Garnering Distinguishment

Uma Thurman at the Parisian Woman Broadway Photocall in New York, 10/18/2017

Men, particularly successful ones, have had the advantage over the years of having been able to gain distinguishment as they age, while women merely age.  Now, I know that your immediate reaction might have been for you to be stumble over the word distinguishment rather than note what I said. Let me assure you; I chose that word purposefully.

Distinguishment is a quasi-archaic word that has been largely replaced by distinction. However,  distinction, in its current usage, is an observer-free word. That is, distinction is perceived to exist whether or not there is anyone to see it. An actor gains distinction through her or his work. Once earned, that distinction is said to exist even if one has not seen the work, or the actor. From that premise, Uma Thurman, pictured above, in October 2017, has earned distinction through her work.

Distinguishment, however, is a trickier premise. Distinguishment requires an observer; it is not a passive thing. One will not agree a man looks distinguished without seeing him. It is a prize to be awarded by an active audience. Middle-aged and post-middle-aged men of power and prior attractiveness have thus garnered distinguishment, whereas few women have.  The difference between the words is not subtle. The language is neither arcane nor archaic. We settle for one word because the other is not available to most people. One must have been in the high-social-power group (you know which one that is) in order to have distinguishment. And, as language (read, dictionaries) were decided upon by that same group, we dropped the longer word, distinguishment, in favor of the lessor, distinction, since we peons can work to gain the latter, but never the former.

A pair of distinguished actors of distinction: George Clooney (l) and Cary Grant (r).

George Clooney, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Gregory Peck, Michael Douglas, and myriad of others host a Hollywood club of distinguished men that only very recently began admitting members like Antonio Banderas (Tony Flags), Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. For chrissakes, when I googled ‘distinguished-looking men’ Ron Bloody Howard’s picture showed up. Ron Howard!

Ron is apparently one of the ‘most powerful bald men in Hollywood’ and that is enough to earn him rights to being distinguished. Now, we can understand Mssrs. Connery, Banderas, Clooney, and Grant being considered distinguished. They were handsome when young, and though they aged, they did so gracefully, still holding onto their strong, graceful features. We can still see them for whom they were, but now, also for whom they became, and we remain enamored with them. We can even understand bending the definition of handsome to incorporate the likes of Jeff Bridges, well-past-his-prime Robert Redford, or Robert De Niro, but we draw the line at Samuel L. Jackson. Bloody no! And yes, Jamie Foxx makes the club, but truthfully, at 50 he doesn’t look much different than he did at 30, so that’s a cheat code, Jamie. (And we know you and Katie are dating, so quit fronting.)

Damned melanin-enriched skin.

But do you know who the only women to appear in my google query of ‘distinguished-looking actors’ were?
You can click it to see it larger. One is Linda Hunt, there second from the left in row 5, next to Steve McQueen. The diminutive actress made the query for her distinguished work, not her looks.  And yes, there is a lovely woman in the middle of that row, but she’s a model chosen to demonstrate why men are distinguished with grey hair and women are not. I trust the authors of that article were being ironic in their choice. In any case, the only real female actor to legitimately make this not-so-random sample was Helen Mirren, whom I love so much I would have kept making this grid smaller until she appeared. Further down, others begin to emerge, like Katherine Hepburn, Connie Stevens, and a young Judi Dench (who only made the group because she looked sexy when she was young).

Young Judi Dench, who could actually act, unlike the young, say, Kevin Costner.

But, for crying out loud, they appear after Peter Cushing, OBE, Boris Karloff, and that dude who played Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Hagrid? Come on, man.

And all of this gets us to my main point: men suck. No joke; that’s the actual point. However, I might have lost half my audience there, so let me elucidate. My linguist wife often reminds me that language is merely a social construct and one designed to (and capable of) entrap us within it. (Y’all probably assumed I was gay from how I was going on about male actors, didn’t you? #SurpriseNope.) As such, we use the term distinguished to give credence to the idea that men retain that which is good about them, while women somehow over-ripen, wither, and die on the vine, like unused fruit.

Take a look at Uma Thurman again. I’ll wait. Or better yet, get a closer view. Click on the New York Times article on Uma Thurman with regards to her relationship with Harvey spit Weinstein and my least-favorite director of all time, Whose Name We Shall Not Speak. I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the article when you’ve finished this one, but for now, just look at Damon Winter’s photo. (It’s called Super Jumbo, so you can see it.)

I will admit, I was never a huge Uma-Thurman-is-so-beautiful fan when we were both younger, but now that’s she’s 47 (and I’m a wiser 59) I’m totally in that camp. She sits on the bed, her crystalline eyes the color of her jeans. Her bone structure is chiseled; her gaze clear and sharp. Uma matches her environment–the colours, the simplicity, the elegance. She’s seen some shit, lived some shit, kicked some ass, and emerged stronger from it, the matriarch of three children. We look in her eyes and wish she’d not needed to learn what she knows, but we admire that she learned it. You’d want a woman like that to have your kids. You’d want her to be on your team, run your company, kick your loud neighbor’s nosy ass, be a cool grandma one day. She’s badass and gorgeous and has never been better–and now, I’m a fan for life. Not because she had the good fortune of having the sort of loose skin that allows one’s face to slide inexorably off one’s skull rather than wrinkling and drying like a raisin, but because she’s earned her distinguishment. She’s Lady Uma Thurman, OBA (Order of the Bad Assery).

I truthfully don’t know if she’s more beautiful than when she was younger, any more than you know if Sean Connery actually does look better with his white beard and ring of snowy hair than he did with the youthful, black, Bond-era toupee. Maybe it’s him; maybe it’s us. Neither of us knows why Helen Mirren gets older but never any less sexy. And you know what? It doesn’t effing matter.

What does matter is that grace, strength, late-year elegance … distinguishment, has never been within the sole dominion of any one group. We should have never let them convince us that it was so. It is changing, though, and rapidly. Now that he’s in his 60s, for the very first time, people are beginning to bother pronouncing Denzel Washington’s name the right way. (It rhymes with ‘pencil’ if you’re interested, and you’ll now find plenty of young black men with that name who pronounce it the right way.) Likewise, people are starting to see distinguishment in women who were never pretty — like Linda Hunt,

Linda Hunt, Incredible

just as they have with men who were at best funny looking when young (cough, Karloff, cough). Earning distinguishment should not require that one confess that #theytoo were sexually assaulted, abused, or raped to be respected. Frankly, most women I know were; perhaps it would be quicker to switch to the hashtag #NotMe. Distinguishment shouldn’t require that women were famous, showed us their skin on the silver screen, or entertained us. They should be valued now simply because they have always been valuable.

Women do not wither on the vine. They age, gain wisdom, add layers, and remove some that don’t fit. Cool people stay cool. Badasses retain badassery. And those who were wayward souls but who kept falling forward and kept eyeing their futures, sometimes reach them in grandeur and elegance. We humans owe it to them and to us all to notice.

So yes, Ms. Thurman, we see you, and you are distinguished. We only wish the world were too.

As for the exclusive little boys club that has owned and nominated those with distinguishment for the past four hundred years, well, #TimesUp, little bitches. We all own that badge now.

Bill Out.

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