We Have Reached Peak Granny
Granny hair, granny panties, grannies all over popular media — what does the visibility of older women and the fashions associated with them suggest about our current cultural moment?
Julie Gerstein: Ladies, are grannies having a moment? The emergence of gray hair, or “granny hair,” as a trend among young women, the re-cool-ing of Birkenstocks, Tevas, and other granny fashions, and the badass old lady tribe of Vuvelini in Mad Max: Fury Road to the ballsy grandmas on Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin — old women are HAVING A MOMENT. What’s exciting about this is that women have heretofore been expected to just disappear once they reach a certain age — your viability as a woman has always seemingly been linked to you ability to be perceived as attractive. So it’s really interesting that right now we’re at a point when more than ever old women are being SEEN and ACKNOWLEDGED in new ways.
Anne Helen Petersen: This is especially fascinating given the unchanging attitude of the industry in general about aging women, as manifested so poignantly in this Maggie Gyllenhaal story from last week: At age 37, she had been told she was “too old” to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. So these older women — and the fashions associated with them — are increasingly visible, but are they given agency? Are they allowed to be sexual creatures? And is this something that’s only available to a certain TYPE of granny?
Jessica Probus: It’s historically been allowed for "grannies" and people with a "granny" aesthetic to be sage and wise, and represent a sort of nonsexual addition to any group or narrative. You have this wisdom that you've gained from a life that you can now pass on without being seen as elitist or threatening because that's your main contribution to the scenario.
Now that younger, more traditionally attractive women are taking on this style, it becomes more about straddling the wisdom element and the still-sexually viable element.
JG: The type of granny question is a crucial. Unquestionably, a large portion of these grannies are white women. Certainly there have always been older women who’ve been fetishized as sex objects — Sophia Loren or Helen Mirren — women who’ve ~managed~ somehow to subvert their age and retain their sexiness despite being advanced in years. But what’s interesting to me is that this current flux of granny interest seems to have nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with personhood, experience, wisdom, and maybe even, weirdly, a departure from sexiness. Certainly the “granny hair” trend is largely rejected by mainstream culture as “anti-sexy,” so it’s interesting to see it appropriated by young women. Women trying on a look that’s all about a time in your life when you’ve been ostensibly stripped of your ability to attract.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller: I think we’re seeing both “granny style” and “granny hair”… which seems to have nothing to really do with older women at all (as a quick search of the Instagram tags shows [https://instagram.com/explore/tags/grannyhair/ and https://instagram.com/explore/tags/grandmastyle/]) and then there’s the feeling that older women are staying relevant, are having careers, are being seen and heard as human beings. Maybe sexual, or maybe not… both of those qualities can be subversive when you think about it.
AHP: Not catering to the male gaze is super subversive! It’s like a style designed for the female gaze, which is something I think I first heard you say, Jess.
JP: Yes! This is something Man Repeller was originally very into, and also applies to things like Birkenstocks, Tevas, etc. that are more granny style and comfortable but also have become fashion-forward in a certain way.
JG: That’s like your hippie grandma who lives in Vermont and is always trying to make you go vegan.
RWM: A lot of younger women, in general, are saying “fuck it” to uncomfortable fashion/accessories and have found support for their DGAF attitude through the internet, Instagram, etc. It’s easier to go ahead with your Birkenstocks or whatever; there’s a push for authenticity and doing what you want to do, and it’s easier to see examples of other women who are doing that and feel inspired to do the same.
One of the things I like about the granny hair trend on younger women is that it’s so clearly not natural. Women are often told they have to be natural to be beautiful, and the women who are rocking it are (for the most part) in their early twenties and don’t seem to actually be going gray.
JG: I also think it’s weirdly a reaction against how we’re told we’re not supposed to age, right? Anti-aging products and hair dye and all of that shit is a bazillion-dollar (scientific number) industry, and for women to actively embrace the thing that they’ve been expressly marketed to avoid is actually way subversive too.
RWM: But are we seeing women in their forties getting in on the granny hair trend? Because so much of what I’ve seen is beautiful white women in their early twenties. I’m not sure how much is a rejection of the anti-aging stuff. One exception to that is blogger Ty Alexander, aka Gorgeous in Grey, whose entire “brand” is centered on the fact that she’s a young, fashionable, confident woman…who also happens to have gray hair.
JG: Not yet, but I think it’s a step. Visibility is important. Hopefully, these things are micro-steps toward a pivot in the way we perceive ourselves and our notions of beauty and aging. As we open up the door to more perceptions of beauty, more ideas of what looks "good," we can kind of come to question what we previously thought was the only way.
JP: Right, like if this was a conscious movement (which I’m still not sure it is), maybe the goal would be for anyone who actually has true gray hair to feel completely empowered to rock it. But that’s a totally different scenario. Even my mom, who is not old at all, says things like “only young people can wear loafers.”
AHP: Same with “granny underwear,” which the Times Styles section is currently celebrating — and is actually just, well, underwear that’s not in your butt. It’s only the last few decades that “granny panties” have been figured as the apotheosis of asexuality — what you wear when you’ve given up on your relationship, your life, your future, whatever — but they’re actually just a privileging of comfort, ease, and confidence over societally designated understandings of what a silhouette (or undergarments) should look like.
