Attack on the Elderly: Joni Mitchell under fire

For all of the progresses “allegedly” made, growing old is still problematic, particular for women.


“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other 1.”   It is a phrase former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began using 25 years ago.  Those words immediately came to my mind after reading Dr. Gina Barreca’s article “Joni Mitchell on New York Magazine: Is The Photo Disturbing? In Psychology Today 2.

It is a tragic reality that a woman’s appearance is still excruciatingly tied into her achievement.  Irrespective of how accomplished any woman is, how she appears is usually factored into any evaluations of her work, relevant or not.  It is an anachronistic element of society that lingers like a rotting corpse.


Mitchell, unlike any number of her peers, has survived the rigors of a business known for creating fast careers and forgettable songs. 



Mitchell modelling for Yves Saint Laurent


For all of the political correctness, rhetoric and enlightenment we are supposed to possess at this juncture, none of it has erased the problem of woman having to be concerned with aesthetics obscuring what they do.  Gauging female achievement based on looks is at the center of Barreca’s article on Joni Mitchell.

While the author cites comments Mitchell has made that she takes issue, those concerns have the feel of being justification for critiquing her on how well, or poorly, she has aged.

Let me go back a bit. I think the genesis of how these pictures came to be is intriguing.

Yves Saint Laurent decided to focus on older woman to make a statement about both age and fashion. The concept was to bring to the forefront women of achievement who were in their later years. It was a bold move in a fashion world that is laser focused on youth, and being as slim as possible.

Where Barreca finds Mitchell so objectionable is when she is depicted wearing a white formless dress and long straight hair in the signature style of her youth.  For some inexplicable reason, this image Is objectionable to Barreca.


All of those substantial achievements are eclipsed in Barreca’s article simply because Mitchell did not age in a manner she deemed appropriate.

Granted, Mitchell does not resemble her youthful self, but it is difficult to look at these images of her and think they are repugnant.  It is not as if she is dressing too provocatively, displaying too much skin or doing something far outside the boundaries of the acceptable.  The reaction that Barreca has to these images is extreme.  They just do not seem to be in accord with the reality of what the images represent.

One can debate and question what Mitchell has said over the years.  One can debate the merits of any artist without calling the process of evaluation into question.  When you enter the public domain you will be the subject of discourse.  People will talk, speculate and evaluate.


From her appearance at “The Last Waltz,” the only woman to appear on stage.

                However, when the critique comes to looks, that reaches a peculiar low.  It is not the substance of a serious debate.  It becomes the foundation of a kind of gossip mentality, a decidedly mean spirited one.

The underlying point to Barreca’s article is that Joni Mitchell has grown old and not altered her look to compensate for the changes time necessitates.  She commends Stevie Nicks for aging well, but dismisses Mitchel for not.  However, both are doing the same thing with their looks: adapting them to their times.  It is not as if one is doing something totally unrelated to the other.


Mitchell, unlike any number of her peers, has survived the rigors of a business known for creating fast careers and forgettable songs.


One starts to think that what is being discussed is not only the physical changes of time, but the idea of what time does to people.  Inevitably, some of us grow old.   Sometimes people grow bitter in the process.  Some go to extremes to fight the inevitable.

Via body alterations, speech and dress, some are not willing to accept the aging process and fight hard to keep the hands of time still.  Some do better than others at this.  Some try too hard and end up caricatures of themselves.  Some know when they have gone far enough.

Mitchell has been cited for her cynical nature toward the music business.  It is often painted as a flaw in character, or the ruminations of someone who simply grew weary of professional music making.  However, unless you have been in the world of contemporary music, or art period, you may not have an idea of how brutal it can be. It really is a blood sport.


Mitchell with B.B. King, she freely crossed genres and styles during her career.

                Dreams are crushed, talent exploited and artists suffer.  The weight of fame, success, awards and constant media attention is a burden too great for some.  Add to this the turmoil of being on tour for months on end, and it can be a soul stomping ride through hell than ends up in self-medication and excess.

The wars to keep your art intact, the fights to even get your creation to the public without being made “commercial,” and all of the indignities endured along the way make it an epic undertaking to make music that is high on artistry.  Mitchell, unlike any number of her peers, has survived the rigors of a business known for creating fast careers and forgettable songs.  Longevity in contemporary music is not common.   Those that have made it are part of an exclusive club.

During her career, Mitchell has created recordings spanning jazz, pop, rock and roll, blues, folk, country and in some cases a style of music so different it is hard to place it in any one category.  Her influence is still felt.  Her work has already stood the test of time.

All of those substantial achievements are eclipsed in Barreca’s article simply because Mitchell did not age in a manner she deemed appropriate.   Because of her failure to live up to one expectation, now she is seen as a disturbing image best forgotten.  Sadly, it is based on her appearance, not her achievements.

One possible reason Barreca maybe so uncomfortable with Mitchell is that we are a society that wants to consign the elderly to the hinterland.   Older people are not supposed to occupy the media space.  The faces of the older among us are too painful a reminder of where all of us will be if we live long enough.


The photography for “Hejira,” an album that defies any classification.

The face of the older Joni Mitchell is a sobering reminder that time creates changes.  Some may have a hard time seeing the stars and idols of youth doing something that all of us do if we live long enough.

For some film stars of the past, when age set in, they retired to apartments and lives far away from the limelight.   Rather than disturb the image of beauty and youth they projected so carefully, some actors hide away tending to their legacy like sacred objects to be preserved in tact immune to time.

Seeing the image of an older Joni Mitchell is not disturbing, any more than her musing on the record business.  She has created, survived and lived through interesting and arresting times.  It is sad that her physical appearance is evaluated in a negative light while her considerable achievements are diminished or ignored.

What makes this article truly disturbing is that this is in Psychology Today and that Barreca is a  Ph.D.  This is yet another example of a women taking aim at another woman for nothing more than not living up to some inane concept of female beauty and aging.   It is an attack mounted for no real legitimate reason other than to attack a woman for her looks.

As a whole, there is much work to be done to change attitudes about aging, particularly for women.  Barecca proves that the past movements have not stopped women from slamming each other or becoming far too critical of each other.   Some habits die hard deaths.

  1. Open Ed, New York Times, Feb 12 2016
    1. Gina Barreca “Joni Mitchell on New York Magazine: Is The Photo Disturbing?

    Psychology Today


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