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Helen Mirren shows women can age beautifully, but we shouldn’t have to

“One of my biggest regrets,” said the writer Nora Ephron, “is that I didn’t spend my youth staring lovingly at my neck.” When she looked in a mirror, she explained, she would pull the skin back and “stare wistfully at a younger version” of herself. She might, she said, be “wise and sage and mellow”, but she still tried to avert her eyes. She wrote this in an essay, and a book, called I Feel Bad About My Neck.

Some of us might be tempted to write an essay called I Feel Bad About the Weird Lines on Either Side of My Mouth or I Feel Bad That I Look Worried Even When I’m Not. But if Helen Mirren has ever been tempted to write an essay like this, she hasn’t shown much sign of it. What she did say, when she was made the new face of L’Oréal this week, was that she hoped she would “inspire other women towards greater confidence” by making the most of their looks. “I am not gorgeous,” she said. “I never was, but I was always OK looking and I’m keen to stay that way.”

If Mirren isn’t gorgeous, then heaven help the rest of us. Most people think she’s as gorgeous as the Cleopatra she once played. Mirren is so gorgeous that men of all ages will look at a photo of her, perhaps in a swimsuit, and make a comment along the lines of: actually, they wouldn’t mind. They do, it’s true, sometimes say this as if they expect someone to give them a medal. They seem to think that expressing sexual interest in a woman over the age of 50 – in a woman, in fact, who’s 69 – is smashing some law of nature, and perhaps a Guinness record.

In this, unfortunately, they might be right. According to recent research from OKCupid, one of the largest dating agencies in the world, women are mostly attracted to men of their own age. Men of all ages are attracted to women in their 20s. And aren’t very good at maths. No wonder some American actors seems to feel pressured into having some pretty radical work. It might seem like less hassle than sitting down to write I Feel Bad About My Face.

But Mirren, thank the Lord, doesn’t feel bad about her face. She doesn’t have a beauty routine. She doesn’t look like someone who has had work done. She looks like a woman who has lived a bit, and laughed a lot, and who knows she has been lucky in her looks, but also knows that how you look is a pretty small part of who you are. She looks, in fact, like a woman who is happy in her skin. “The weird thing is,” she says, “you get more comfortable in yourself, even as time is giving you less reason for it. When you’re young and beautiful, you’re paranoid and miserable. And then you’re older and it’s ironic.”

Yes, it is ironic that as you get older, and happier, and more at ease with how you look, and who you are, that’s when the world doesn’t seem to want to put you in places where you might be seen. Women who are 65 to 79, according to the Annual Population Survey, are likely to “report significantly higher ratings of feeling worthwhile and happiness than any other age group”. But no one ever gets to hear about this because as they get happier, their market value plummets. The rule seems to be that if you’re over 60 and want your photo in the paper, and you’re not called Helen Mirren, you’d better be called Joanna Lumley.

From TV, the message is clear. If you want someone to tell you about the world, what you need is a white-haired man. These men – like Jeremy Paxman (64), David Dimbleby (76) and John Simpson (70) – will often be referred to as middle-aged, as if they were expected to have the life span of an Old Testament prophet. Women, on the other hand, as Miriam O’Reilly discovered when she was booted out of Countryfile, are older at 50. Only 18% of TV presenters are women over the age of 50. If you want to work in TV, and still have a job when the grey hairs start, you should probably get good at baking cakes.

On Tuesday, Fran Unsworth, the deputy director of BBC news and current affairs, told a hearing of the House of Lords communications committee that broadcasters had assumed people didn’t want to watch older women on TV without actually working out whether it was true. She was speaking, by the way, on behalf of an organisation that runs on almost £4bn of public funds.

So, let’s make it clear: we do. We don’t want to switch on our TVs, or open our newspapers, and feel that any woman who looks like a woman has been bundled out of sight, in case a child should see her crow’s feet and scream. We’d quite like to think that the work we do to shape the world is sometimes seen. We would, in other words, quite like to think that when you see a wrinkle on a woman’s face, or a creased neck, or a worried frown, it’s not just to advertise a cream.

The headline and standfirst of this article were amended shortly after publication at the writer’s request.

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