Book Club is a Big Step for Older Women’s Sexuality, But Is It Enough?

The summer blockbuster Book Club  – starring acting giants like Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton – gives some long-awaited visibility to the complex sex lives of older women, but it’s nowhere near a perfect film (and it’s not pretending to me). Here’s why Annie Fell loved it.

I don’t want to belong to any club that wouldn’t have Diane Keaton for a member. Like First Wives Club before it, Book Club is helmed by Keaton as its narrator and follows a tight group of friends played by legendary actresses who would otherwise be left to waste in rapping grandma roles. But instead of banding together after being left for younger women, as in First Wives Club, Keaton’s new club gets its groove back after reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Keaton, along with Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen, poke fun at their age without making themselves the butt of the joke; that they’re basically a septuagenarian version of Sex and the City isn’t Book Club’s gag but, rather, it’s a situational comedy that takes a lighthearted approach to the “controversial” topic of sex and love in your golden years.

The women in the quartet, who have held a weekly book club since the 1970s, are all going through different relationship troubles when they start reading Fifty Shades: Keaton struggles with feeling like an old woman in the wake of her husband’s death; Steenburgen is in a loving but sexless marriage; Bergen is still hung up on her ex-husband after nearly two decades of separation; and Fonda, a wealthy hotelier and lifelong devotee of the zipless fuck, struggles with resurfacing feelings after an ex-boyfriend from decades ago (the only man she’s ever had an emotional connection with) checks into her hotel. Each of the friends is feeling stagnant in some way, and when Fonda tries to perk them up by introducing Fifty Shades, there is the predictable crack: “It says it’s for mature audiences?” “Certainly sounds like us.”

The movie is laden with heavy-handed but delightfully corny symbolism; the first book the club ever read was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying—the seminal second-waver novel that was controversial for its stark depiction of women’s sexuality—and forty-something years (in the film’s present) later Diane Keaton’s widowed character gets over her literal fear of flying by dating a handsome salt-and-peppered pilot. Bergen’s character, who hasn’t had sex in the eighteen years since her divorce, has an overly-sedentary cat whom a veterinarian dubiously declares a “lazy pussy.” Cheap laughs are a hallmark of the classic rom-com, and I would have been deeply disappointed if the movie weren’t over-seasoned with winking euphemisms (and, not to mention, overt product placement for Bumble and Buca di Beppo). I’m a sucker for an easy gag. It’s comforting in the same way that pizza and the Today Show are—it has little value, but it’s reliable. Despite its corniness (or perhaps because of it?), Book Club is often genuinely funny. Personally, I’m less moved by subtle, dry humor than by the image of Candice Bergen screaming while wearing a face mask in her technologically-challenged Bumble profile picture.

Book Club’s conceit is that it’s not over until it’s really and truly over. Specifically, sex will be an inescapable component of your life until the day you die. Our society upholds and reinforces the strange assumption that women become sexless once they become eligible for a senior discount, which manifests both culturally (e.g., the dearth of multi-dimensional roles in film and TV for women over 40) and personally (see: the self-imposed celibacy of Bergen’s character: “If women our age were meant to have sex, god wouldn’t do what he does to our bodies”).  Fonda’s character acts as the feminist voice of reason, forcing her friends to spit out the kool-aid and realize that they’re all still sexual beings, no matter what gravity has inflicted on their T&A.

While sexually empowered young women are “slutty,” the representation of sexual older women is essentially non-existent. Where Fear of Flying was a pivotal portrayal of young female desire, Book Club acts as a call to arms for older women to also embrace the complexities of their own sexuality. Only in the latter’s case, the politically-charged declaration is made by a 70-something woman slipping a Viagra into her husband’s beer – in a lot of ways, the movie’s humor resembles that of frat-bro movies like Superbad or American Pie. That Book Club feels so corny and familiar, however, could be a boon in its mission to normalize the complex sexualities of older women.

That said, Book Club’s blinding whiteness certainly puts a damper on its political importance. I don’t think there was one non-white character throughout the entire movie, especially given that the four leads really only interacted with each other and their (white) love interests. It took me far too long to realize, when thinking about all the actresses I would have also loved to see in the movie—Goldie Hawn, Raquel Welch, and Andrea Martin, for what it’s worth—that there are disturbingly few elderly actresses of color who have had comparably lengthy careers in comedy to those of Keaton, Fonda, Bergen, and Steenburgen. If nothing else, it should be classified as a felony that Jackée wasn’t cast in this.

It’s also important to note that the women in this movie are specifically wealthy white women, both on- and off-screen. It’s relatively easy to subvert the “old crone” trope when you have enough money to look like Jane Fonda does at 80. To echo critiques of second-wave feminism (that particular “wave” is something the film actively contends with throughout), is it really revolutionary if only certain people are being liberated? Obviously, no. To watch a group of wealthy and still traditionally attractive white women go fucking bonkers over a book that’s been considered dangerous in its sketchy portrayal of consent in BDSM is… unnerving, if not unintentionally regressive, even if the characters don’t actually participate in anything particularly kinky.

It’s difficult to reconcile Book Club’s white feminism with how much I enjoyed it. While it falls pretty far short politically, it is still nice to see these oft-overlooked actresses getting dynamic comedic roles of some kind. I would like to see this movie remade many times; It should be required that America produce at least one ensemble piece for older comedic actresses every year, and I would be more than pleased if it had to be an annual (diversified and generally improved upon) Book Club reboot. As the conclusion of each woman’s story was soundtracked by Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” I felt a tiny catch in my throat, and I don’t think it was just because I forgot to take my sertraline the night before. Among the myriad superhero franchises and half-baked action movies, seeing a traditional feel-good rom-com – especially one featuring a tragically underrepresented group – did actually feel really, really good. But, it still begs the question: who is this escapism actually for?

Annie Fell is a boy about town. You can follow her on Twitter.



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