Opinion: The female gaze is taking over page and screen, and it is hot

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

No matter how much progress we’ve made on middle-aged women and visibility — from a huge increase in menopause research and advocacy to the relatively recent expansion of roles for older women on TV — there remains this very dumb stopping point at which the public can’t handle the thought of older-than-twentysomethings having sex. Or even thinking about having it. Especially when it’s with younger men (despite the ridiculousenduring double standard).

Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson
Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson

“Did I not warn you? People hate happy women,” says Annie Mumolo’s character, Tracy, in “The Idea of You.”

That’s the central concern of this widely-watched dramedy: Anne Hathaway’s a 40-year-old single mom who falls for a 24-year-old boy band star (Nicholas Galitzine). The sex is great, and they really like each other. Naturally, when the paparazzi catches on, the world loses its mind.

In Amazon’s movie, Hathaway’s character, Solène, meets cute with Harry Styles-esque singer Hayes Campbell (Galitzine) at Coachella. He takes an immediate fancy to her, while she works through a litany of reasons why it would never work, the primary one being their age difference. When she finally lets herself give in to their chemistry, she’s rewarded with a pretty spicy orgasm the first time they hook up — a moment focused entirely on her pleasure (props for a mid-20s guy knowing this much about female anatomy).

The movie launches into a montage-heavy romp around Europe before the couple’s outed publicly, at which point a million cougar headlines take flight. I’d like to think this hoopla is overblown, that it wouldn’t really happen in this day and age. But, as an article in Vogue pointed out, this is exactly what went down when Olivia Wilde was dating the real Harry Styles a few years back. “Hayes Caught With a Cougar” and “Sleaziest Mom of the Year?” are two of the film’s fictional headlines (“A passion for cougars!” was a real one when Styles began dating director Wilde, a decade his senior, in 2021).

I had forgotten the obnoxious, cruel outpouring of criticism when that celeb couple was forced into the spotlight, just as I had blocked out the never-ending ado — also noted by Vogue — about director Sam Taylor-Johnson and her now-husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 23 years her junior.

But this summer is serving up a delightful array of pop cultural clapbacks to that scolding narrative, in which older women are responding with a collective one-finger salute to the notion that they can’t sleep with whomever they like.

Miranda July, a performance artist who’s been lobbing fabulously oddball cultural critiques into the mainstream since her debut film “Me and You and Everyone We Know” in 2005, has a new novel that’s leading the pack. “All Fours” tells the story of a married woman, a minor-celebrity artist much like July, who leaves her husband and child at home while she embarks on a cross-country road trip to New York.

Shortly thereafter, she crosses paths with a hot younger guy named Davey in a dusty nearby town and ends up hunkering down at the local motel there for the duration of her supposed trip. Their unique flirtation is a jumping-off point for epiphanies about aging and desire, with July coming down pretty firmly on the side of optimism.

“Was this the secret to everything? This bodily freedom? It felt intuitive and healthy, as if promiscuity was my birthright as a woman,” she writes. “Maybe it was. Was this the skeleton in civilization’s closet? The reason why men had come down so hard on us since the start of time? … It suddenly seemed natural and sweet to f**k all my friends.”

Her secret adventures include a tryst with an older woman, a moment that yields a telling revelation for the narrator: “From the start I’d been thinking of her as fundamentally pitiable, a sad character. But that beautiful bed in her living room … she probably f**ked or fondled or kissed people on it all the time. She wasn’t lost in the past. … The sad character was all in my head.”

The “sad character” narrative is a longtime feature of the way we’re trained to think about single, aging women. There’s something about a woman old enough to know herself, and, perhaps, to care a lot less about others’ opinions than she did a decade earlier, that seems endlessly threatening to some factions of our society. A forthcoming memoir from the brilliant writer Glynnis MacNicol, “I’m Mostly Here to Enjoy Myself: One Woman’s Pursuit of Pleasure in Paris,” addresses this provocation head-on.

Writing in the New York Times, MacNicol says her life “has the makings of a fantasy, if we allowed for fantasies starring single, childless women on the brink of turning 50.” What’s more, she writes, “saying so should not be radical in 2024, and yet, somehow it feels that way. We live in a world whose power structures continue to benefit from women staying in place. In fact, we’re currently experiencing the latest backlash against the meager feminist gains of the past half-century.”

Amen. Truly, it feels as if I have been writing variations on this topic — women should feel free to live however they want, to sleep with whoever they want, at any age — for so many years. And yet.

It’s heartening to see this summer’s crop of wholehearted endorsements of women enjoying themselves, and their bodies, well after society has deemed them undesirable. Even “Bridgerton,” whose lusty praises I’ve previously sung, has a societally washed-up woman — Nicola Coughlan’s “spinster” Penelope Featherington — being pleasured in a carriage by her love interest at the close of the season’s first half.

It’s the most-talked about scene so far, and like the sexiest scene in “The Idea of You,” is part of what my close friend describes as the ‘”fingerssaince.” This means, among other things, that these are scenes where all the pleasure is centered on the woman, which feels like a step forward from the near-ubiquitous love scene in which two heterosexual people have missionary sex and the woman has a dramatic yet anatomically very unlikely orgasm.

As an informative companion piece, Dr. Karen Tang’s excellent book “It’s Not Hysteria” came out last month. The reproductive health guide covers all manner of women’s issues, including a chapter on sexual dysfunction that takes doctors to task for telling women with low sex drives to just “try having a glass of wine.” Tang notes that “for women in many parts of the world, societal expectations position sex as an obligation to a male spouse or partner rather than as a source of joy or pleasure for oneself.” As a counterpoint, she serves up a robust chapter exploring the many legitimate reasons why women might experience a libido decline, and various methods of treating this (though none are quite as colorful as July’s).

And no survey of middle-aged female sexual liberation would be complete without another mention of Mumolo, who’s the co-writer and co-star of “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” I’ve been lauding this daffy comedy from her and co-creator Kristen Wiig since it came out in 2021, to not nearly enough fanfare. Wiig and Mumolo play two culottes-wearing Nebraskans who hook up with a younger man, a spy played by Jamie “Fifty Shades of Grey” Dornan, and there’s not a moment in which either woman undergoes an ounce of shame about either her age or her horniness.

In an interview with Variety at the time, Wiig noted that “Barb and Star” got made mostly because “Bridesmaids” was so successful, paving the way for other middle-aged female raunch comedies like “Girls Trip” and “Bad Moms.” “It’s great that more things got greenlit,” Wiig said. “But on the other side of that it’s like, ‘Why the f**k weren’t you greenlighting it before?”

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