We don’t subscribe to the Victorian idea that a woman’s age is her darkest secret, but it still feels weird to ask - especially on that third dinner or first morning. How can a guy to satisfy his curiosity without coming off confused or ageist? Ring counting? Hair chromatography? Carbon dating?
There’s a better way. Using softball pop-culture questions and a well-organized Spotify playlist, it’s not hard to narrow it down. The important thing, when choosing cultural reference points, is to consider consistency and longevity: Actors and singers who have been consistently in the public eye for decades are an ideal place to start because they’ve had stages. One woman’s Leo DiCaprio has buoyancy issues; another woman’s Leo DiCaprio has serious chops. One woman’s Sting is the frontman for The Police; another woman’s Sting is blue-balling himself while playing a mandolin.
With these helpful cultural touchstones, it’s complicated, but not terribly complicated, to get in the ballpark.
23 to 26
Millennials hate the word “millennial” and a woman in her mid-twenties won’t use it. That’s a straight-up giveaway. But there’s plenty more: she knows the theme song from The O.C., has a forever-crush on Punk’d-era Ashton Kutcher, and boasts athletic, Dance Dance Revolution-toned calves.
Sitcom: The circa-25 woman was born around 1989 and cruised into sophomore year of high school in 2004. Odds are, Will and Grace was dominant, so look for references to Karen, Jack and the gang.
Madonna Single: In 2004, Madonna released “Hung Up” and grabbed the world’s attention with her incredibly chiseled thighs. She’ll know “Like A Virgin” and “Vogue,” but “Hung Up” will be the only one she can hum.
Johnny Depp Haircut: If she was in high school when the world met rum-soaked Captain Jack Sparrow and his white-boy dreads, her idea of a pirate (and Depp) is a man with a pile of matted locks under a tricorner.
Bill Murray Performance: The slightly shabby King of American Goofballs has been a reliable and bumbling presence for 20 years. “Lost In Translation” deserves credit for the hilarious aesthetic pairing of a deflated Bill Murray with the unbelievably dewy Scarlett Johansson. A 25 year-old woman will know it well, but is unlikely to have any familiarity with his SNL (let alone SCTV) years.
Children of the nineties had crushes on Bill Clinton (before they didn’t) and a cassette tape that included Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” Any 1984 baby worth her salt will flash her purchased-with-babysitting-moneySleater-Kinney CDs as proof of an abiding pre-Portlandia relationship with Carrie Brownstein.
Sitcom: Should we all have been so lucky to be teenagers in the late nineties! Those years were the peak of Friends, and a woman this age will know all the Fleetwood Mac-style sexual high jinks of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, and Joey. If she can sing “Smelly Cat,” you’ve got a sure-fire answer.
Madonna Single: Madonna-wise, Our Lady Of Coffee Table Erotica brought in the new millennium with the single “Music.” If offered the first half of that song’s chorus (“Hey, Mr. DJ, put a record on…”), a 30 year-old woman will have no trouble completing it ("…I wanna dance with my baby!”).
Johnny Depp Haircut: The Johnny of the Day was Roux in the yuppie-bonbon Chocolat. His hair was swept back, he had the beginnings of that swashbuckler’s mustache and he smelled a bit musky in a continental way.
Bill Murray Performance: Bill Murray nailed it as rumpled billionaire Herman J. Blume in Wes Anderson’s preppie-petty Rushmore. We refuse to believe the scene of his dissolution was even filmed for the movie, as it’s obviously video footage from the Murray home: Budweiser trunks, Jameson on the rocks, not a fuck to be seen.
The early-mid nineties brought the soothing brainwashcore sounds of the Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm mmm mmm mmm,” the glorious peak of table-top rap duo Salt-n-Pepa, and notoriety for the overly competitive skater Tonya Harding. And, there is not a woman in her mid-thirties who can’t rattle off some of Tom Hanks’ mumbly lines from Forrest Gump.
Sitcom: The 35 year-old woman will have lived through the heady days of first-run Seinfeld: watching Jerry’s feathered mullet ripple as he drove his Saab, knowing the plot to the “Soup Nazi” episode, not just that one line.
Madonna Single: Though it would seem near impossible after a decade of overexposure, Madonna released the song “Secret,” claiming that she, indeed, had one.
Johnny Depp Haircut: The mid-nineties gave us Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He had very long hair and sort of looked like a convenience store spirit guide. Signs of women of the WEGG-years: a barely-hidden attraction to mop-headed stock-boys and a seething bitterness at any mention of Juliette Lewis.
Bill Murray Performance: Remember Groundhog Day? Only Bill could bring that kind of lighthearted joy to suicide.
A forty year-old woman will have lived through many of the Reagan years and will have a strong opinion about him, whether it’s starry-eyed nostalgia or downright anger that he took Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House. Though she may not know both, 1989 brought cinema both Heathers and Do The Right Thing.
Sitcom: Cheers was still going strong, and this woman will still find Ted Danson a bit rakish, unable to see him for the long-faced Steve Jobs-knockoff he’s become. And, as with the Seinfeld woman, look for a deeper knowledge of the show than the superficial bits that have flowed into the pop culture mainstream (i.e. Shelley Long had to stay behind the bar the entire 3rd season because she was pregnant).
Madonna Single: Madonna released “Vogue” and tantalized a generation of American teens (see: number of Vogue-themes bat mitzvot 1989-1992). A forty year-old woman will know every word and at least a third of the dance. It took a Catholic girl from Michigan to get Jews from Westchester interested in a queer dance craze from Harlem.
Johnny Depp Haircut: In the late eighties, Johnny Depp was half of (the original) crime fighting due on 21 Jump Street, and for a woman to whom Depp will forever be Officer Hanson, the ducktail haircut is sexy, not a crazy anachronism.
Bill Murray Performance: Now seen as the clearly-inferior sequel, it’s more than likely that a woman born in 1975 took a significant step around the sexual infield at a screening of Ghostbusters 2—preference for GB2’s Bill Murray is a clear tell.
44 to 47
A woman in her mid-forties is going to be wiser and more self-possessed, but iPhone proficiency takes a big hit once you cross the 45-year threshold. From our perspective, any lack of technical proficiency is more than made up for with a greater-than average knowledge of Prince lyrics and ownership of the original Born in the U.S.A. LP.
Sitcom: A woman of this age hit peak TV consumption years right as The Cosby Show debuted, so she’ll know, and have a well-prepared statement about, the fact that the producers kept replacing the young actors as they got less cute.
Madonna Single: In 1984, Madonna released her triumphant “Like A Virgin,” and tromped her way into American living rooms for good. A certain type of precocious, New York-area woman might even have seen Madonna at Danceteria in her late teens: Ask her about it.
Johnny Depp Haircut: Depp was a youth on Nightmare on Elm Street with one of the more gruesome deaths in the film: an in-bed slicing that gives way to a thundering column of blood. The women who saw this movie at 15 are split into the terrified who left halfway through and those who have VHS copies whose tape is worn through at any scene involving Depp and his cropped-top no. 10 jersey. A high-point for the suburban bouffant.
Bill Murray Performance: Bill Murray seduced a levitating Sigourney Weaver in the original Ghostbusters, crossed streams with his bros and pulled ECTO1 out of an old firehouse and into the American psyche.
Two Helpful Questions:
- Is Robert Downey, Jr. a brooding teenage drug-addled deadbeat (35-45) or charming franchisee (25-35)?
- Can she sing all of Mariah Carey's “All I Want For Christmas Is You”? If she can’t, she's 80.
Photos by Corbis