Opinion: TV and film needs more stories about vibrant female characters of all ages if we are to see the richness of our long and complex lives on screen
Are ageing women having a moment? Or is there a bigger ideological shift underway? We had Andie MacDowell and Helen Mirren gracing the Cannes red carpet sporting grey hair. The now fiftysomething Sex and the City women are on their way back to our screens with the And Just Like That... revival. Jean Smart is flavour of the month with showstopping roles in Mare of Easttown and Hacks. At 70, Smart joins the likes of Mirren, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Catherine O'Hara and Jane Fonda who seem to herald the end of the bad old days when the markers of aging signalled a veritable death knell for women's careers.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Traditionally, women faced a double jeopardy: ageism and sexism. After a certain age, female actors transitioned from girlfriend to wife and mother or spinster. In their forties and fifties, they got fewer speaking parts, were represented as less intelligent and lived less vibrant, self -directed screen lives. By the age of 65, most were skirting around the margins of the narrative; often embodying physical and mental decline. In short, older women have been narratively discounted and 'symbolically annihilated’. Most of us did not bat an eyelid at this exclusion and internalised it as ‘normal’ in an ageist society.
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Trailer for Mare of Easttown
Well, some things have changed and some things have not. There has been some movement prompted by debates about so-called successful ageing, the grey pound and popular older female stars. More women of all ages are popping up on-screen often accompanied by overly optimistic column inches about some kind of age ‘revolution’. True, TV has pushed the boat out further than film for older women as sexual beings, strong leaders and wider ranging characters with more to say and do.
But the hurdles mature female actors must negotiate cannot be consigned to the past, just yet. The older female body remains taboo. Sexual encounters over the age of 50 are tentative and often rely on concealing strategies: under the covers, partially clothed, or off-screen entirely. A romantic kiss is usually about the size of it, with notable exceptions.
There are signs of a few green shoots in this regard. The analysis and chatter that followed Kate Winslet's sex scene in Mare of Easttown suggests it is still a novelty, even for Winslet at 45 years, but it was widely celebrated. Less high profile but arguably more ground breaking is Edie’s (Harriet Walter) sexual awakening at 70 years in The End.
From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Jenn Gannon on And Just Like That..., the new Sex and the City reboot
Meanwhile, there is great anticipation about the SATC reboot, And just like that. Twenty years on, Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte, women who shared their thirties with fans across the world, will reunite with them in their fifties. How will they perform age in New York City in 2021? Even before a single episode was screened, the shine had started to come off. These women had the audacity to visibly age and received a lashing for it. The actors themselves have called out the "misogynist ageism" that has greeted their return in some quarters with Sarah Jessica Parker retorting: "What am I going to do about it? Stop ageing? Disappear?"
Ageism is rife and it is not the sole preserve of the screen industries. Ageing, on the other hand, is gendered. The screen is more forgiving of older male characters who have been permitted to age in a way that women have not. The percentage of male characters declines only slightly between their thirties and forties and nearly twice as many men as women in their sixties appear on our film screens. The stand out example is probably Clint Eastwood, whose screen persona seems unhampered by the passage of time. He is still positioned as a virile sexual subject at 91 years old, albeit with more than a few raised eyebrows!
So where are we now? Female characters on film remain younger than male counterparts, ‘dramatically declining in numbers’ when they hit their forties, according to Martha Lauzen. Another US report, spearheaded by the Geena Davis Institute, found that female characters make up just 25% of characters over 50 yrs. in the top grossing films of 2019 in Germany, France, the UK and the US. They are more likely to be senile, homebound, feeble and ‘frumpy’ and less likely to be portrayed as racially diverse and LGBTQ+. Only one-in-four films in this study passed the 'Ageless Test', defined as a film that features at least one female character who is 50+, significantly woven into the plot and not reduced to ageist stereotypes.
This valuing of youth and appearance over all else limits how we dream and what we dream about as we age
It has been said that a narrower range of behaviour has long been considered ‘cinematically appropriate’ for ageing women. This is still the case, despite the exceptions that reassure us. This valuing of youth and appearance over all else limits how we dream and what we dream about as we age. It is true that more diverse representations are emerging offering alternative identities for older women on screen and different ways of performing age.
But it is not enough. We need new narratives of ageing everywhere; new stories about vibrant, agentic female characters of all ages if we are to mine the rich possibilities of our long and complex lives on screen.
While very little data is available to assess Irish screen content in this regard, it is clear that we do not buck international trends. Far from it. There are a few fiftysomething year old women in key dramatic TV roles, now and then. How are we doing in Irish film? Simple answer, not good. More women directors and screenwriters would help. And we need to start calling it out. There are steps we can take. Changes we can make. But that is a whole other story for another day.
Dr Susan Liddy is a Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at MIC Limerick. She is Chair of Women in Film and Television Ireland, Chair of the Equality Action Committee, a board member of the Writers Guild of Ireland and an advisory board member of Women in Film and Television International.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