Kate Winslet shows there’s more to middle age than a saggy belly
Kate Winslet has always had guts. But for her to have a belly, let alone one that wobbles and jiggles in the way most 45-year-old women’s middles quite unremarkably do, is still apparently a thing so shocking as to make headline news. This week the star of the cult TV drama Mare of Easttown disclosed that she had refused her director’s offer to edit out footage of her “bulgy bit of belly” from a sex scene, arguing that her character should be allowed to look like the woman she was meant to be: a middle-aged small town detective who has carried two children, unwinds after an exhausting day with a beer rather than a gym session, and has rather more serious things to worry about than the odd flabby bit hanging over her jeans.
“She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we’re starved of that a bit,” as Winslet, who not only starred in but executive produced the show, puts it. Not since the eponymous heroine of Shirley Valentine ran away to Greece in search of one last adventure, and marvelled at her new lover’s willingness to kiss her stretchmarks, has a naked stomach on film been deemed to make such a statement.
Alarm bells should always ring when a woman is called brave for taking her clothes off. But the fascination with Winslet’s authentically jiggly stomach seems healthier at least than the double standards exposed by last week’s Friends reunion, which saw the three female stars turn up looking barely a day older than when the show first aired in the mid-90s, while their male stars were as silvered and weathered as the audience they’ve all been ageing alongside for the past 17 years.
We all know why women in the public eye feel compelled to freeze time; if they hadn’t remained impossibly taut of midriff and smooth of forehead well into their 50s, presumably the female Friends could have kissed goodbye to the intervening decade and a half of work. Middle-aged women, expecting people to actually pay to look at them, with their wrinkles and their grey streaks and their secret sagging? Ugh, how disgusting. Next they’ll be wanting people to listen to what they say.
But heartening as it is to see someone ageing naturally on screen for once, I suspect many women neither particularly noticed nor cared what was under Winslet’s trademark flannel shirt when she yanked it off. It was what her character’s life looked like, not her body, that mattered: messy, difficult, but richer and deeper in some ways than it could ever have been at 20.
Older women’s lives are too often dismissed as devoid of anything audiences could possibly find interesting; at best dull and settled, at worst a grimly depressing descent into hagdom. The real genius of Mare of Easttown lay in treating the interior lives of Mare, her mother and her best friend as just as dramatic, poignant and varied as those of the dewy-faced teenagers around whom a million Hollywood coming-of-age stories have revolved.
Without the unmistakably middle-aged life events Winslet’s character was struggling through – the aftermath of a long-term marriage falling apart, the death of a grown son, the bittersweet experience of reliving that lost relationship through a grandchild she is now equally terrified of losing too – it would have been just another telly whodunnit. And just as pertinently, without the experience accumulated through decades of living in one small community, getting to know her neighbours and their histories inside out, crucially Mare might not have been much of a detective either.
If it was liberating to watch a woman with a muffin top unashamedly pursuing a one-night stand on screen, it was just as refreshing to watch one getting to grips with the kind of role men have long been allowed to play: the grizzled veteran cop whose career appears to be floundering down the slippery slope to nowhere, yet who turns out to have learned a thing or two down the years.
For in real life, it’s not vanity or fear of becoming invisible to the male gaze that pressures many older women into reaching for the hair dye or trying to hide their hot flushes, so much as the very real danger of being thought of as “past it” in the workplace. There is a cold hard economic price to be paid for the kind of vicious casual ageism that deems the over-50s too old and tired to learn new tricks, and while both sexes invariably begin looking nervously over their shoulders as the decades roll by, the particular sting for women is that anxiety about the professional consequences of getting older often kicks in just as a career derailed by motherhood is starting to get back on track.
No wonder we don’t want to publicly acknowledge the process of ageing, when it’s still seen as a downhill slide into oblivion rather than a door opening on to a darker, richer and deeply adult phase of life, where a lifetime’s knowledge of people is finally drawn into play. So good on Winslet for seeking not to hide the physical reality on screen. But don’t be fooled: the real meat of a woman’s story is never in the flesh that is flashed, but in what lies beneath.