The Case of the Vanishing Woman
Novelist and screenwriter Ayelet Waldman on the invisibility of turning 50
(This article previously appeared on Cafe.com)
Novelist and screenwriter Ayelet Waldman and I have been friends since the summer of 2005, when we met on a mutual friend’s porch. This was right after she wrote her bombshell of a Modern Love essay in The New York Times, for which she was — unfairly, I thought — raked over the media coals for daring to suggest that her marital bonds took precedence over her maternal ones. I wasn’t sure I agreed with her at first, but I was glad someone was speaking up on that minefield of a front.
That Waldman is still married — and I’m not — has lent much credence to her prescient words, which have haunted me from the moment I read them. This is a woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and stand out, even when we don’t want to hear her or see her standing there, red ringlets aflame, speaking truths that seem perfectly obvious to her but only to us in painful retrospect.
And so it was with some shock that I recently heard her utter the following sentence: “You better come see me now before I disappear.”
“Huh?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“I’m turning 50. Then that’s it. I become invisible. Come have breakfast with me. I’m coming into town for a Love and Treasure thing. And then you’ll never see me again.” She laughed after that, but I could hear the pain behind it.
I agreed to have breakfast with her near the end of last year, before she disappeared. I met her in her hotel, where she was yanking a series of pulleys she’d rigged to the bathroom door, her daily physical therapy for a case of frozen shoulder — “one of the other lovely indignities of middle age,” as she called it. I’m a year and three-quarters to the day behind her. I was curious to find out what’s in store for me when I turn 50.
Here’s our conversation, lightly edited to take out the ums and sighs.
OK, so when we spoke the other day, you said, 'You'd better have breakfast with me soon, because I'm about to disappear.' What did you mean?
I'm turning 50 on Dec. 11. I had a recent conversation with someone who also does work in Hollywood. She said, 'No, you just can't tell people that's how old you are. You just can't.' I had just been in a professional situation where someone — an elderly man, in fact — actually called into question my abilities both as a woman and as a menopausal woman. Now, I'm not menopausal yet, first of all. In fact, I’m more fertile than I should be. But I will be menopausal soon, really soon. And to hear him saying that was horrifying.
An elderly man? How old?
Let's just say 'elderly' so he doesn't identify himself. He's someone who has worked throughout this period of his life, well into his — many decades past where I am now, and I'm sure he would have been horrified at the thought that anybody would have called his capacities into question at age 50. I'm sure he felt vital and at the prime of his life, right? But somehow, there was a question whether I could do the work. It was so…how can I say this? You're used to, as a woman, dealing with this kind of subtle…
Yeah, sexism. Because in our profession, people don't usually admit to being sexist, so you're digging it out where it exists, and you end up having a debate whether what you're experiencing is actually sexism, which is its own kind of hell. Like, 'Oh my God, I know the reason I didn't get that job was because they gave it to the young man,' but you have a debate about it. You have to fight through that. I had no idea that that was going to be the easy part. I had no idea that as soon as I got to this age, to be a 50-year-old woman, the sexism gets completely complicated by this idea that not only are you incompetent as a woman, but you're incompetent because you've reached your senescence! Or something.
I really do feel like they don't even see you. I remember reading some study that men can sense a woman who's fertile, and they focus their laser beam eyes on a fertile woman. Well, as soon as you're not fertile anymore, it's like they just skip over you.
(MORE: 5 Reasons to Enjoy Being an Old, Invisible Woman)
You mean in the street, or…?
I'm not talking about in the street, which is its own thing. I'm talking about in the context of seeing who you are as a professional, as a writer, as a human being, and it just kills me.
I'm not some gorgeous woman who's used to owning the male gaze, but I have a big personality, and I have a certain level of professional competence, and I'm used to being taken seriously professionally. And, suddenly, it's like I just vanished from the room. And I have to yell so much louder to be seen, and I feel like, Oh my God, this is what they mean when they say about women all the time, 'Oh, she's crazy.' She's not crazy, she's just yelling so that you can see her! Because you didn't notice that she's sitting at the conference table!
