Significant messages hidden beneath the hilarity and stereotypical extremist portrayal of women and aging in the film “Death Becomes Her”

Western “contemporary standards for female beauty dictate slenderness/thinness, youth, whiteness, upper class status (in that one must be able to spend considerable amounts to adhere to beauty standards) and [exhibit] no noticeable physical imperfections or disabilities.”(Dillaway P. 4) 

The movie, Death Becomes Her is a dark comedy released in 1992 that spoofs the western concept of ageism, body concealment and discourses of loss and decline.  The film revolves around the lives of the two predominant female characters in the film: Madeline Ashton, (an actress) played by Meryl Streep and Helen Sharp (a writer), played by Goldie Hawn – two upper class, white women who are growing older, the distress they feel about getting older and their desperation for eternal youth at any cost.  These two characters have been lifelong ‘friends’– in the sense that while they have been  in each other’s lives since childhood, their relationship is steeped in a long history of jealousy, rivalry, competition and obsessive one-upmanship.

This film takes to the extreme, every conceivable stereotypical issue that a western woman could have as set out by western society, amplifying them to the point of hilarity.  Obsessions with one’s appearance – the desire to remain young, beautiful and sexually appealing, jealousy and competition between women in regards to male partners, life circumstances, successes, etc…, and how women will often ‘hold grudges’, and occasionally engage in ‘cat-fights’ over these issues.  And additionally, how women will viciously verbally attack each other, under the passive-aggressive pretext of friendliness and reverse compliments, in order to “assault [each other’s] self esteem” (Dillaway P. 5) by use of cutting remarks about weight/physical appearance, social status, employment status, etc…  The film and the female characters in it spoof the antiquated western impression that this is just the way that women naturally are, for example when Helen berates Madeline for her home wrecking, man-eating ways , she says what can you expect?… “after all, she is a WOMAN!” (Zemeckis 1993) 

So, while all these stereotypical issues are prevalent in the film, they all stem from the main issues of ageism, body concealment and discourses of loss and decline.  How these two characters obsess over the aging process translates in how they continue to relate to and interact with each other – a vicious cycle of even more jealousy, rivalry and competition.  As in when faced with the prospect of seeing each other at a party for the first time in many years, Madeline heads to an extreme spa in a desperate attempt to look youthful when she sees Helen.  Unbeknownst to Madeline, Helen, who has always been jealous of Madeline’s beauty, has already consumed a potion to make her look younger and more attractive than Madeline.  At the party, Madeline exclaims in a surprised tone to Helen, “It’s been 12 years…you have a waist!”  To which Helen replies, “I was so worried that you might not come [to the party]…but my PR woman said that Madeline Ashton comes to the opening of an envelope!  I almost fired her.  Well, almost.” (Zemeckis 1993)

Ageism is immediately prevalent straight on from the first scene, where Madeline, an actress approaching middle age, is performing on stage on Broadway.  People are leaving the theatre – disgusted by how old they think she looks, making comments like, “talk about raising the dead!” (Zemeckis 1993) implying that a woman her ‘age’ has no business acting sexy or performing in public.  According to “Friedan (1993) [he] contended that editors, art directors, ad agency executives and advertisers shared a belief that the face of any ‘older’ woman (than sixty, fifty, forty?) was an object of revulsion to Americans” (Hurst & Andsagar P. 103) and this is reflective of the attitude of the public in the film that older women should just simply fade away, yielding to younger, more beautiful women.  So, based on the these western ideals, the female characters in the film struggle with aging and the loss of their youthful appearance – leading to the practice of body concealment:  the willingness to do or pay whatever it takes “to maintain a feminine/gendered body [and] maintain an unchanging body.” (Dillaway P. 4) The film presents a world (not unlike our own) where the prospect of losing one’s youth and beauty is even more terrifying than undergoing  plastic surgery, uncomfortable procedures, barely eating or visiting spas that look akin to new-age torture chambers. 

The humorous twist in the film is that while in life, although many wish for it, “there is no necessary cure, no magic pill that will alter the reality of women’s menopausal experience.” (Buchanan, Villagran & Ragan P. 115) the two lead female characters find a magic elixir that restores their youth and beauty.  One would be led to believe that, in having this, eternal youth, beauty, life…that their issues on age and decline would be resolved.  However, the issues are only magnified, as through their physical ‘deaths’, their bodies remain alive and the struggle then becomes a hilarious attempt to maintain their dead bodies through embalming measures and acrylic paints.  And although they are not ‘physically’ aging, the movie hints at the stereotype that their minds are aging – they are becoming forgetful and speak to each other like the media’s stereotype of nattering old women – bickering over who lost their can of spray paint, because neither can  remember where it is and persist in blaming the other.  Over the years, they have maimed their bodies several times, so eventually they start to limp and totter – like older women developing osteoarthritis.   And in the end, there is still all of the jealousy, competitiveness and cattiness that there ever was.  For the women, even with the promise of eternal youth, nothing had changed. 

