The Inhibition Myth: What ‘Losing Alice’ Gets Wrong About Older Women

The message implicit in Losing Alice is that younger women are intrinsically freer, more uninhibited, than older ones. But today, as a middle-aged wife and mother, I feel much freer in every way that matters.

The Inhibition Myth: What 'Losing Alice' Gets Wrong About Older Women
(Apple TV)

There’s a scene early on in the Apple TV thriller Losing Alice where Alice, a 48-year-old mother of three, sits on a wharf drinking a beer with a young woman named Sophie. A filmmaker, Alice has put her career on pause to focus on her family. But when Sophie, a young screenwriter who idolizes Alice, asks Alice to direct her freshman project, a dark tale involving BDSM and a mysterious death, Alice agrees. She is captivated not just with the screenplay but with Sophie herself, who is beautiful and, most importantly, uninhibited.

“There’s always a ton of guilt,” Alice confides to Sophie, describing the challenges of being a wife, mother and filmmaker.

She asks Sophie if she experiences guilt: “No,” she replies without hesitation.

With Sophie’s encouragement, Alice begins to loosen up: The two attend a sensual, sweaty dance class together, get drunk on a boat, and go swimming in night waters. Sophie represents Alice’s libidinal other, an externalized id; to say yes to Sophie is to say yes to everything she’s repressed as a wife and mother.

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As in other recent tales of female-on-female obsession, such as Killing Eve and Afternoon Delight, in Losing Alice, a dissatisfied older woman looks to a younger femme fatale to (re)learn sexual and social freedom. But Sophie, like Villanelle in Killing Eve, isn’t just fun—she’s a borderline sociopath, a woman who cares little for the feelings of others or the consequences of her actions. She seduces Alice’s married friend and neighbor, Tamir; she plays mind games with a potential female lead until the young actress cracks—she, Sophie, wants the role instead. None of this deters Alice from friendship with Sophie, or a desire to go forward with the film.

The Inhibition Myth: What 'Losing Alice' Gets Wrong About Older Women
(Apple TV)

What I find frustrating about Losing Alice—and this is true of Killing Eve as well—isn’t the femme fatale’s sociopathy; it’s the series’ implicit message that younger women are intrinsically freer, more uninhibited, than older ones. Alice studies Sophie as if she possesses a secret she herself has lost, or forgotten. Yet to me, Sophie’s penchant for doing whatever she wants, whenever she wants is not the same as freedom, certainly not inner freedom.

I’m 44 now. When I think back to my twenties, I didn’t feel free—not really. My college and post-college years were a time of intense insecurity.

Admittedly, there were also some really fun tequila-infused house parties featuring unholy versions of Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle, but still: With morning came hours of agonizing mental gymnastics. Whom did I offend while drunk? Would the friend whom I likely offended abandon me? Would the guy I made out with, and whom I secretly liked, actually call me? And wait, who was this entirely different guy next to me in bed? What might have looked to an outsider like joyous abandon felt anything but.

I’m not saying my youth was bad, or unhappy. But today, as a middle-age wife and mother, I feel much freer in every way that matters. Over the years, I’ve built solid relationships; I say what I think without worrying about alienating my husband or friends. I no longer feel I have to perform for a male gaze: Only now do I understand how exhausting such performance was. I’m much more in touch with my body.

This greater sense of embodiment has come through—rather than in spite of—ill health. I have pudendal neuralgia, chronic pain of the pelvic nerve. While the neuralgia at times confines me to my bed, it has also taught me self-care, prompted me to prioritize bodily wellness. It feels freeing to listen to my body: I allow myself long periods of rest, gentle massages, good movies in bed.

And motherhood, while it has its challenges, especially in a pandemic, has also helped me to relax. My relationship with my daughters is one of the most unconditional I’ve had. I know I’m not a perfect mother, and there are certainly a lot of activities I can’t do with my 7-year-old twins. What matters is that when we’re together, they see my love.

I’m not alone in feeling more at ease in my body as I age. Research shows that older women are, on the whole, more content than younger ones. “Women’s overall mental health and life satisfaction …  improve with age. Rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in women go down, not up, as they grow older,” according to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. 

This greater sense of joie de vivre may have to do with the way women learn to “draw upon their identity strengths to manage the many changes that come with aging in their roles and capabilities, lifestyles and living arrangements.” As Isabella Rossellini tells her interviewer: “You get fatter and more wrinkles,” but “aging brings a lot of happiness.”

Similarly, a middle-age Nicole Kidman describes a desire to throw herself into life: “I’ll take the pain. I’ll take the joy.” 

What Losing Alice gets right is just how hard is to balance a career and childrearing. This has perhaps never been more than case than in a pandemic. Often, Alice doesn’t get home until her daughters are in bed; quality time means cuddling them after they’re already asleep. Sometimes this is the best we can do. And that’s okay.

In many ways, I both admire and relate to Alice: She’s strong, sensual, ambitious. Indeed, it strikes me that she doesn’t need a Sophie in her life at all. With her wild antics, Sophie moves Losing Alice’s plot forward—but in the larger story of middle-age womanhood, she’s not necessary. In life knowledge, in sensuality, in self-confidence, we’re miles ahead of her.

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Carli Cutchin is a disabled writer, late bloomer, and PhD candidate in comparative literature at UC Berkeley. Cutchin's cultural criticism has appeared in Entropy, the Reno News & Review, and is forthcoming in MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture. You can follow her Twitter and Instagram @CarliCutchin.