy. This is wrong. But lots of magazines are built on selling people wrongness. It’s been established that Junod’s backhanded compliments were irksome and sexist and probably the last thing actual 42-year-old women need. What I’m more interested in than his flubby endorsement is what’s actually going on with women in their 40s. Is there in fact a new relationship to women this age as sex objects? It’s not just Tom saying so: Junod’s was one of two stories in Esquire exploring the new lust for grown-ups. The other was Stephen Marche’s take-down of the term MILF, with which I largely agree. Baby-making excepted, I believe in keeping the M and F concepts as far apart as possible.
If you buy the theory that the need to spread seed inspires male sex drive, we have the creep of fertility to thank. The hormonal swan song can manifest as increased libido (which speaks to the “sexual prime” myth). But there may be factors that are less sexual than situational. The fetish favors women who have crossed children off their list, whether or not they have any. So … no pressure! And less worry about getting a woman pregnant when she’s past her reproductive prime — which can come in handy in an age of uterine warfare.
Do not let old, reality-based ideas of aging lead your mind astray here. The women Junod taps with his magic wand of fuckability are not the gray haired, saggy titted women of Older Ladies. They are the balyaged and discreetly injected Housewives of East Hampton. They are celebrities, or women who look like them. This is not a widening of the scope of the ideal. It is a widening of the funnel that fits women into it. It is not about learning to love (or accept) the flaws of age, but about the ability of 42 year olds to mimic young women’s bodies through science, hard work and “sheer will.” And don’t forget feminism. Even the right to continued objectification is considered a win compared to the crone’s life that lies beyond.
Is this progress? A woman is no longer considered pathetic simply because of the number of years she has lived. She is only considered pathetic if she fails to convincingly assume the shape of a woman who’s lived a decade less. With time, money, genes, and good taste, she can be rewarded with an extension of her one note symphony. She can still be desired.
When sexual value is paramount, it’s no wonder women are so desperate to hang onto it. But a woman in her 40s is not defined by her desirability (if she is, she’s on a sad road, indeed). Even if Esquire wasn’t willing to sanction their appeal before, reports of the previously tragic state of 42 year olds are greatly exaggerated. Dustin Hoffman’s character wasn’t filled with self-loathing because he was having sex with a woman who happened to be old. He was filled with self-loathing because he was having sex with the mother of the woman he loved. (The fact that Junod has this confused makes me a little worried about his psychological well-being.) But where Junod’s piece makes a questionable case for the 42 year old as a newly discovered jewel, Stephen Marche just states the obvious: despite cultural norms, women can be attractive at any age, and at any reproductive status. Special nomenclature is not required.
So yes, we can dispense with the MILF, please. Cougar too. The predatory association may seem powerful, but take it from Tom: What makes a woman attractive isn’t her strength, it’s her vulnerability. (Roar.) He’s wrong. What makes 42 year old women sexy is not their weaknesses, or the predictability of the yogic physiques under their sundresses. It is that they are women who know too much to give much of a shit what men like Tom Junod think of them.
Rebecca Odes (@rebeccaodes) is the co-founder of Wifey. Way before that, she cofounded gURL.com, the first major internet site for teenage girls and a proto-social network.
Photo: One of the objects of Junod’s desire, Sofia Vergara. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)