So why is it all right for men to grow old disgracefully?

women of a certain age

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Edwina Currie is the vilest woman in Britain, Marianne Faithfull parading down the catwalk in Lainey Keogh's golden dress is "a dreadful warning to all middle-aged women who delude themselves that looking funky is still an option". Vivienne Westwood is madder than the hats she wears, we were reminded again at the weekend in yet another interview that had her rambling on in her own inimitable style.

What, I ask myself, have any of these women done that men don't do every day? Is leaving your spouse, growing portly, talking nonsense, purely a male prerogative I wonder? "However badly she behaves; however tasteless and unspeakably horrible her behaviour, there is always a tendency to let her off the hook," wrote Peter Osborne in the Daily Express in an article which was clearly not letting her off the hook.

It takes very little, it seems to me, before a woman is accused of behaving badly. Not brushing your hair is seen as a sign of inner moral decay. Old Mick can strut his boney stuff on the world's stage but the sight of Marianne Faithfull in gold gossamer is apparently too much to take.

The fact that Marianne is a total goddess seems to have escaped the body fascists, those who patrol the boundaries of good taste from the perspective of dull old middle England. I expect they don't like Jibby Beane either - who models for Westwood and is in her fifties - because she has breasts and hips, those horrible female protrusions. They also, predictably, find Sophie Dahl too hot to handle and point out that sometimes she looks good but sometimes she looks bloody awful, which, of course, is the reason that she is an icon of liberation.

The reality is that flesh and blood women do behave badly and sometimes look dreadful, and we love them for it. Old Edwina is a game old bird, disarming in her honesty, trashy and flashy in equal quantities. No doubt she can be quite appalling. She can also sometimes be right: she was right about the eggs and the age of consent and the fear and loathing of women that exists in her own party.

The end of a marriage is always sad but ... it happens. Why must the world assume that her husband Ray was long-suffering? He could have been an awful bore. We just don't know. All we do know is that, as with many other couples, once the children had left home there was no longer any reason for them to be together. Perhaps it was all timed to fit in with her latest book promotion, perhaps it wasn't. The most we can accuse her of, then, is being shameless.

It is fine for an Alan Clark or a David Mellor to promote media careers on the back of constant references by the press to their tireless libidos, it is fine for Jeffrey Archer to write formulaic rubbish, it is fine for men to be shameless shaggers and hustlers. But Edwina must be publicly slapped down, punished for being a 50-year-old woman who still can't keep her trap shut about sex.

Years ago women would have had to wait for their husbands to die before doing what they liked, before getting what used to be called their "second wind". Nowadays, thankfully, there is divorce. Women of a certain age may be freed earlier to do as they please. While some of them will be lonely, some clearly find their independence exhilarating. Certainly it is always inspiring to find women who have grown old disgracefully. How else do you explain the huge success of Two Fat Ladies?

Here are two women who have broken every rule in the book and continue to so. They are overweight, they drink, they are bawdy, their recipes consist almost entirely of saturated fats and alcohol, they are terrible snobs. They are roaring embodiments of what TV producers think will frighten the horses, the polar opposites of every bland, blonde, clean-living weather girl/newsreader/ lovely assistant that we see on our TV screens.

But we love them, these anti-Delias, because not only can we see that they have lived but they remain so full of joie de vivre. We like them basically because they just don't care and not caring is, for women, the most sought-after freedom of all.

I must admit that I was disturbed to see that Clarissa Dickson Wright appears to have washed her hair for this series and is even wearing make- up, but I was happy to see her reveal recently that her size never stopped her getting men. "Like cooking", she said, "it is all about technique really". What matters though is the relationship between the two women when there is not a man in sight. They jolly along perfectly well without them, outdoing each other with tales of exotic dishes cooked in far-flung destinations and flirting, yes flirting, with each other.

It is a stroke of brilliance for the BBC to rerun Absolutely Fabulous after Two Fat Ladies. For here we have another two heroines for the dissolute woman in Patsy and Edina, two selfish, shallow alcoholics whom we once also looked up to. Just as we look up to those female politicians like Mo Mowlam and Clare Short who have never been "made-over", women who reveal themselves at times to be tired and emotional, who are not managing to juggle their lives, in horrible Horlick style, but lobbing the balls at whoever is in their way.

What may be classified by some as mere bad behaviour in such women is, in fact, an authenticity far more endearing than the mask of acceptable femininity which so many women today are still forced to wear.

While we accept women drinking and swearing and sleeping around if they are good-looking young British artists or fictional creations like Bridget Jones, we find it much harder to take when women over 50 are expressing the same desires. A culture that de-sexes older women finds it difficult to know what to do with women who are theoretically past it but keep reminding us that they are not.

Yet what really underlies this latest little squirt of misogyny is not so much that women like Edwina and Marianne and Vivienne are still up for it but that they can all get by perfectly well with or without men. Sexual autonomy, I can't help feeling, is the real threat here. These women's strength is that, frankly my dears, they just don't give a damn. They have attained that Zen state - they are past caring.

The paradox is, of course, that the less such women care about what other people think about them, the more we find ourselves caring about them. Perhaps this is because, for many of us, it is only when we see women behaving "badly" that we see ourselves at all.

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