In Hollywood’s golden age, the role of the hag was the only place left to turn once you were no longer deemed a leading lady. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis starred in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – the horror film about two grotesque, ageing actresses living as virtual recluses – because as women in their 50s they were no longer considered for reputable parts. Even today a woman’s age is a contentious point and many actresses have come forward to say that they were rejected for roles due to their age. Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise) recently stated that she was once told she was too old for a part despite her male co-star being 20 years her senior. Hollywood serves as a constant reminder that while the leading man is allowed to age gracefully, the leading lady must stay young. Men get older, women get old.
Hollywood's gendered ageing hypocrisy reaches its final form within the horror genre and A24's recent slasher X, starring Mia Goth, is a prime example. The film pits young pornographers against an elderly couple, reinstating the played-out trope of sexually active youths against miserable, ageing monsters. Hagsploitation is a term coined to express horror’s obsession with creating an image of the older woman as a monstrous hag. No longer able to produce life, she must be seen as the epitome of death and decay, holding on as her body withers before us.
In The Shining (1980), Jack (Jack Nicholson) enters the haunted room 237 and is greeted by a young naked woman (Lia Beldam). She rises from the bathtub and approaches him with a flirtatious embrace. Once Jack's arms are around the woman, her body morphs. As he pulls away, we see an older woman, tits sagging, stomach no longer taut, her body hanging off her frame. Jack is visibly disgusted by her ageing body and by his arousal in proximity to her.
How are women ever going to come to terms with the inevitability of ageing when the only representations of our older bodies are used to horrify?
Ryan Murphy’s first season of American Horror Story (2011) includes a similarly afflicted female ghost. Moira, played as her young self by Alexandra Breckenridge and by Frances Conroy when she's older, appears in two forms: a young seductress and a half-blind old maid. It is revealed that Moira appears as her older or younger self depending on the gender of the person looking at her. According to Moira, men need to "objectify, conquer" while women "see into the soul of a person". This explanation does not excuse the show's clear attempt to horrify through Moira’s older self.
Moira flits between the form of a twentysomething maid in a short uniform, showing off her stockings, and an older woman with grey hair whose uniform covers her knees. As the point of view switches from one character to another, we see the sexualised young woman and the ageing servant. In one scene Moira is caught seducing Ben (Dylan McDermott) by his teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Ben interprets her shock as distress over his adulterous ways but when we see the scene through Violet’s eyes, Moira is the older woman about to mount her father. It’s one thing to catch your dad in the act with a young woman; this scene suggests that an older woman’s sexual desire is all the more repulsive.
Forty years stand between The Shining and today but there is no let-up in horror's representation of older women as repugnant, decrepit forms. Ti West’s X centres around a group of adult entertainers who journey to an isolated farm to make a pornographic film. On the surface it seems to view sex through an empowering and positive lens. In one scene the young film crew debates the difference between sex and love, and ethical non-monogamy is so forthrightly defended that it allows us to hope that a sex-positive attitude will continue throughout.
Unfortunately, the film's sex positivity turns out to be age-dependent. In an impassioned speech, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) declares her refusal to be shamed for her open lifestyle. "Everybody likes sex," she says, "queer, straight, black, white, it's all disco." But she also reminds her peers that "one day we’re gonna be too old to fuck", a sentiment that reverberates through the film. Toeing the line of horror and Hollywood, X implements a clear cut-off point at which enjoying sex stops being enticing and becomes gross. The age gap between the young Maxine Minx (Mia Goth, 28) and her onscreen beau, Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson, 47), once again reminds us that the cut-off for exploring sexual pleasure is different for men and women.
X’s ageism continues predictably, as the old woman who lives on the farm is revealed to be the film’s villain. She creeps around the property in a nightgown, her hair falling out and her wrinkling skin tinged with a grey pallor, implying her closeness to death. Despite being X's main antagonist, she does not appear on IMDb’s cast list for the film, suggesting this hag is not even human. She is merely a cliché of the genre, materialising when required.
Our bodies are sexualised only when they suggest fertility; the minute we can no longer reproduce, we become abhorrent.
To make matters worse, the old lady's murderous streak is brought on by her unquenched sexual desire. Her anger at the pleasure enjoyed by the young group causes her to fly into a jealous killing spree. She tries to initiate sexual contact with Maxine on multiple occasions, her exaggeratedly wrinkled skin rubbing up against Maxine’s taut, supple body. Highlighting the old woman’s sexual urges, these scenes aim to evoke the same repulsion felt by Violet fleeing her dad or Jack stumbling away in shock from the woman in the bathtub. The idea that someone of her age could still have sexual needs is intended to send shivers down our spine.
It harks back to society’s obsession with youth and particularly the youth of the feminine form. This year's Oscar-nominated, dark romantic comedy The Worst Person in the World deals spectacularly with the overbearing societal pressures on women. Julie (Renate Reinsve), who is on the brink of 30, is constantly nagged to make up her mind concerning her life, her career and whether she will ever be ready to have children. This constant pressure comes to a head during a bad psychedelic trip where she envisions her naked older body. She grabs hold of her sagging tits – no longer the perky breasts of her late 20s – as if to suggest that, without holding on, they will drop to the floor. Society has conditioned Julie, like the rest of us, to see her ageing body as a thing to be feared.
How are women ever going to come to terms with the inevitability of ageing when the only representations of our older bodies are used to horrify? The sagging breast is supposed to repulse its audience, as if it is no longer worthy of intimate touch once it ceases to produce milk. Our bodies are sexualised only when they suggest fertility; the minute we can no longer reproduce, we become abhorrent. The objectification may not be sexual but it remains: the ageing feminine form is still detached from the person who inhabits the body. Hopefully, eventually, a day will come where cinema accepts the ageing femme with the open arms that it does its masculine counterpart. This recurring hagsploitation, in one of A24's biggest releases this year, is a reminder that we are nowhere near that day yet.
X is in cinemas now.