Scholarly article on topic 'Performing the 'fun' self: How members of the Red Hat Society negotiate cultural discourses of femininity and ageing'

Performing the 'fun' self: How members of the Red Hat Society negotiate cultural discourses of femininity and ageing Academic research paper on "Sociology"

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European Journal of Cultural Studies
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Academic research paper on topic "Performing the 'fun' self: How members of the Red Hat Society negotiate cultural discourses of femininity and ageing"



Hat Society negotiate cultural discourses of femininity and ageing

Performing the 'fun' self: How members of the Red

European Journal of Cultural Studies 16(4) 424-439 © The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/1367549413484306

Samira van Bohemen

Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Liesbet van Zoonen

University of Loughborough, UK and Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Stef Aupers

Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Since its foundation in 1998 the 'Red Hat Society' (RHS) has become a popular international movement of women aged over 50 that is known for its distinct group performances. Red Hatters show up in public spaces wearing red hats, purple clothing and sometimes red gloves, and engage in various fun and frivolous activities. Previous studies about the RHS have found that its main appeal is that it creates an escape from women's day-to-day life experiences. However, such outcomes ignore the fact that the RHS's appeal is motivated also by the particular life histories of its members. To explore the relevance of these life histories, interviews were conducted with RHS members in The Netherlands. The findings show that to understand the cultural meaning of the RHS it is necessary to include a diachronic dimension in the research, articulating members' current negotiations of femininity and ageing with those of their past.


Celebration, coping, fun, gender negotiation, life histories, Red Hat Society

Corresponding author:

Samira van Bohemen, Erasmus University Rotterdam, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, The Netherlands.




When in 1998 a handful of fiftysomething women from Fullerton, California went out for tea, none of them expected this to mark the birth of an incredibly popular and worldwide phenomenon. The friends all wore the red hat that one of them, artist Sue Ellen Cooper, had given them as a birthday present. Later that year they decided to launch an official organisation, the 'Red Hat Society' (RHS). With their signature statement, 'There is fun after fifty', the Red Hatters quickly made their way into all 50 US states and various other countries, including Australia, the UK and The Netherlands, the latter having the highest density of 'Hatters' in the world. The RHS is known for its distinct group performances: its members show up in public spaces wearing red hats, purple clothing and (occasionally) red gloves, while engaging in various fun and frivolous activities.

Because of its size and spread - there are more than 20,000 chapters in the USA alone - the RHS is one of the largest women's groups in the world. Yet to date, only a few academic studies have been conducted on the RHS, and they focus exclusively on branches in the USA. These studies approach the RHS from the two distinct perspectives of individual well-being on the one hand, and gender performance on the other. Respectively, they have interpreted participation in the RHS as a coping resource (e.g. Hutchinson et al., 2008) and as a negotiation of dominant cultural discourses on femininity and ageing (e.g. Stalp et al., 2008, 2009). This article will add to this body of literature in several ways. First, empirically, it will focus on a non-US collection of Red Hatters: that is, those in The Netherlands. Second, it will add to the two existing perspectives with further exploration of the 'fun' factor, and how this is experienced and performed by Red Hatters. Third, it will examine whether and how the possibilities that the RHS offers to negotiate dominant notions of femininity and age are articulated with the specific and situated life histories of its participants. In order to explore these three aspects of the RHS, in-depth interviews were conducted with individual members in the Netherlands, and the first author participated in a number of their events.2

The remainder of this article will provide a brief description of the RHS movement, its origins, goals and composition. This will be followed by a review of previous studies on the RHS in the USA. The article will then explain the research design and present the main findings. The article concludes with a discussion of the theoretical implications of the study's results for other studies on gender and identity performance.

Birth of an international women's society

The official history of the RHS, as told on its US national website, is that it was the result of an impulse buy of Sue Ellen Cooper, who stumbled over a vintage red hat at a thrift shop and bought it simply because it was cheap. She began to give red hats as a birthday gift to her friends who (reluctantly) turned 50 or older. With the hat she enclosed a 1961 poem called 'Warning' by English poet Jenny Joseph (1992), in which the leading figure warns the public about inappropriate things she will do once she is old, like wearing purple with a red hat.

The hat and the poem formed the inspiration for the Red Hat Society, which grew into an international movement that offers fun and friendship for women aged over 50. According to the official website (, by 2013 the RHS consisted of more than 80,000 chapters in more than 31 different countries.

