The Lesbian Gaze: In Praise of the Middle Aged Actress

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For many young women, pining after a middle-aged actress is a key part of the lesbian experience. It doesn’t matter that she’s never had a relationship with another woman, or that she’s got grown children older than you are. It doesn’t even matter that she’ll never know you exist: this woman is at the heart of all your romantic fantasies. You would sell your soul to be her later in life lesbian experience. Does this sound familiar?

The internet is packed with young lesbians devoted to our age-inappropriate crushes. Whether it’s elaborate fan art or fanfiction longer than the average novel, the evidence is there – if you know where to look. Middle-aged actresses have a way with the lesbian imagination.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

For me, it was (and always will be) Ms Jessica Phyllis Lange. Don’t judge, but it was her performance as the Supreme Witch American Horror Story: Coven that convinced me to come out of the closet. Fiona Goode – Lange’s character – was just the right balance of salty, sharp, and emotionally fragile. Night and day, Jessica Lange was pretty much all I thought about. There is something appealing about the unabashed camp of American Horror Story, a seductive quality mirrored by its former leading lady.

I’d wile away the hours during a soul-destroying job in a department store, dreaming of getting home and watching Coven yet again. A couple of my colleagues made endless homophobic jokes as we organized stock, without the slightest idea that as I worked I was wondering how my life would change if people knew I was a lesbian. In retrospect, I appreciate the irony of tuning out the casual bigotry by putting together the plot of an elaborate AHS fanfiction that gave Coven an alternate sapphic ending.

In retrospect, I appreciate the irony of tuning out the casual bigotry by putting together the plot of an elaborate AHS fanfiction that gave Coven an alternate sapphic ending.

Jessica Lange wasn’t the first woman to catch my eye, and hasn’t been the last. But the intensity of that feeling, knowing I wanted to have a more realistic version of all those fantasies, was what pushed me to be publicly lesbian. Though at 26 it’s probably time that I stop mooning over Jessica Lange and get back in the dating game. Otherwise how on earth am I going to meet my future wife?

While there are some obvious similarities between the gay and lesbian experience, this one doesn’t seem to translate. Talking with gay male friends, it’s clear that they’re attracted by different things – beyond the glaringly obvious fact that lesbians aren’t into men. After all, there’s a difference between what we’re taught to prize in men and women.

Men get so hung up on the idea that a woman’s value depreciates with age. And being gay doesn’t make men immune to sexism, or stop them from absorbing patriarchal BS. So plenty of men are blind to the magic of middle-aged actresses, and if the reasons weren’t so stupidly sexist I’d feel sorry for them. The male gaze only values female bodies that do not look lived in. Being marked by experience is a fatal flaw: having any obvious signs of aging are the ultimate boner killer. Or so we’re taught to believe.

I think the reason that young lesbians are more likely than straight men to see the appeal of middle-aged actresses is that we’re not as invested in the narrow ideal of feminine beauty prescribed by patriarchy. We can appreciate forms of womanhood beyond being young, skinny, and all the rest of the standards patriarchy sets.

I think the reason that young lesbians are more likely than straight men to see the appeal of middle-aged actresses is that we’re not as invested in the narrow ideal of feminine beauty prescribed by patriarchy. We can appreciate forms of womanhood beyond being young, skinny, and all the rest of the standards patriarchy sets.

Beauty isn’t the be all and end all. In fact, as feminists have been pointing out for decades, feminine beauty standards are used to oppress women. All the same, I think it’s worth pointing out that there are so many different ways to be beautiful – very few of which are recognized by heteropatriarchal society as a whole.

It’s a great thing to be able to look at other women without seeing them distorted by the male gaze. And in my opinion, it’s an even better thing to be able to look at women with a distinctly lesbian gaze. There’s a respect and warmth in it that isn’t always present when men look at women. Every part appraised, like cattle. Where the male gaze reduces women to objects, the lesbian gaze sees wonder in women. Young lesbians’ enthusiasm for middle aged actresses shows alternative ways of looking at the world, and the people in it

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