We can thank other women for making us feel bad about ourselves

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The Independent Online

Alex Kingston, apparently, didn't really complain to the Radio Times that she'd been kicked off ER because at 41 she's too elderly to play doctors and nurses. Her comments were taken "out of context", and she and the producers are in perfect agreement that her character, Dr Elizabeth Corday, had simply run its course.

Alex Kingston, apparently, didn't really complain to the Radio Times that she'd been kicked off ER because at 41 she's too elderly to play doctors and nurses. Her comments were taken "out of context", and she and the producers are in perfect agreement that her character, Dr Elizabeth Corday, had simply run its course.

And who can argue with that? As far as the stage and the screen are concerned, nearly all female characters have "simply run their course" by the age of 41. This is largely because they are no longer considered suitable candidates for scenes involving love and sex. What a pity that Ms Kingston now appears to believe this is right and fitting.

By contrast, Rosanna Arquette (pictured right), an actress one dimly remembers from her own youth, is furious about film industry sexism, and is sticking by her critical guns. She declares: "It is offensive that in Hollywood a 68-year-old movie star is paired with a 30-year-old or someone even younger."

Ms Arquette has made a documentary about the phenomenon that blames the "male-dominated Hollywood producer system, which has few female directors and even fewer female studio executives".

Which is good. But in doing so, Ms Arquette, and the other 40-plus actresses who have "spoken out", see themselves as heroic. You have to ask what they imagine is at stake. If these women's careers are over because of their age, what on earth do they stand to lose?

The worry, perhaps, is that they've damaged their chances of beating the female rivals who stay quiet, and being the one who catches the roving eye of the hated males of the entertainment industry, whose ghastly bidding they'll be happy to do, given half the chance.

After all, this is what they did for years, until they themselves became a little long in the tooth compared to the competition. Young women take advantage of the fact that the large and small screen is hungry for them, then start complaining only when they no longer have the advantages over other woman that they were happy to exploit.

This unsisterly behaviour, women argue, is the result of male fantasies. Starstruck females and fine actresses alike are forced to go alongwith it. Women have such limited choices that they must do what they can, when they can. Instead, though, women might like to consider the idea that much of the time they're too busy being competitive to notice that they are acting in concord, among themselves and with their mostly female audience, to drive down their own salaries and their on-screen ages.

Young female flesh is not adored only by men. It is paraded, prized and promoted by women as well. The diet industry, the cosmetic surgery boom, the rip-offs women willingly succumb to in spas and at beauty counters, the ascendancy of celebrity culture - all these are not the simple result, as is often claimed, of the patriarchal demands made on women and their bodies. Nor is the fashion for revealing outfits, sexy underwear and crippling heels. In societies in which men oppress women, they cover us up and keep us out of sight. It is women who see liberation in being a topless model even if they need distorting surgery to have the confidence to do so.

Women's magazines are full of pictures of youth, and instructions on how we too can hang on to it. Snaps of Jerry Hall's cellulite, Madonna's eye bags or Judy Finnegan's tummy are slapped on the pages of some magazines like scalps. These are not there to put men off older women, but to put women off older women. Already as young women, we fear and revile the older, lesser selves we'll become.

Smoky haze

Poor old John Reid must be white-knuckling it like mad so that he can continue as Health Secretary. Although he gave up a reputed 60-a-day habit in order to be the nation's fitness guru, Dr Reid still identifies smoking as a "pleasure". This is surely indicative of the strong possibility that his own desire to smoke is curbed for the meantime, rather than broken for ever.

The good doctor is not wrong to point out that fags are not the only problem faced by the poor. Nor is he wrong to suggest that combating smoking is a middle-class obsession. But he is wrong to subscribe to the idea that it is a "pleasure". You don't have to be poor to fall for the idea that smoking is pleasurable. But you do have to be in thrall to nicotine. The poor are more in thrall to nicotine because they are more vulnerable to the grotesque idea that an action as damaging as smoking is a pleasure.

Why are they more vulnerable? Because they have little control over their lives, and therefore suffer huge stress. Sir Richard Marmot, in his new book Status Syndrome, argues that the rich are healthier not because they can afford better diets and health care, but because they feel good about themselves. The poor, even the most seemingly ignorant and wilfully lazy, do not.

This Dr Reid understands. He realises that nagging people about their failure to do what's good for them does little to make them feel good. But he's wrong to perpetuate an illusion that is a bar to people giving up.

Out of the mouths of babes comes cruelty

It's not only male studio executives who believe women are ancient at 41. I know this well because I'm 41 myself. Some weeks ago, preparing to give my young sons a go on the roundabout, I was joined by three girls of about six or seven. The third girl, clearly desperate to curry favour with the ringleader, shouted: "I'll push! I'll push." Contemptuously the ringleader replied: "You don't have to push. That old woman's pushing." I spun round as she nodded towards me, though almost instantly aware that the gesture was futile. But I got them back. As one by one they demanded to be lifted off, I gave them something to think about: "A few pleases and thank yous might not go amiss," I snapped. Which I think really challenged their preconceptions.

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