Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Living in a (Bad) Fantasy World

I used to have a nightmare about growing older. I called it The Bag Lady Fantasy. I imagined – feared – that I’d spend my old age destitute, homeless, roaming the streets.

Way back when – in the ’70s, I think – Ms. Magazine did a survey on women and money. At the end, we could write in additional comments. I wrote about my Bag Lady Fantasy/Fear. When Ms. published the results, they were astonished at how many women had volunteered their fears of being a bag lady. There was no prompt for that; everyone just added it to the survey.

I could manage this fear by being financially responsible, saving for the future, holding a job. Ultimately, the fear dissipated. Was it after I performed the part of Trudy the bag lady in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe? Trudy was so wise and witty and sort of bonkers, but I really, really liked her. I wouldn’t mind being a Trudy … but I’d make sure I managed my financial resources.
But then I saw Hello, My Name Is Doris last night, and a whole new fear grew up: the fear of being pathetic – or viewed as pathetic. As the theater roared with laughter around us, my friend Robin and I were sliding lower and lower in our seats, pained with the characterization of Doris. (Not mind you, with Sally Field; she was truly extraordinary and brave and wonderful.)

Why did Doris have to be a cat lady, a hoarder, a garishly dressed and out-of-date woman? Doris had a job; she had a computer in her home. She had a loving circle of friends. We didn’t see this competent, capable, involved woman. No, we saw her reduced to stalking a younger man and totally humiliating herself. We see her dismissed as a dinosaur on the job.
My mother worked till she was 72. When we talked to her about retirement, she said, “Right now, I’m the head of a department. The day I retire, I’ll be a little old lady.” No matter how professional, upright, or honorable we might be, the world is ready to look at us as little old ladies. As Dorises.

For goodness sakes, I have orange hair! Am I practically a Doris already?

The AARP review is titled, “Sally Field Makes an Adorable ‘Doris.’” Adorable?!? Did they miss the portrayal of Doris as out-of-touch, eccentric, and shabby? Is “adorable” even the adjective we want for our Third Thirds? Doris was not adorable. Doris was every stereotype of an older woman: baffled by life, gullible, unfashionable, incompetent. Sorry, her big turnaround at the end doesn’t save the image of aging we’ve watched for the whole of the movie.

My Bag Lady Fantasy was a fantasy. It resided in my imagination. This new fantasy – the pathetic old lady – is not my imagination. It exists and lurks in the real world. People are ready to see older women that way. And to laugh at them. At me. At any of us.

The Pathetic Old Lady Fantasy is the stuff of nightmares.

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