No Don, It’s *Patriarchy* That Is ‘Past Its Prime’

A woman “past her prime” breaks down Don Lemon’s sexist remark.

Kaitlan Collins, Don Lemon and Poppy Harlow attend the 16th annual CNN Heroes Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History on Dec. 11, 2022, in New York City. (Mike Coppola / Getty Images for CNN)

By the time you read this, it will be old news—not unlike the author of this piece who, according to CNN’s Don Lemon’s “fact checking” recommendation, is past her prime. Lemon’s decree was made on a Feb. 16, 2023, CNN broadcast where he acknowledged, somewhat shamefacedly, that talking about age made him uncomfortable. He went on to say that Nikki Haley, who recently launched her 2024 presidential campaign, was “past her prime.” According to Lemon, Haley is “not in her prime” because “when a woman is considered to be in her prime is in her 20s, 30s, maybe 40s.” Lemon clarified, “That’s not according to me. … It’s just like ‘prime,’ if you look it up, if you Google ‘when is a woman in her prime,’ it’ll say ‘20s, 30s and 40s.’”

Lemon’s Google fact-checking faux pas was in response to Haley’s call for “mental competency tests” for politicians over the age of 75. Current politicians, including her former boss, former President Donald Trump (currently age 76; if he wins the 2024 election, he will be 78 on Election Day), are past their prime, to borrow a term from Lemon. Haley is setting herself up as the candidate who is not, to put it bluntly, old. A talking point that will inevitably be part of her policy-less stump speech is focused on a “generational change” in politics.

Foreshadowing the attacks that will certainly come from Haley’s inevitable rival in the 2024 Republican primary, Trump, Lemon tapped into a long-held belief that women only matter while they are fertile. As discussed brilliantly by Heather Corinna in their fabulously titled work, What Fresh Hell Is This?: Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You, once a woman ceases regular menstruation, she is considered an empty husk of a human, not worth much at all. Because she can no longer successful grow babies, men conclude that her contribution to society is, effectively over. It should be obvious that the definition of menopause was formulated by men (who had zero experience with menstruation, or its cessation).

In the political space, this translates into a form of censorship. Indeed, female candidates are swiftly censored by the dominant news media and within the larger patriarchal society when the axes of their age, public persona and behavior do not align appropriately. Women across the ideological spectrum—from Hillary Clinton to Sarah Palin to AOC to Sarah Huckabee Sanders—face patriarchy, which is expressed in a fixation on their appearance, questions about their emotional state, pejorative names (that won’t be written here in an effort to give them less oxygen), and baseless (while simultaneously irrelevant) accusations that they are closeted lesbians.

Patriarchy refers to systems of power that privilege men over women. Misogyny, the ingrained prejudice against women, upholds patriarchy by marginalizing and oppressing women. As Kate Manne explains in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, this becomes a form of censorship, as “silence is golden for the men who smother and intimidate women into not talking, or have them change their tune to maintain harmony.” Essentially, women candidates cannot be themselves; they are constantly being pressured to be something they are not by commentators like Lemon who ask them to accept that they are beyond their prime because it is a ‘fact.’

To be clear: I am no fan of Nikki Haley. I am opposed to her positions on education, immigration and abortion, to name a few of our disagreements. However, a sophisticated society can debate Haley on the merits of her qualifications and policy positions rather than treat sexist remarks such as “past her prime” as substantive political commentary. Indeed, Lemon was one of many liberal voices in news media who seemed to understand this during the Trump years, when he finger wagged and lectured the former president about his prejudicial insults and analysis. Apparently, Lemon’s moral superiority would be well served to revisit those comments in a mirror.

It is time to stop judging women by their age and presuming that their assumed ability to reproduce (or at least be sexually available) is their defining, or most valuable, characteristic. But also, thank you Don Lemon, for giving us a sneak-peak on what to expect for the 2024 election cycle: A battle over age, a battle over worth based on age, a battle over the value of age. In other words, a battle as old as time that women have been fighting forever. These battles will, as they always have in this country, have different standards for men and women.

I will not be happy with a Haley presidency. I do assume she is menopausal, so at least I know now that her experience of involutional melancholia means there will be fewer pesky mood swings that commentators like Lemon can blame on her for leading the nation backwards. 

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Allison Butler is a senior lecturer, director of undergraduate advising, and director of the Media Literacy Certificate Program in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she teaches courses on critical media literacy and representations of education in the media. She was the 2020-2021 recipient of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Outstanding Teacher Award. Butler co-directs the grassroots organization, Mass Media Literacy, where she develops and runs teacher trainings for the inclusion of critical media literacy in K-12 schools. She serves as the vice president on the Board of the Media Freedom Foundation. She holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. from New York University. She is the author of numerous articles and books on media literacy, including her latest, The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People, as well as Educating Media Literacy: The Need for Teacher Education in Critical Media Literacy (Brill, 2020) and Key Scholarship in Media Literacy: David Buckingham (Brill, 2021). Butler has been interviewed and appeared in several media outlets, including Project Censored Radio, NPR’s Peace Talks Radio and The Point.