Here’s a multiple choice SAT question: If Article II of the US Constitution says a person must be 35 years old to be president; and if — as Don Lemon says — a woman is in her prime only until age 49; and if the president needs to be in his or her prime: how many years is a woman eligible to serve in the office?
A) A woman can definitely be president but it has to be the right woman, and this one, whoever she is, isn’t right.
B) Is she good looking, but not so good looking that it’s distracting?
C) She has a 14-year window, from ages 35 to 49, or a slightly more generous time slot than the 10 years Miss America contestants get before they age out at 28.
The news cycle has moved on since Lemon, a co-host of CNN This Morning, was forced to apologize for insisting that a woman is in her prime in her 20s, 30s and “maybe 40s” — but women sure haven’t. The anger is flaring on Twitter’s public square, in the privacy of the ladies room at the office, and on the Oscars stage.
On Sunday night, a radiant, emotional — and 60-year-old — Michelle Yeoh, the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star, raised her golden best actress statuette and said, to wild applause, “Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.”
Was this a jab at @donlemon for his recent comments about women 'being past their prime' after their 40's ?— Stephanie Hamill (@STEPHMHAMILL) March 13, 2023
"This is proof that dreams dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, don't let anybody tell you -you are ever past your prime." ~ Michelle Yeoh #Oscars2023 @theMRC pic.twitter.com/AR74RA8eZC
In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, Lemon, who is 56 (which means he’s basically still a boy in man years), mistakenly said what he was thinking during a discussion of 51-year-old Nikki Haley’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
After the uproar, Lemon agreed to undergo “formal training,” and so presumably will never offend in this particular way again. But in fact, Lemon is far from the whole problem. He merely surfaced a situation that’s so pervasive we don’t even regularly rage against it: society defines what constitutes a woman’s “prime.”
This state of affairs doesn’t have a formal name, but let’s call it the Chico Marx Catch-22. Here’s the story: Chico — a member of the famous Marx Brothers comedy group — wrote a journalist a check to pay off the gambling debts he owed him and warned him not to cash it before noon the next day, according to the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes.
But the check bounced, and when the journalist complained to Chico, Chico asked when he had tried to cash it. Five minutes after noon the journalist said.
“Too late,” said Chico.
Chico’s check was good for less than five minutes. What about women? How long do we get between the time we reach our so-called prime and before our game is over? A year, a week? Or maybe we’re looking at only a single day, or perhaps a lone golden hour.
The problem is that we’re being squeezed on both ends. “I think by male definition ‘hot’ is between 18 and 29,” a woman who owns her own business wrote in response to a Globe Facebook query on the topic, “but they don’t take women seriously at all at that age. Then we are unreliable from 30 to 50 while raising children. Then we are irrelevant at 50-plus.”
Never mind that many women report that it’s not until their 50s or 60s or beyond that they finally feel free, empowered, confident, PRIME. We’re ruled by sell-by dates.
Some age limits are well-known and in our faces. Goldie Hawn famously described the widespread attitude in Hollywood in The First Wives Club: “There are only three ages for women,” her character said. “Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.”
In 2015, comedian Amy Schumer went viral with her “Last F***able Day” sketch. Walking through the woods, Schumer comes upon Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette enjoying a picnic, and, it turns out, celebrating the day Louis-Dreyfus became too old to be considered sexy in Hollywood.
Sometimes age rules are invisible, but powerful nonetheless. Like a dog’s electronic fence, they train us to police ourselves.
Not long ago a friend in her late 50s walked into a store called Brandy Melville (a good place to meet your cropped lace tank and pleated mini skirt needs) and she was so afraid the sales women would think she was misguided enough to be shopping there for herself that she started calling out the moment she entered.
“I’m shopping for my daughter,” she yelled.
Meanwhile, even though many women have turned against Don Lemon — and indeed the ratings for CNN This Morning were reportedly higher during his brief hiatus from the show — he did start a conversation about the entire concept of “prime” and has given women a way to own their life stage, even if just a tiny bit.
“You look good,” I observed one 61-year-old telling another, pause, smile, “for a woman who’s not in her prime.”