Other than fun and friendship, the RHS does not claim to have specific objectives. The US mother organisation explicitly denounces political involvement of any kind. It prefers to refer to itself as a ^«-organisation that imposes no other rules than the dress code, and the request to honour the motto of having a 'fun' time. To this end, Red Hatters organise all kinds of leisure activities ranging from dinners, tea parties, historical walks and museum visits to golfing tournaments, belly dancing classes and even trips to foreign destinations. In practice, the RHS consists of a large amount of locally organised sub-organisations called 'chapters', which organise such events for their members. Each chapter is led by a 'queen' who takes care of its daily responsibilities. The international conglomeration of all chapters is held together by websites, online networks, newsletters and annual international and national meetings.

In order to become a member, women can join an existing chapter in their area or start their own and become a 'queen'. New queens need to register their chapter officially with the US organisation, called 'Hatquarters'. Events are mostly local, but also occasionally organised nationally. In both cases the events are announced on RHS websites. During RHS events all members are required to wear red hats and purple clothing. However, when a member is celebrating her birthday in the same month as the event, she is expected to reverse the colour pattern, wearing a purple hat with red clothing. Sometimes Hatters accessorise their already exceptional attire with red gloves and boas. Women who are not yet 50 are allowed to join, but are referred to as 'Pink Hatters', and required to wear pink hats and lavender clothes until their 'REDuation'.

The Netherlands accounts for almost 100 chapters, which are spread over the country (see the Appendix). The Dutch branch emerged in 2005 following a newspaper article and expanded rapidly (Metz, 2005). As can be seen on the map in the Appendix, the chapters that emerged are dispersed over the big cities and smaller villages of The Netherlands. No systematic pattern can be discerned in the distribution of chapters over the country, although there is some clustering in the area with the highest population density (Randstad). Some of these chapters are small with some 10 members or fewer; others are very large and have more than 50 members. Chapters emerge and disappear frequently due to internal conflict, separation or because things simply do not work out and members leave. This is also a reason why some of the cities and villages have more than one chapter.3

Psychological and cultural perspectives

In the USA three groups have conducted research about the RHS. Their studies address the RHS's relation with play (Yarnal, 2006; Yarnal et al., 2008), dressing up (Yarnal et al., 2011), conspicuous consumption (Stalp et al., 2009), and older women's psychosocial health and well-being (Hutchinson et al., 2008; Radina et al., 2008; Son et al., 2007). Two general and somewhat overlapping approaches - one psychological, the

other more cultural - to RHS membership and participation can be discerned which suggest that membership of the RHS involves more than fun and friendship. In the first, the RHS is positioned as a coping resource that advances members' well-being and quality of life. In the second, the RHS is understood as a public negotiation of dominant cultural discourses on femininity and older women.

The Red Hat Society and individual well-being

Research in which the RHS is approached as a coping mechanism for changing life conditions starts from the assumption that as women grow older, often they are confronted with high levels of stress due to the loss of social relations, death of their spouse, illness or social isolation, for example (Hutchinson et al., 2008; Son et al., 2007), but also as a result of the negative stereotyping of older women in society (Radina et al., 2008). Such studies argue that the RHS enables women to cope with such stress because it provides a context both for the formation of social relationships and for positive emotions. Building on psychological theory that highlights the importance of positive emotions in overcoming personal hardship, these studies conclude that RHS participation can be 'linked to higher levels of socio-emotional, psychological, and physical health' (Son et al., 2007: 100-101) for midlife and older women in western society. Such findings are based generally on textual data collected in open-ended survey questions, asking respondents to share stories about their experiences as Red Hatters.

Overall, these studies advance the idea that leisure is pivotal to an individual's well-being and life satisfaction. In the case of the RHS, this involves gaining access to a system of social (instrumental as well as emotional) support (Hutchinson et al., 2008; Radina et al., 2008; Son et al., 2007), and an opportunity for women to disengage from their day-to-day lives and reassess life priorities and circumstances in a positive manner (Radina et al., 2008; Yarnal, 2006). More generally, according to the researchers, play functions as a liminal space that is both socially and culturally separate from daily life, which creates the opportunity to negotiate individual problems and identities. For the RHS this is tied in with dressing up practices that signify a clear demarcation with daily life activities and experiences. For example, Yarnal et al. (2011) claim that individual Hatters come to adopt a more positive sense of self and a more favourable view of their lives by dressing up in vibrantly coloured clothes.