“The theory of aging includes psychological constructs such as attitudes.  How we socially construct the female aging process affects our behaviors, perceptions of, and communication with women throughout the lifespan.  From a developmental perspective, aging should be viewed as a natural life process, not a pathology in need of remedies.  Still there is an unrealistic expectation that women should fight the aging process.”  (Buchanan, Villagran & Ragan P. 109)  So because of what has developed into an unrealistic western view of women and aging, age has become something to be feared and halted to the best of one’s ability.  A lesser character in the film, Lisle von Rhuman, says of aging, “you’re scared of yourself, of the body you thought you once knew…this is life’s ultimate cruelty…it offers us the taste of youth and vitality and then makes us witness our own decay.”( Zemeckis 1993)  And according to Western medical and popular literature, age and menopause [are] reduced to signs and symptoms – “equating age with rotting.”(Buchanan, Villagran & Ragan P. 99)  The film, through the medium of comedy, parallel’s real life.  For example, in life, Dr. Robert Wilson’s book “Feminine Forever” hails the use of HRTs to ‘cure’ menopause – so women will no longer be “condemned to witness the death of their own womanhood”( Buchanan, Villagran & Ragan P. 100), while in the film, the character Helen Sharp writes a best-selling book entitled, Forever Young outlining her own advice for retaining one’s youthful appearance, (and similar to HRT, she ingests a magic elixir that restores her youth and vitality), Both insinuating and accepting as the norm that all women fear the loss of their beauty and youth and that working to halt the aging process must be made a priority.

Throughout the ages, in regards to society’s perceptions of aging, there appear to have always been “two standards of male beauty: they boy and the man, but only one standard of female beauty:  the girl.”(Mandell, Wilson & Duffy P. 26)   This is mirrored by when Madeline ingests the elixir and her body begins to change, she exclaims, “I’m a girl!” (Zemeckis 1993)  By the vicious circle of giving the public what it feels it wants, popular media then also plays a very large role in perpetuating this western view of the aging woman.  “The public perceives the media to be the source of most of its health-related information.  Americans spend most of their leisure time engaged in some type of mass media use.  Therefore media influence our perceptions and everyday lives.” (Buchanan, Villagran & Ragan P. 113) All anyone has to do is pick up a random magazine or flip through the channels on the television and it doesn’t take very long at all to hypothesize on what western society considers beautiful – the girl:  young, healthy, energetic, slim, well-maintained, and attractive.  To a woman who is aging and trying to cope with the new changes taking place in her body, it often must appear as though with the exception of her, the rest of the world is just filled with younger, slimmer more beautiful women.  And with that being said, it is my belief that the media does then continue to perpetuate the view of the aging woman in a negative light, as it does precious little to help present it in a wholly positive light.  Cosmetic companies still treat age as something to be hidden and masked through hair dye, cosmetics, anti-aging creams, body slimming creams, etc… and one look in your own neighborhood will show all the new ‘medical spas’ opening – offering non-surgical anti aging procedures such as Botox.  And while some older women are now finally appearing in some of the new cosmetic ads (ie. Ellen DeGeneres), they are depicted as though by using these products; they look much younger than their actual years – again working towards age concealment. And it starts early – as even children’s books are often guilty of perpetuating ageism:  with stories of wicked witches, always portrayed by older women vs. the heroine – a beautiful, young princess, with whom the prince always falls in love. (O’Beirne P. 14)   

Although, admittedly, times are (very) slowly changing, and while still predominantly negative, I believe have been some small gains towards positive change.  As more and more women are living longer and beginning to learn to try and embrace getting older, in turn, there are a few ads out there that also work to embrace this new concept such as the recent Dove soap ads – which depict women of all ages, ethnicities and body types as beautiful. 

The message that I feel this film is sending to the public about older women is that an obsession with youth and physical appearance is both ridiculous and shallow.  They should be more like (the stereotype of) men, in the sense that they need to stop fixating on looking young and be more preoccupied with living young and creating a life of meaning.  It also highlights the different way that society views men aging to that of women.  In the film, Ernest (the love interest of Madeline and Helen), refuses the magic elixir – not wanting to live forever for fear of boredom, being lonely and watching loved ones die without him – nothing shallow there.  While when presented with the prospect of being young again, the women are all too eager to drink the potion without a second thought.  The film implied that there is more to life than one’s appearance.  A focus on predominately the physical could mean missing out on a lot of wonderful things in life – healthy, supportive relationships with others, family, activities you may have wanted to do but never had the time. 