What about personally? Do you feel invisible personally, as well?
No, I don't actually feel invisible personally, because I have a husband [author Michael Chabon] who is still as interested in me as he ever was. So, that part of my life is not...I don't feel that sense of vanishing. You know, look. There's this whole thing going on right now about guys in the street harassing women. I get that, when you're a young woman, it can be really demoralizing to walk through the streets of New York City and be constantly harassed by—
You mean like that video everyone’s been sharing?
Yeah, like that video everyone’s been sharing. Which is great. Amazing. And yet, I am so flattered when that happens to me at this point. It's so sad, because I'm a feminist! It’s ridiculous, I know. But when somebody says to me, 'Oh, sweetie, you're shakin'!' I feel like, 'OK, I still got it!'
You just want to be visible.
I just want to walk down the street and have someone notice that I exist. But, again, the personal stuff is easier for me, because my husband still thinks of me as a sexual being. But, the thing that kills me, the thing that's weighing on me now, is this professional thing.
Maybe it’s because you don't see your husband experiencing the same discrimination.
Exactly! In their eyes, he's still young and vital.
How old is Michael?
He's a year and a half older than I am.
So, he's a year and a half older, and yet he’s considered young and vital, and you're turning 50, and you’re considered washed up.
Right. Right! And so much so that I have this impulse that, when this friend of mine said, 'No, no, you can never tell them you’re any older than 45,' I thought about it for a minute. I actually thought about it, and I wanted to start lying, because maybe I could pass for 45. Maybe not 42, but I could pass for 45.
But then I thought, 'No, no, no. I'm not going to be this person. I'm going to own this, however uncomfortable it makes me.' So, I went all over social media and wrote, 'I'm turning 50! I'm turning 50!' and I just sat there and thought, 'Oh, why did you do that? That's a big mistake.'
(MORE: Do You Tell People How Old You Are?)
No, it’s not a mistake. I think it's important for somebody our age to own it.
Yeah. I think so, too, but who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? We'll see if I get work after all of that, we'll see. Luckily, in the midst of this, I did sell a project, which made me feel a little better.
What did you sell?
I sold a pilot. But, you know, I see these women, and I grasp on to their example. Like Jill Soloway. I'm just holding onto her story, because she's basically my age, and she's had this tremendous success with Transparent, which I think is the best TV I've ever seen. I mean, it's just remarkable! It's better than anything else out there. It's fabulous. It's exciting for me especially because it's incredibly Jewish, and I haven't seen anything like that on TV. It's talking about relationships in a really exciting way, and it's doing all sorts of amazing things, so she's this wonderful example for me.
But you know what's interesting to me about that? It's a really personal story. It's about how her dad came out as transgender. I started wondering: Would they let a woman our age make a story that wasn't personal? Would they let a woman our age direct whatever she wants?
The movie that made Jennifer Lawrence's career, Winter's Bone, was written and directed by this incredibly gifted writer/director, Debra Granik, a woman of a certain age. What happened to her? What's she made since? Could you imagine a guy who would make a movie like that and not have 27,000 offers?
I think it's sexism, but I think it's sexism complicated by…I don't want to say ageism, but maybe I do mean ageism, like you're especially irrelevant if you're an older woman. It's hard enough as a woman, but they're definitely not going to let you get anywhere as an older woman.
But we're talking specifically here about women in Hollywood. Do you think it's prevalent everywhere?
Oh, it definitely exists in the literary world, too, for sure. I mean, I can't speak to other professions, but for example, I'm going to see this author named Lore Segal today.
How old is she?
She's in her 80s. She's an astonishing writer. She has wit and grace and intelligence. She's a remarkable writer. I read all the time. I read old. I read new. But I'd never read her. Now, maybe that's my problem, but Shakespeare's Kitchen was short-listed for The Pulitzer Prize, and where is she? Where is she in people's consciousness? She doesn't exist.
Deborah Copaken is The New York Times bestselling author of The Red Book, Between Here and April, Shutterbabe and Hell Is Other Parents. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate and The Financial Times, among others.