Hence, these studies suggest that Red Hatters' engagement in various activities helps them to construct, experience and perform a personal identity that is distinct from everyday life, which in turn helps them to cope with whatever problems they may be facing. However, such individual coping also has wider cultural relevance, as it involves a public performance of femininity that sets Red Hatters apart from mainstream gender discourse.

The Red Hat Society and the negotiation of gender discourse

Gender discourse and its negotiation by the RHS are explored in the second set of existing studies. Following the work of Judith Butler (1988, 1990), it is argued in these studies that

gender is a repetitive performance that constructs dichotomous gender categories through which individuals understand themselves. As a result, gender is always open to negotiation and resistance, and Red Hatters are seen in these studies as an exemplary case of such negotiation. For example, Stalp et al. (2008, 2009) argue that Red Hatters undermine traditional gender discourse of midlife and older women through conspicuous consumption and a public exhibition of fun and camp.

The researchers in this tradition have conducted mostly ethnographic research, and describe members' conduct during social events as an exaggerated display of femininity with many built-in contradictions. Stalp et al. (2008, 2009) show how the activities characteristically performed by the RHS in general, such as lunches, tea parties and shopping frenzies, are considered hyper-feminine. Yet much of the Red Hatters' behaviour simultaneously resists traditional femininity by being loud in public and wearing over-the-top clothes (red hats, purple dresses and occasionally, red gloves), in off-colours. Stalp and colleagues conclude that with this exaggerated display of femininity intended to draw a crowd, Red Hatters both challenge and reify dominant cultural expectations of proper behaviour for middle-aged and older women: 'RHS members are dressed in ultrafeminine ways, and are acting in stereotypically less than feminine ways as they claim public space, make noise, and command public attention' (Stalp et al., 2009: 239).

Again, leisure is constructed as having wider meanings than simply spending spare time, although in this case this is due to its function as a bearer of cultural meanings rather than individual ones. It is argued that leisure is contradictory to the general image of women as caretakers, who as mothers and wives go through life providing for others (Stalp et al., 2008; Yarnal, 2006). Hence, according to these studies, the RHS's main appeal is escape from women's traditional responsibilities. In addition, the male gaze, which commonly is not focused on women over 50, is reclaimed, and Red Hatters gain abundant attention from men when parading in their regalia (cf. Stalp et al., 2008, 2009; Yarnal, 2006; Yarnal et al., 2011).

In sum, what is argued in these cultural studies on the RHS is that the playful leisure space that Red Hatters create during their activities offers them not only solace for personal problems and individual hardship; it also provides an opportunity to negotiate the rules of the dominant cultural order in terms of gender and ageing. This is brought about by a performance of self that is distinct from daily life and produces a temporary escape from it.

Dutch Red Hatters: fun and life histories

While the two lines of research discussed here are distinct in their psychological and cultural approaches, focusing on individual and cultural meanings respectively, they share their assumption that at 50 - more or less - life changes for women in problematic ways, and that the RHS offers a relatively unproblematic set of practices to negotiate these problems. Both assumptions seem somewhat limited, and construct the Red Hatters as either 'coping' with past hardship or 'fighting' sexist and ageist stereotypes. The question as to how the RHS members experienced their lives before their fiftieth birthday remains open, as does the question of what exactly makes Red Hat membership pleasurable, and what constitutes 'fun'. In addition, it seems necessary to examine whether the

psychological and symbolic meanings attributed to Red Hat membership are specific to the USA, or take a different form in a country with a gender 'culture' that has been shown to be thoroughly distinct from the USA (see Hofstede, 1984).

In order to investigate the national particularities of Red Hat membership, examine how pleasure and fun are articulated and whether particular life experiences lead to Red Hat membership, the present study takes a 'life histories' approach in which both past and present individual experiences of hardship, exclusion and fun are brought to bear upon the RHS performances of femininity.


