The Youthful Structure of the Look
The expression “the youthful structure of the look” refers to the youthful gaze we all adopt, regardless of our age, when looking at/viewing older people. This gaze is culturally charged with negative preconceived notions of old age as decline (See “Ageism”).
The expression “the youthful structure of the look” was first used by Kathleen Woodward in “Youthfulness as a Masquerade” (1989) and later developed in her influential piece “Performing Age, Performing Gender” (2006). Woodward defines this expression as “the culturally induced tendency to degrade and reduce an older person to the prejudicial category of old age” through practices of looking (2006, p. 164). Focusing on the exploration of different forms of visual arts – film, photography, sculpture, etc. – Woodward (2006, p. 163) scrutinizes how American culture presents aging as decline and, furthermore, how age is structured by gender. Likewise, she presents the conceptualization of age/aging in six areas: biologically, chronologically, socially, culturally, psychologically, and statistically; areas that determine the displacement of aging women in society.
Following Margaret M. Gullette’s (2004) notion that we are aged by culture, and women are aged “long before men,” Woodward (2006) exposes how the ageism characteristic of American youth culture mostly and more forcefully affects women. Hence the mainstream visual culture depicts older women as sexless, unproductive, and unattractive, among other negative qualities, in relation to the positivity of youth (See “Gendered Aging and Sexuality in Audiovisual Culture”).
Along the lines of Laura Mulvey’s (1975) discussion of the “male gaze” in film, Woodward situates the youthful structure of the look – in film in particular but in visual art in general (See “Aging and Film”; “The Silvering Screen”) – in “the relation of the spectator to the characters in the film. The spectator is positioned as younger and thus superior” (Woodward 2006, p. 164), which impels the spectator to accept age as a matter “for sentimental compassion”; a compassion that emerges from the conception of aging and old age as the loss of youth. In order to overcome these depictions of aging and old age, Woodward analyses some works by Louise Bourgeois, Rachel Rosenthal, and Nettie Harris, as well the film Pauline and Paulette (dir. Lieven Debrauwer 2002) to show how the normative youth vs. old age and gender vs. sex systems can be weakened through what she terms “women performing age”: “Evacuate the stage, screen or photograph of youth and of men so that within the frame of performance the power of the normative youth-old system and sex-gender system is diminished” (p. 167). In other words, following Judith Buttler’s (1990) notion of gender as a performative act, Woodward proposes that in order to perceive older women differently it is necessary to present a world in which both youth and men are absent.
Key Research Findings
The displacement of old age from visual expressions due to the cultural and social prevalence of the “youthful structure of the look” has been core to most scholarly approaches in visual aging studies. The aim of these new approaches is to unveil how visual representations stigmatize old age and aging as decline by constantly depicting them in contrast to the vitality and plenitude of the young. Film has become an important area of study in regard to aging because film is an essential medium for the circulation of the youthful male gaze (See “Aging and Film”; “The Silvering Screen”). Sally Chivers’ The Silvering Screen (2011) examines the hidden ideologies behind the filmic representations of aging on “the silvering screen,” ideologies that ultimately homogenize old age. In Visions of Aging (2012), Amir Cohen-Shalev studies cinematic representations of aging through films by old and younger filmmaker. His aim is to show that film can explore old age not only as social and psychological positions but as “a creative outlet for explanatory approaches to the phenomena of aging” (Cohen-Shalev 2012, p. 12). More recently, Josephine Dolan’s Contemporary Cinema and “Old Age” (2017) investigates the intersection of gender, aging, celebrity, and film studies. As she highlights, Hollywood is commercially exploiting the reality of aging demographics by producing more films about old age with “silvered stars.” She also underscores that in these films the youthful male gaze place women as the subject of much needed rejuvenation while aging men are represented as possessing lasting youthfulness.
Along with this focus on unveiling the construction of the “youthful structure of the look” in film and other visual artistic expressions, other researchers are, following the analyses by Woodward above-mentioned, concentrating on how film, photography, sculpture, painting, etc. can manage and change those stereotypical representations. For instance, in relation to film, Pamela Gravagne in The Becoming of Age (2013) examines selected films about aging as counternarratives to the hegemonic filmic representations of old age as decline or nonyouthful. Likewise, art photography has proven to be a fruitful artistic discipline for the subversion of the youthful (male) structure of the look (See “Aging and Photography”). Anca Cristofovici explores how photographic images by Jeff Wall and Jacqueline Hayden, among others, reflect “on the very contradictions and paradoxes of the process of physical and physic change” (Cristofovici 1999, p. 271). By analyzing psychic and aesthetic strategies – i.e., condensation and displacement, the intermediate area between reality and illusion – deployed by these photographers, Cristofovici (1999) establishes that photography is a medium that can bring together the psychic space and the inner experience of aging. Furthermore, these photographic images not only reveal multiple concepts of old age but also question the dichotomy youth vs. old age that the “youthful structure of the look” creates.
Future Directions of Research
Future research on the “youthful structure of the look” should embrace productive explorations of other more material conceptualizations of the look such as the “holding gaze” proposed by Aagje Swinnen (2018) in her analysis of the photo book Mumbling Beauty: Louise Bourgeois (Van Gelder 2015): a relational intercorporeal gaze with affective potential in photography and/or (documentary) film. In addition, it would be beneficial to approach the look and the gaze from an intersectional analytical framework. Most of the scholarly work on the topic has been restricted to Western spaces and middle and high class white and heterosexual experiences. It is imperative that other experiences are part of future research on the topic with the aim to offer a different cross-cultural account of the youthful structure of the look.
“The youthful structure of the look” is an expression used to refer to the hegemony of looking young and healthy aging in our contemporary visual arts and culture, thus discriminating old age by presenting it as decline.
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