The aging actress sits alone onstage in a pool of light, holding a script. The audience watches from the darkness. Joan Hotchkis is reenacting a casting call for a commercial. Not exactly the pinnacle of her career aspirations, but hey, it's work. As she relives the scene, she muses about some of the actresses waiting their turn; they are competitors for the gig. Boy, she thinks, some of them are hardly recognizable these days. Skin so taut from face-lifts. Those perpetually surprised looks. Wind-tunnel city. Ugh. Paranoia sets in: Maybe they don't recognize her either. She's had one, too, you know. And as a matter of fact, she's thinking about having another.
Still, you have to be impressed. She's no ingenue, yet she's vying for a shampoo commercial. You know what kind of women get those parts: beautiful women, women with thick silky hair, the kind of hair we associate with vitality, with youth and, yes, all right, with sex.
That is, after all, what sells. Right?
She reads the lines:
Harry, you must be kidding! After 25 years and I'm still beautiful? Must be the Prell.
The audience laughs. It's a resigned laugh, a subdued laugh, a laugh of recognition. Now we get it.
In her reenactment, the actress has demonstrated a profound cultural truth: an aging woman cannot just be beautiful and sell shampoo. For the spot to work, she must also mock her age.
The joke, ultimately, is on all of us, men and women alike: After a certain age, you can't be sexual. End of discussion. The Gods of Popular Culture will not permit it. It's a terrifying thought to those of us on the cusp of middle age and a stifling reality to those in its grip and beyond.
Which is why Hotchkis, the 69-year-old performance artist who plays this scene in her one-woman show, "Elements of Flesh, or Screwing Saved My Ass," is so refreshing, so revolutionary. The show, at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, is an ode to the pleasures of carnality, particularly in old age. And it is explicit.
"The reactions are violent," Hotchkis says. "If I were a young woman being graphic, there would be no problem at all. But it's the fact that I am old, sex-positive and erotic that hits a national nerve, and this nerve is a national psychosis almost."
But here is a prediction: Baby boomers, who began turning 50 last year, will not permit the persistence of the attitude that aging and sexuality are incompatible. The folks who brought you sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are not about to forfeit their libidinous pleasures just because their hair is graying, their waists are widening and their once-raging hormones are slowing to a trickle.
They will fight it, as the moisturizer commercial puts it, every step of the way.
(Did you happen to see Hillary Clinton during the president's State of the Union speech last week? Now, there's a woman at the half century mark who has never looked better or sexier--or blonder, for that matter. Call me shallow, but I found this far more reassuring about my own prospects for aging than anything her husband could tell me about his plan for Medicare.)
Menopause, of course, has dominated discussions of how baby boomer women, at least, will respond to late middle age. It's a medical condition--or at least a medicalized one--and as such is acceptable popular subject matter, since so many millions of women will be experiencing it in the next two decades (and there is so much money to be made by those who "treat" it). But sexuality in old age--for either gender--has hardly been addressed at all in a public way.
And some of the philosophizing around the menopause issue has been less than comforting: "To be unwanted is also to be free," wrote a post-menopausal Germaine Greer in her 1992 book, "The Change."
I don't know about you, but the way I see it is: To be unwanted is also to be . . . unwanted.
"And men suffer too," says Hotchkis, who I'd like to nominate as patron saint of aging boomer sex. "There are all these stereotypes about how they are sexually in their 20s. Then they slow down . . . and can get terribly depressed. But I think older men can have a much richer sex life." The inevitable sexual decelerating experienced by men, she says, can just as easily be thought of as a "handicap that turns into an opportunity."
Like we've been saying all along, guys, nothing wrong with slow.
Betty Friedan, author of the 1993 bestseller "The Fountain of Age," once said of baby boomers that "just as that generation made the new music in the youth movement of the 1960s, in the 1990s they will make the new songs of age."
You can practically hear it now: Come on baby, relight my fire.
* Robin Abcarian co-hosts a morning talk show on radio station KMPC-AM (710). Her column appears on Wednesdays.