Sample and data collection

Long, in-depth interviews were conducted with 14 members of different RHS chapters located throughout The Netherlands (11 Queens and three regular Hatters). The first author also participated in Red Hat events, although these observations are used here mainly for further illustration, not as objects of study in themselves. The interviews were semi-structured and lasted between one-and-a-half and four hours. Each interview consisted of two parts. The first part dealt with how respondents viewed their involvement in the RHS, and we asked them (among other things) about the pleasures they derived from being a Red Hatter, and what meaningful experiences they have had through their RHS membership. Because performance is contingent on group dynamics, we also asked questions on how Red Hatters view their relations with other group members and with their 'audiences'. The second part of the interview dealt with the life histories of members, asking about significant life events such as going to school, friendships, marriage, childbirth, illness, but also about the role of ageing in society. Furthermore, we asked respondents to reflect on their youth, the family and the environment in which they grew up.

Data analysis

We approach the respondents' stories as simultaneously reflective and constructive, which means analysing the interviews at two levels: at the level of information about particular experiences and feelings; and at the level of identity performance (cf. Van Zoonen, 1994). Chase speaks in a similar vein of life histories as 'retrospective meaning making - the shaping or ordering of past experience' (2005: 656), in which the self and reality are performed. In analysing the interviews we looked for recurring themes, which were coded and placed into a data matrix. Codes were derived by employing an inductive and comparative method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). We compared interview fragments, paying particular attention to both recurring similarities and differences, in order to reach saturation of discourse. Furthermore, we constructed mini-biographies in order to show how the respondents' life histories intersect with RHS performance (Brannen and Nilsen, 2011). These mini-biographies are constructed from much larger narratives of past experiences obtained during interviews, which cannot be presented here in full due to their length. We did not anonymise the data, because all the women interviewed liked to share their experience and were proud to be in the public eye as Red Hatters.


In the interviews, we heard some stories of the RHS being a source of new friendships, comfort and coming to terms with ageing. We also heard stories of the pleasure of attracting the attention of the crowd and disrupting stereotypes of older women. In many ways, the results mirror those of previous research on US collections of Hatters, yet the interviews also made clear how particular life histories fed into the appeal of the RHS, and how fun was experienced. The next sections will examine the meaning of fun for the Dutch Red Hatters, then present two minibiographies that show how and why different life histories also inspire different meanings of being a Red Hatter.

Liberating the 'fun' self

The Red Hatters in this study generally expressed that they are experiencing their favourite period in life, even if some Hatters at the time were struggling with major challenges such as serious illnesses of their own or of relatives. Still, they maintained that coming of age has its so-called benefits. Annette is one of the first-wave Red Hatters in the Netherlands, who met us wearing a red buntal hat on top of a purple jacket and a knee-length red skirt. Her lipstick and her shoes were red as well:

Yes, age. I am 62 now, I mean, yes I am, it is just fun. I mean, I think somehow there are some advantages to being older - let's put it like that.

Like Annette, other Red Hatters say that the bright side of life needs to be celebrated. They often suggest that life after 50 has come with an awareness and acceptance of life's flaws and with a sense of ease about their own proclaimed imperfections. The respondents often saw themselves failing at being considered nice by everyone, while also feeling pressured to fulfil the double standard of being successful yet maintaining good and loving relationships with relevant family members. Both Clema and Corrien tell their stories in such terms. Clema had had a newspaper article about the RHS stored in her closet for more than six years before she joined, only recently. She showed us her first red hat, wide-brimmed with a flower decoration, and explained:

It is actually quite comfy to be older. Girl [addressing the researcher], at your age there is still so much you need to do. You are working on your future, and you want a good relationship, don't you - you want to become a good mother, you want to make your own money. Unconsciously you have so many goals in your mind, whereas we feel like ... I don't have to prove myself anymore - that's over and done with. I don't feel like that, I just want to do fun things.

Corrien, a Red Hatter with a thing for little knick-knacks, expresses similar feelings:

After my fiftieth birthday, I think that I started to live more consciously, and this is also due to certain situations you have been confronted with, and that's why you think 'It can be over in a blink'. So you want to get more out of life than you did before ... and don't have to fulfil

certain expectations ... that's just nice when you think, 'What do I care if everyone likes me or not?' - and that is liberating.

Clema and Corrien recount experiences of constraint and liberation. Other Red Hatters also say that expectations of being a 'good' woman have held them back in fully enjoying life. In some cases, the respondents claim with hindsight, it was actually quite silly that they found the opinions of others so important. Martine, who noted that she 'always wanted to please and that other people liked me', agreed with Corrien, who claimed: 'It's actually ridiculous that you have felt this way.' Hence, hatters imply that now they are past 50 they can leave such anxieties behind, and allow themselves to do what they want instead: just to do fun things.