RWM: But that also sort of presumes that full-butt underwear isn’t or can’t be sexy. High-waisted, full-bottom underwear was seen as sexy for a long time! Even the Times article has a quote from a proponent of granny panties: “To be honest, men are into girls in T-shirts and white underwear.” There’s that pesky male gaze again! (Though, to be clear, I don’t think most women care that much about what dudes think of their underwear, or that it’s a bad thing if women want their boyfriends to think they look sexy.)
JG: OH GOOD FOR MEN.
AHP: I want to conceive of this whole diffuse grannyness as pushing back against post-feminism — and the re-embrace of regimenting the body (through thongs, body waxing, waist trainers) that it entails. Is that too hopeful?
RWM: It’s so hard to know; I think some of it certainly is. Leandra Medine (the woman behind Man Repeller) is an outspoken feminist. And wearing a fanny pack is a small way that I fight the patriarchy every day.
JP: I’m more pessimistic about it, too. I imagine the original granny hair wasn’t a tribute to the heyday of The Golden Girls but more like someone who was tired of copying people's bleached blonde hair and thought, How can I go even lighter? ...and then accidentally made a beautiful shade of gray.
RWM: Yep, or the extension of the pale-violet hair trend… though “blue hair” has been associated with grandmas for a long time.
JP: But even if that’s true and it was an accident it can still be used to create visibility and acceptance for various forms of post-post-feminist radical acceptance.
JG: Agree, Jess, because here’s the thing: Hair or no, I do feel like we are being treated to maybe SEEING MORE ACTUAL OLD WOMEN IN OUR LIVES?
RWM: I think that is a thing for sure and I’m all about it. It’s due, at least in some part, to younger people responding positively to content featuring these women and telling their stories.
AHP: The hope is always for a diversity of representations when it comes to that visibility, too — not just the Monolithic Wacky Granny as manifested in the form of Betty White. So you have Abuela on Jane the Virgin, who’s young for a grandma, widowed, religious, hilarious, undocumented, and almost uniquely speaks Spanish, and the very bougie Jane Fonda and hippy Lily Tomlin of Grace and Frankie, and then the Vuvalini of Mad Max ...
JG: ...Who were totally the best part of Mad Max. I feel like the fact that you not only saw a gang of older women on screen — which is a total rare thing — but that you also saw a gang of old women on screen with a ton of AGENCY. They were actually vital to the story — and, ultimately, so much more useful than the younger women. They SAVE Furiosa and Mad Max! That’s such a statement.
RWM: Some of the best story arcs on the last season of Orange Is the New Black had older women at the heart of them too — I’m thinking of Jimmy and her “compassionate release,” or even the conflict between Red and Vi. These women aren’t little old ladies, but they certainly aren’t twentysomethings. And we cared about them, and about their stories.
AHP: It’s not insignificant that both Grace and Frankie and Orange Is the New Black are Netflix shows — a corporation that reverse-engineers its shows based on the people and preferences of those actually watching, as opposed to the orientating them to demographics that advertisers covet. I’m not suggesting that the “covetable” (read: snakeperson) demographic doesn’t watch these shows; rather, these shows don’t have to worry about adhering the advertiser's old-fashioned and narrowly circumscribed tastes.
JP: It’s also significant that both these shows explore boundaries of queerness — there’s something about the varying values of attractiveness and operating outside the societal norm that opens you up to any kind of sartorial or behavioral variance.
AHP: Yes, let’s talk sartorial variance. In Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda wears lots of rich aging person drapey cardigans, but she also wears bodycon dresses and looks great. Everyone remarks on how good she looks, but the show also interrogates the sort of harsh deprivations she’s had to put herself through in order to maintain what is essentially a non-granny figure as she nears 80 years old. There’s a true revelation when she tastes ice cream for the first time in years: Like, why have I been depriving myself of pleasure? Whose purposes does a “perfect” body, even at this age, actually serve? And as for sartorial deviance, Lily Tomlin’s wardrobe features the stand-by floral skirts, but also a pretty sick Ramones muscle tee. Imagine that: Older women have biceps.
JP: Maybe what this is all leading to is a tranference where young women are allowed to display the qualities formerly held by elderly women and older women are allowed to display things formerly only expected or praised on young'uns. Maybe the Venn diagrams of acceptable female qualities are merging into one circle of FUCK YOU I DO/WEAR/AM WHAT I WANT, which is obviously ideal.
JG: Again, for me, this all comes back to visibility. We need to see all of these things. We need to see all of these options of young and old — all of these ages and bodies and see that you don’t magically go off to die in a cave when you turn 45, despite what Hollywood might have previously told us, you don’t have to blast your body into a plastic surgery chimera or render yourself into an innocuous “safe,” nonthreatening old person when you get to be a certain age. That’s what I feel like these older women, and these cultural moments are providing.
AHP: There are so many ways to be a woman that don't involve a being nubile, white, and dewy-skinned. Peak granny may be a fad, but it’s also surfacing one of those alternate ways in a manner that’s ultimately both provocative and powerful.