The Privilege of a New Start
The Australian media mogul and Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, 92 (recently divorced from fourth wife, the supermodel Jerry Hall), has announced his engagement to Ann Lesley Smith, 66, whose past careers include police chaplain, model and singer-songwriter.
Even if he admits to “falling in love,” as he told The New York Post, why rush back into marriage, especially considering all the legal and financial complications that surely attend a union in which one party is a nonagenarian billionaire?
A cynical explanation would be that a love story offers an ideal distraction for Mr. Murdoch. It could deflect media attention from the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought against his company Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, which may go to trial next month.
But there may be another reason Mr. Murdoch would trouble himself to marry again at this stage of life: Because he can.
Getting married is one of life’s big signposts. It brings a sense of adventure and possibilities. Every wedding is a frontier, dividing one’s life into a before and an after. And that creation of a new “after” imbues all weddings, no matter the age of the participants, with an aura of youth.
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Mr. Murdoch acknowledged as much himself, telling The New York Post (which he owns), “We’re both looking forward to spending the second half of our lives together.” While an ironic, even witty remark, his words nonetheless contain that sense of futurity, of more life left, that new marriage conjures.
Everyone has a right to pursue such pleasures, but the playing field is hardly level. To become a newlywed at 92, having found a highly accomplished partner 26 years one’s junior, surely counts among the world’s rarest privileges — for which it obviously helps to be a billionaire, and, crucially, a man.
Let’s face it, few women who reach their 90s can expect to find suitors, and certainly not suitors young enough to be their own children. Women of elder years do not circulate easily in the dating and marriage market. (Quick thought exercise, just reverse the couple’s ages and genders here and do a plausibility check: Dianne Feinstein, 89, and Andy Garcia, 66? The late Queen Elizabeth, 96 when she died, and Tom Hanks, 66?)
Humans, especially over 50, yearn to stave off mortality, but our culture encourages men and women to do that in very different ways. Women are often encouraged to practice “anti-aging,” to plump and highlight, tighten and tone ourselves into the closest possible approximation of an eternally 38-year-old woman. This is especially true for women in the public eye: women on television, in films or in the news, and women who marry billionaires.
All too often, remaining a publicly viable woman in the second half of life means — paradoxically — doing one’s utmost to look like one is still in the first half of life. Being visible as a woman, that is, requires making one’s age invisible. It’s a conflictual, not to say crazy-making diktat, to follow.
With her smooth skin, flowing auburn hair and gleaming smile, Ms. Smith (Mr. Murdoch’s fiancée) looks considerably younger than her years. Recent photos show her tan and fit in a yellow bikini while relaxing on a beach and frolicking in the surf with a swimsuit-clad Mr. Murdoch.
Physical signs of aging, even of extreme age, do not carry much stigma for men. Instead, men like Mr. Murdoch resist old age — and permit themselves (even if jokingly) to speak of entering, at 92, the “second half” of their lives — by focusing outward, through the agency of other people, acquiring younger (and “anti-aged”) companions to inspire or energize them.
This week, just as those photos of Mr. Murdoch and Ms. Smith appeared, a former Fox employee filed a lawsuit against the company in New York’s Southern District. In her suit, Abby Grossberg, a booker for “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” alleges that she was “subjected to vile sexist stereotypes,” and “overworked, undervalued” and “denied opportunities for promotion” because she was a woman.
According to Ms. Grossberg, considerable ageism accompanied the sexism she encountered. She claims, for example, that a senior male colleague referred to the Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo, 55, as “menopausal” and “hysterical.” Ms. Grossberg also described the walls of Tucker Carlson’s office as plastered with “large images of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a plunging bathing suit revealing her cleavage.”
Displaying those photos of Ms. Pelosi, who is over 80, was meant to strip her of her power, to demean and belittle one of the most powerful women in the world. On the other hand, press photos of the (far older) Mr. Murdoch in a swimsuit, girlfriend by his side, are presumed to accomplish the opposite, drawing attention to his power and virility, his ability to attract yet another much-younger spouse.
What does such a dichotomy do to us all? How are we affected by the continual stream of media messages that celebrate men’s power and vitality throughout their lives — wrinkles, baldness and sagging be damned — while encouraging women to erase or disguise every last possible sign of age in order to remain in the public arena?
Vanity is a natural part of the human condition and there’s no moral crime in looking one’s best, however we accomplish this. But age catches up with us all, and in the end, isn’t this implicit erasure of women’s “second halves” a form of lying, a subtle pressure on women themselves to lie? To tamp themselves down? To agonize over their age?
And is it just possible that a culture accustomed to such constant dissembling of aging and mortality in women grows inured also to accepting other habitual forms of dissembling: broader falsehoods, tiny to consequential, about those in power and those who have none? What changes might ensue if we granted all women a fully visible, ocean-wadingly free, second half?
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