This emphasis on fun expresses itself both in the practices of the Red Hatters and in the way that they organise themselves. It starts at home, where they dress up in vibrant colours, then they go out in public, meet each other, wave to bystanders, pose for pictures and laugh. With national and other big events, some spontaneous singing and dancing usually occurs as well, sometimes with musical guidance from their own personal choir Redtekehat.4

Through such practices, the RHS provides a platform to perform this new stage in life and celebrate the fun self. With the motto that 'silliness is the comedy relief of life' (Cooper, 2004), the idea of fun just for fun's sake is itself very much embedded in the RHS (Red Hat Society, 2009). This idea also finds expression in the organisation's reference to itself as a fife-organisation, which has no rules. Many Red Hatters find this pleasurable:

You know, there is so much you need to do in life: you need to get up in time, go to work, but before that you need to shower, dress, brush your teeth, have breakfast, otherwise you cannot leave home. You need to play by the rules in the office, at work; there is someone above you and you need to do what that someone says, you need to talk to so-and-so - and we do not need to do anything, we just do what we like ... If you don't want to join, or do not feel like something, then you don't need to do anything. That is allowed! - and that is what I like. (Renee)

However, some Hatters temper this belief. Joyce, a tall woman who makes her own hats and clothes and likes to dress completely over the top in shiny purple combined with red stockings, says:

An organisation without rules doesn't exist, and this also goes for the RHS ... The Red Hatters started with the rule [that] you wear a red hat and purple clothing. So they already started with a rule. So there are rules.

Nevertheless, all Hatters generally greet the 'no-rules rule' with great enthusiasm. They also frequently stress that they are not about charity or good causes, and denounce complaining about personal problems. Janna, who as a Hatter wears elegant wide-brimmed hats, notes:

The nice thing is, you don't have any obligations. It's just cosy,5 it's lively, we are not going to nag, and you don't get the chance to go on for hours about all your illnesses or other stuff. We

have known each other for quite some years, of course, so you do ask how things are, but you cannot go on for half a night. It's just, we have an uncomplicated evening and if you want to talk, you can talk about easy things. Everyone has their problems and you can leave them at home that night. (Janna)

Within the RHS this liberation of the fun self typically is embedded in a playful performance of what one might call radical femininity. Red Hatters catalogue themselves as 'queens', 'duchesses' and 'ladies'. Moreover, their overly feminine style of dress - red and purple clothing, hats, gloves, boas and other ornaments - is meant to draw public attention. As such, their performance is conducive to the visual pleasure of others, but it is also the thing from which the Red Hatters interviewed generally draw the most pleasure. The thing they like most about the RHS is that they can dress up and stand out, which they feel rewarded for by positive attention from bystanders.

This is indeed part of the game, that if you're walking around in your fantastic outfit, everybody is looking at you. Everybody thinks it's great ... That is just the charisma of the clothes, and women my age [usually] don't get this attention because we have become somewhat invisible -but then suddenly we are visible again. (Joyce)

It just looks so joyful, and there are always people coming up to us, asking 'What is this, what do you do?' Yeah, I think that's fun. It's not just that it cheers us up, but very often others too. Occasionally someone says, 'Pfffft, ridiculous bunch' ... but usually people do cheer up when they see us. (Janna)

Some Red Hatters connect their dressing up to what they enjoyed when they were young girls. As Joyce says:

When I was little I always had birthday parties, and then we had a big box with clothes and we'd all dress up. I did this until I was about 13, and then nobody wanted to anymore, but it was the most fun thing ever: dress up and play a different person, and now I play a person again with the Red Hat.

Some Hatters go one step further and stress transgression of the rules. Froukje, who is typified by her red hat with a short dotted veil, loose purple skirt, red boots and red lace gloves, has two RHS flags attached to the windows of her car. She says:

Mostly I am still that little girl who wants to dress up. When I read [the RHS manual] I thought, 'This is me', because I am still this little girl, and I still like to be a bit naughty, because I still love playing 'ring and run'. Yes, I still do that. When I go out for dinner [with my husband] and I am wearing my red hat, then I always still play 'ding dong ditch'. My husband thinks it's terrible but his trick now is to condone it, and now the fun is gone. (Froukje)

Froukje also remembers that she once whistled on her fingers during an event, after which her chapter members asked if she would teach them this neat trick as well. On a similar note, Joyce says that she and the other Hatters often play games in which cheating is part of the fun: 'It is just over the top cheating, like a child.' This is another

dimension in the performance of the fun self by breaking the rules and going back to childhood pleasures.