“…Social constructions of women’s external appearances or public bodies no not accommodate change, in that women’s appearances should remain the same over time; any visible alternations are ideologically defined as “negative,” abnormal,” or “deviant”.  (Dillaway P. 4)  At 50, our western society and our media could have women convinced that life is pretty much over.  At 50 for men (and as reinforced in the film) – life is often just beginning.  Men are still virile – they can create children, obtain younger wives, and pursue academics and an active outdoor life.  Instead of focusing on how to make themselves look younger, they live younger – and the film strongly implies this perspective during the final scene of the film.  In this scene, the leading women are at Ernest’s funeral.  He has died a very old man.  Many years back, at the age of 50, Ernest managed to escape Madeline and Helen, and began his life anew.  In his eulogy, the priest comments how Ernest had felt life began at 50 and for Ernest it had, because nothing much was known of him before that time.  At 50, he met his wife Claire and had 2 sons and 4 daughters.  He was a brilliant academic, an outdoorsman; and  never pursued selfish ambitions, choosing, instead to enhance the world to make it a better place than what he found it, by founding the Menville Marriage Counseling Clinic, the Menville Centre for the Study of Women and an AA Chapter.  He would be remembered for his wonderful sense of humor – with his tall tales of ‘the living dead of Beverley Hills’.  The priest felt that in his own way, Ernest had learned the secret of eternal life and youth – and was a man who would “indeed live forever” – living in the hearts of his friends, family, children and grandchildren.  And to this, Madeline and Helen, still obsessed with the preservation of their looks, leave the church muttering, blah, blah, blah…, and being such shallow ‘women’, entirely miss the point.  (Zemeckis 1993)

While approaching middle-age myself, I found that through all the laughs and extremist stereotypes in this film, there was a significant message buried underneath the humor of Death Becomes Her.  Just like both Madeline and Helen each had their own personal reasons for wanting to remain young, when it comes to being a woman and getting older – in real life, the process of aging (or not wanting to age) is very personal to every woman.  While we are all women, we are all still individuals who are products of our upbringings, educations, life experiences and life situations… and while it is natural not to be excited about certain aspects of aging (such as the specific aliments that bodies will normally experience with age), we do need to remember that everyone ages.  Charity begins at home – and women, who are by nature, caregivers/nurturers who historically put the needs of others before their own, need to start caring for and nurturing themselves. 

I believe that an acceptance of aging comes with finding satisfaction with one’s own life and with who you are as a person: your personal achievements and accomplishments – what is uniquely meaningful to you.  It’s about finding the validity of your own life and whether or not you are satisfied with that.  And while I haven’t personally performed a study, I could hypothesize that the majority of women who are happy with their lives feel better about aging than those women who have a lesser life satisfaction.  (Deeks & McCabe, P. 396)

If a woman is truly disturbed and dissatisfied about getting older, she may want to sit down, take a moment and take stock of the reasons why.  And while some reasons may be similar between women, could there be other ‘emotional’ reasons why aging appears so troubling – such as worries that the opposite sex/your partner will no longer find you desirable or that people may no longer take you seriously?  Could these worries potentially stem from a personal lack of confidence that, on some level, may have always been there?  Women may need to reflect upon what is truly important to them and if they feel their reasons are wholly valid, and if who they are is that tied into their physical appearance, then by all means, break out the Botox!

Personally, I feel that at any age, but especially as we approach middle age, women need to surround themselves with support – with women their own age so they can look for similarities and not feel so isolated in the aging process.  To know that there are other women who may be experiencing similar feelings and issues can be a source of tremendous comfort and reassurance.  Because, in the end – everyone ages, and while people may age differently, we all age – at least, if we’re lucky – because the only true alternative to aging, is death.  

References

Buchanan, M. Villagran, M. & Ragan, S. (2001) Women, menopause and (Ms.) information: Communication about the climacteric. Health Communication, 14(1), 99-119.

Dillaway, H. (2005) (Un) Changing menopausal bodies: How women think and act in the face of a reproductive transition and gendered beauty ideals. Sex Roles, 53 (1-2) 1-17.

Deeks, A. & McCabe, M (2004) Well-being and menopause: An investigation of purpose in life, self-acceptance and social role in premenopausal, peri-menopausal and postmenopausal women. Quality of Life Research, 13, 389-398.

Hurst S. & Andsagar  J.  (2003)  Medicalization vs adaptive models? Sense-making in magazine framing of menopause. Women and Health, 38(1), 101-122.

Mandell, N., Wilson, S & Duffy, A. (2008) Connection, Compromise , and Control : Canadian Women Discuss Midlife.  Canada:  Oxford University Press

O’Beirne, N. (1999) Growing older, getting better: Than what? In Onyx, J., Leonard, R., & Reed, R. Revisioning aging: Empowerment of older women (pp. 8-20). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Zemeckis, R (Producer/Director). (1993). Death Becomes Her [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures

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5 thoughts on “Significant messages hidden beneath the hilarity and stereotypical extremist portrayal of women and aging in the film “Death Becomes Her”

  1. Hmmm, very interesting! I can relate… I keep thinking I ought to try to fix myself up but I want to be age appropriate not ridiculous, and so I remain, just me at 50+. Great article. You should do a study over a glass of wine! xo Sue

  2. Oh, I can relate, too, Sue! I think it’s fine to take care of oneself, but not to the detriment of forgoing all life’s pleasures… like a good meal, dessert and wine! We all get old (if we’re lucky), so we have to enjoy all life has to offer, I think! xo

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