Originally posted on Forbes.com.
Ever since Caitlyn Jenner made her grand debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, the Internet has been on fire with commentary and criticism about whether she is to be hailed for being true to herself (and—damn!—sexy in the process), or whether she and her VF stylists are to be criticized for conforming to, and reinforcing, cisgender notions of conventional beauty.
For anyone who somehow missed that debate, The Guardian published a solid overview, asking if we like her because she’s brave or because she’s pretty. And Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox raised more good questions on her Tumblr. It’s a discussion worth having, but I’m not going to pile on here.
What seems to have gotten lost in all this celebration and controversy is that Caitlyn is 65. 65!
It used to be that 65 was the end of life. It was retirement age, the start of Social Security, the transition from adulthood to old age. Not anymore. As Caitlyn has shown, it’s now merely the beginning of the next act.
Most people’s late-life reinventions won’t be anywhere near as major as Caitlyn’s, but if she chose this moment to make her momentous transition, there’s a new expectation that other women will go boldly into their seventh decades reinventing themselves professionally, following new passions, creating new identities. Today’s sexagenarians aren’t almost done; they’ve barely begun.
And then there’s the way she looks. Granted, a team of top-notch stylists, makeup artists and digital retouchers (not to mention Annie Leibovitz and her flattering lighting and photographic magic) worked behind the scenes on that Vanity Fair shoot, but Caitlyn looks amazing—fit and happy, as well as beautiful. It sure isn’t what 65 used to look like. In her interview with Diane Sawyer (whom, at age 69, we have always consider a poster girl for aging well), we saw that she still has it going on.
For years, when talking about baby boomers’ unwillingness to grow old, marketers have been saying that “60 is the new 30.” But we’ve meant it half-jokingly. Maybe 40-year-olds can be the “new 30” (with the right colorist and Botox guy) in physical terms, but until not that long ago, women were out of the running past a certain point.
Then Sandra Bullock, Heidi Klum, Halle Berry and many others proved sex appeal lasts past 40. Michelle Pfeiffer and Christie Brinkley after 50. Cher and new Tony winner Helen Mirren in their late 60s. And Jane Fonda presents a compelling case for almost 80.
Even so, as Amy Schumer (34), Tina Fey (45), Patricia Arquette (47) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (54) recently pointed out, there’s still generally an expiration date for actresses. Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37, was recently told she’s too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old actor. Even the youngest members of Caitlyn’s own famous clan, Kylie and Kendall, ages 17 and 19, were quoted last week saying they didn’t want to get any older.
In my own business—marketing communications, aka big advertising and PR—other than the occasional grand dame who gets away with ruling the roost into her 60s because she is so darn good, most women seem to wander into smaller agencies and/or markets or become sole practitioners by their 50th birthday. I hope this is just my paranoia and not factually accurate, but I know that butter chunks and fillers are non-reimbursable costs of business (no, don’t try and submit to the IRS, but trust me, I know a girl has got to do what she has got to do.…).
But Caitlyn—at least the idealized magazine-and-TV Caitlyn—makes us question expiration dates. Let’s put gender aside. That still leaves a lot to consider. She isn’t just advancing awareness of transgender people, as important as that is; she’s shaping our idea of what a 65-year-old woman can do and be. She’s changing the rules for all women.
If I had a vision of 65 and what people at that milestone have remaining on their bucket list, Caitlyn Jenner has inspired me to think more broadly and dream more vividly. Although I still have at least a decade of living before I get there, the newest Ms. Jenner has given me hope and a wonderful thought: Growing old might just be an awesome gift. Unlike her daughters Kylie and Kendall, I’m looking forward to it.