However, from the interviews it also became clear that the liberation of the fun self and celebration of life were not simply brought about by the RHS membership; they also were articulated with particular events in their lives. Many of the women recounted how particular emotional events made them realise that life was short. Corrien 'started to live more consciously', as she expressed it, after the death of a brother with whom she was particularly close. Similar stories of realising life's value against the odds of personal hardship were told by other respondents. Two of these stories are presented here in the form of a mini-biography, in order to examine further the relation between a particular life history and the enjoyment of Red Hat membership.

Renee: celebrating a common bond of shared life experiences

In the winter of 2011 we met Renee in the lobby of a hotel next to the university. A stately looking woman with medium-length, greyish-blonde hair, she wore a purple sweater over some blue jeans. In spite of the purple of her sweater, this was a very different look to when she goes out with the Red Hats as 'Queen Valentina': then she is completely in purple, wears a dress instead of trousers and, of course, a striking red hat. Renee feels it is important to honour this dress code and, if possible, in a way that is chic. Like many Hatters, she owns more than one red hat: one each for summer, winter, outside and inside. The last one is rather special, because it is curly and intricate, like the decoration on a gift.

At the time of the interview Renee was 65 years old. She grew up in The Netherlands during the rebuilding period that followed directly after the Second World War. As she explains, this was a time in which 'as a girl you just did not count as much as a boy'. Renee had a brother whom, she said, was always put first, which she thought was unfair. Still, she also praises how much opportunity her parents gave her during this time to give direction to her life: they enabled her to go to school, work and to travel. When she was 17, Renee moved to London to become an au pair. Afterwards, she lived abroad for several years. Renee has been married and divorced twice, and had two sons. Her oldest son Mark passed away at the age of 14, after which she was 'out of the world' for five years, suffering from regular anxiety attacks. Currently, Renee lives in a flat for people over the age of 55. She does not have a lot of money, but she negotiates the feelings of exclusion that this sometimes brings about by claiming that life 'is not about what you have, but about who you are'.

In 2005 Renee read an article about the RHS in a Dutch national newspaper and decided to start a chapter. After some quarrels in her chapter in 2009 she quit being a Red Hatter, but later decided to re-enter with a smaller group of Hatters. Just like other Hatters, Renee stresses the fun factor of being with the Red Hats. For her, this means that the RHS 'needs to remain fun'. She also emphasises that the RHS needs to add something to the life that she already has, and should not become the 'fulfilment' of that life. In explaining the RHS's main appeal to her, Renee made clear that she likes being in the company of women of the same mind, and particularly argues that other Red Hatters can relate to her through their shared experiences of personal hardship. Being around women

whom she thinks share similar life histories produces comfort and understanding for her. When talking about the importance of shared life histories, Renee explains this in terms of the difference between Red Hatters and young people:

When you are of a certain age, you all have been through things ... and you don't have that with young people because they still have to discover everything, they still have to experience everything - and you can talk to them and work with them well, but we [the Red Hatters] all have something, and this brings comfort.

Clearly, Renee's interest in this common bond of shared life experiences is strongly influenced by her own experience of the loss of her son when she was 41.

When asked about periods of transition in her life, Renee talked about how special it was for her to give birth to her first child. She explains how she felt 'at the height of [her] femininity' when she felt life inside of her for the first time.

Renee: Yes, when I became a mother for the first time, I thought that was very special. Also when I was pregnant and felt life for the first time. I always did consider the things I did for the first time to be very special ... and my firstborn has also passed away ... That has had the biggest impact on my life. I lost ground for five years, I can still cry over it . It has been 23 years or 24 in September, and I can still cry over it. Strange, isn't it? Samira: Well I don't know about that. I don't think that's strange actually. Renee: And sometimes I would tell someone 'I'm over it', but I'm not ... I've lost ground for five years, had anxiety attacks. I went through the deepest holes, but I've fought myself out and tried to have fun in my life again, to work and to do fun things.

