Madonna turned 50 on Aug. 16. The milestone was marked by a predictable barrage of commentary about “50 being the new 40” and how women no longer dread the half-century mark. Everybody is trying to eat better and exercise more, and cosmetic surgery isn’t the big taboo it once was. But since the subject was Madonna, there was also a lot of talk about her impact on pop culture. Ms. Ciccone, after all, still has a career — albums to push, concert tours to carry out.
The lesson Madonna teaches is not that everyone can still be gorgeous at 50 but rather that everyone can’t be Madonna. Last week, CNN ran a lifestyle feature about former idol singer Keiko Masuda releasing a solo album just as she turns 50. The reporter gushed over Masuda’s “all-natural” beauty, and Japanese fans who were interviewed said she looks even better now than she did in her 20s, when she was half of the hugely popular J-Pop act Pink Lady. Nobody said anything about her new music, which displays all the earmarks of record-company calculation: Bland cheese highlighted by a bossa nova version of “UFO,” one of Pink Lady’s biggest hits. How middle-aged can you get?
CNN only referred to surfaces, generalizing that Japanese women age remarkably well owing to their obsessive avoidance of the sun and “Japan’s famously healthy diet.” “Plastic surgery remains uncommon,” the reporter said, suggesting that older women don’t need or seek it, but she missed the point. In Japan, plastic surgery isn’t undergone to reverse aging but rather to correct perceived flaws, often at a younger age.
However, the most jarring comment in the report was that Japanese women’s more youthful appearance probably has something to do with “genetics.” The reporter probably meant to say “genes” (“genetics” implies applied science — master races and all that), but in any case the idea that Japanese women are inherently younger-looking feeds into the prejudice that they are somehow less mature than women in the West or even women from other Asian countries. “Cute” is still the most complimentary thing you can say about a woman at any age in Japan, and it doesn’t just refer to her looks.
But looks are the focus, which means that the better looking you are at 50, the more attention you receive, regardless of your accomplishments. Thus we have Hers, a new magazine that specifically caters to women over 50, and which CNN referenced as an indication of the heights to which middle-aged femininity aspires. “No air brushing,” said the awestruck reporter as she described “page after page of timeless Japanese beauty.” But Hers is not a reflection of some fundamental racial trait. It is a consumer catalog occasionally interrupted by chatty interviews and photo essays. The beautiful women it depicts are functions of the magazine’s purpose, which is to sell stuff.
Hers was launched last spring at about the same time another women’s magazine, Shufu no Tomo, suspended operations after more than 90 years of publication. Shufu no Tomo was the last survivor of a quartet of magazines for older women that included Fujin Club, Shufu no Seikatsu and Fujin no Seikatsu. As the titles suggest, they were all aimed at housewives, or at least married women. As Japan gained in international influence during the 20th century, the words fujin (wife) and shufu (housewife) took on an aspirational meaning. Young girls wanted to be more than just hanayome (brides). After the war, the nuclear family prevailed and homemakers were acknowledged as being vital to the economic miracle. The housewife magazines were instrumental in shaping this attitude, and not just by printing recipes and sewing patterns. They also gave out health tips and, not insignificantly, sex advice.
The passing of the housewife magazine can be seen as a natural step in the evolution of female empowerment — women have more to aspire to than simply being somebody’s wife. But despite the fact that the covers of Hers always feature fiftysomething female celebrities — i.e., working women — the magazine is still aimed at wives; it’s just that they aren’t wives who think a lot about tonight’s dinner or worry about their husband’s collar stains. Basically, they are well-off, with time on their hands.
Or maybe that’s just their aspiration. The housewife magazines addressed the real lives of their readership. Hers basically provides fuel for fantasy. It’s a grown-up version of an-an and non-no, the two fashion periodicals that targeted the disposable income of young women in the ’70s by placing all editorial emphasis on consumption. Hers targets this same generation 30 years on with the exact same appeal. The features profile older women — some working, some not — who enjoy life to the fullest, but any edifying content is replaced with brand-name clothing, cosmetics and accessories. If you can’t live the lives of the women depicted, you can at least surround yourself with the trappings.
The women in Hers and their “timeless beauty” serve the needs of the advertisers first. It’s business as usual, except that the personalities are older than usual. Middle-aged female celebrities are now all the rage in advertising. Fifteen years ago it was rare to see them in TV commercials, but as the population ages, so inevitably do the shills: 51-year-old actress Shinobu Otake playing a fun-loving housewife in ads for credit cards and cell phones; 46-year-old idol singer Seiko Matsuda mugging with 56-year-old folk icon Miyuki Nakajima in a commercial for Fuji Film’s new cosmetic line; 47-year-old former sex bomb Hitomi Kuroki portraying all kinds of mothers to sell all kinds of products. There have always been beautiful 50-year-olds. The media just didn’t have much use for them before.