This interview extract shows in more detail how Renee felt the need to go back to a normal life. Other Hatters told similar stories of loss and feeling the need for joy and ease. In these stories, the celebration and fun that they find in the Red Hat Society derive meaning from their past experiences of personal hardship. While previous studies suggest that the RHS offers a resource for coping with these experiences, the present study's findings suggest, somewhat differently, that one can really recognise the value of simple fun only if one has gone through loss and hardship.

Annette: celebration as empowerment

Annette was introduced earlier in this article as one of the first Red Hatters in The Netherlands. Her story demonstrates that while women over 50 may share difficult life experiences, this in no way implies that their histories are similar. Especially for women over 50 who do not have children or grandchildren, feelings of being marginalised and excluded not only pertain to younger generations, but also can be felt within their own age and gender group. For them, concepts of celebration and fun often gain meaning in the sense of empowerment. This is the case for Annette, who was 62 years old at the time of interview. She recalls that she had a difficult youth: as an only child she did not feel

particularly wanted by her mother, who she felt would rather have had a boy than a girl. Her parents were well-off, which made her an object of envy at her school, located in a typically Dutch orthodox protestant environment. However, she would not have minded swapping the money for a happier childhood. Annette has been married twice; her current husband is her second, and they have never had children.

Annette learned about the RHS in 2005 through a broadcast by a Dutch news chan-nel.6 Her husband was watching and called her out of the kitchen, shouting 'Annette, Annette! Come and have a look, this is fun! This is something for you!' Initially she joined an existing chapter, but soon decided to start her own. Her chapter consists of more than 55 Hatters and is rather large compared to others. Annette's husband is very supportive of her RHS membership, and together they maintain the Dutch national RHS webpage. Like Renee, Annette also explains that she derives pleasure from the ties with other women she has met as a Red Hatter. However, unlike Renee, this pleasure is not so much produced from the idea that women over 50 have similar life experiences. In the interview, Annette expressed feelings more than once of being left out by women with other life histories: for example, women who, unlike herself, have children and grandchildren. According to her, these women have other interests:

You have been friends with someone for years, and her children are also having children . Granny has to babysit; and when in the past you would just have a lovely day going to town, now you have to go into town and look for baby or children's outfits - and that's just different. No more going together to a fashion store or shoe store, having a good laugh, and trying everything on ... That friendship wears off: it's very weird, but it's because you don't share the same interests anymore.

Often, Annette also employed a more general discourse of rebellion against the marginalisation of older women in western society. In the interview, she discussed women who become widowed and are suddenly viewed as femme fatales. She discussed how (again, other) women her age are not allowed to use the home computer by their husbands, and that the RHS helps them to broaden their lives. Moreover, she views the RHS as a movement that resists the dominant position of youth culture, signifying to others that midlife and older women 'don't have to [be] put out with the garbage yet'.

For Annette, celebration and fun in the RHS hence become meaningful as an act of rebellion and empowerment. She exclaims: 'Our hat is our freedom!' The hat and the fun it embodies for her mean liberation from cultural restriction. This idea is most clearly expressed in the following quote, in which Annette discusses feelings of constraint while growing up.

Mind you, if you would be out of sync [makes sound of a bang] ... very sneaky, you would do things, now and then. [But mostly] you did not dare to. And now I think, uh-oh, yippie, go for it, put on your red hat and have fun.7 I mean, when I was sixteen I would not have dared to wear a red hat, that would have been hit squarely off my head [by her mother]. And now I wear it with verve, brilliant! ... Because in the past I did not dare to do anything deviant. Because I had to be the good young girl.

Annette's story also shows an experience of constraint and liberation of the fun self from cultural restriction. However, it simultaneously shows how some red Hatters see such a performance of the fun self as an act of rebellion, and how particular life histories of women over 50 feed into this rebellion. In Annette's case, this is motivated by specific past and present feelings of marginalisation, restriction and exclusion. Those feelings were present also in other interviews, particularly with Hatters without children and spouses. One of them even founded a 'Singles Society' within the RHS to negotiate feelings of exclusion and marginalisation by her married peers.

Discussion and conclusion

This article has explored the 'fun' factor in being member of the RHS in the Netherlands. Although this country differs sufficiently from the USA in terms of its gender culture (Hofstede, 1984), the present study's results still mirror those found in previous studies about the RHS in many ways. Such studies typically have interpreted the various practices distinctive of Red Hatters as negotiating hegemonic femininity alongside experiences of personal hardship: the latter type of negotiation is better known as 'coping'. Based on an analysis of in-depth interviews with Dutch Red Hatters, we located these negotiating practices within a broader performance of the fun self, in which both the psychological and cultural meanings of RHS performance are connected. Moreover, the present study showed in particular that Red Hatters attribute great importance to celebrating life and having a fun time.

This performance of the fun self is articulated typically around feelings of constraint and liberation. The causes of such constraints are diverse: some emerge from dominant cultural conceptions of femininity and age, which tend to marginalise, exclude and restrict midlife and older women in western society. Others are produced from diverse experiences of personal hardship. However, the analysis also shows that in all cases, experiences of constraint are located in the specific and situated life histories of Hatters; hence, it is important to include an analysis of life histories in studies on gender and identity performance. Instead of providing a general theory, life histories help to contextualise such performances, and thus provide insight into the different motivations and meanings that inspire them.

Because of the long list of constraints to the fun self that is articulated in Hatters' stories, as well as by those reported in this study, it is no wonder that the RHS itself has been approached more specifically as a coping resource. Many of the previous studies about the RHS have attempted to explicate those aspects that help women over 50 to cope with stressful situations in their lives (see for example, Hutchinson et al., 2008; Radina et al., 2008; Son et al., 2007). In some of these studies, the concepts of fun and celebration are made subordinate to certain 'higher' psychological and social goals, such as coping and well-being. However, according to the present study's analysis of Red Hatters' accounts, this is reversed: that is, coping and well-being serve the goal of celebrating life. Experiences of hardship have made them realise the importance of having fun, something which they can fully appreciate now. In other words, the Red Hatters' accounts suggest that 'celebration is the mainstay of our survival, and "coping" and "making do" are mere ways of getting over the obstacles to celebrating' (Johnson, 1983: 76, based on a discussion of the work of the black feminist poet Lucille Clifton).

The interviews for this study suggest that Hatters do not generally wallow in the sorrows of their lives. Instead, they celebrate those things they are supposed to feel sorrow for (cf. Rashedi, 2011). They celebrate their femininity and their age, while on the face of everything the female ageing process is still viewed as a defect in western society (see Greer, 1991). However, as Red Hatters also put it: 'To be unwanted is also to be free' (Greer, 1991: 6). Through this performance of radical femininity, Red Hatters' public engagement in fun also becomes a negotiation of hegemonic femininity (cf. Stalp et al., 2008; 2009; Yarnal, 2006). However, whether they themselves view their performance as empowering is not self-evident, but highly dependent on the discourses that they construct around past and present life experiences.


The authors would like to thank Nadine Raaphorst for her invaluable work in transcribing the interviews used in this article.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

1. All information derived from interviews with key RHS members and the study of relevant RHS websites.

2. This article is part of a larger study on the RHS in the Netherlands, in which ethnographic data is collected and triangulated from different sources: interviews and observations. The latter have been collected through participation in a number of RHS events, such as the Queens' Lunch, the RHS national day and two regional meetings. Furthermore, the interviews themselves are treated as ethnographic material, especially since some respondents met us for an interview in full Red Hat regalia.

3. All information derived from a combination of interviews, observation and web research.

4. Redtekehat is the name of the Dutch RHS choir. The title is a pun on the Dutch word retteke-tet, an expression of fun.

5. The original Dutch word that Janna used is gezellig, a notoriously untranslatable term which indicates an experience of friendship, fun, homeliness and togetherness, but also uncomplicated or easy (as later in this quote).

6. Broadcast in Een Vanfiaag, a Dutch news programme that follows directly after the popular six o'clock news.

7. Annette uses the expression: 'Gezellig de rode hoed op'.


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Biographical notes

Samira van Bohemen is a PhD Candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS). Her research interests are broad and cover the fields of gender and popular culture and the sociology of politics and religion.

Liesbet Van Zoonen is Professor of Media and Communication at Loughborough University, and Professor of Popular Culture at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her current research is about public taboos and desires around identity management.

Stef Aupers is Associate Professor at the Centre for Rotterdam Cultural Sociology (CROCUS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His principal research interest is cultural change in western societies, and he has published on religious change and spirituality, online computer games and play culture, internet culture and conspiracy culture.


Red Hat Society chapters in The Netherlands.

Source: Google maps

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