HAS HOLLYWOOD FINALLY CAUGHT ON TO THE APPEAL OF OLDER WOMEN?
BY ELISSA STRAUSS
January 9, 2016
Awards season tends to be as much about celebrating the arrival of the latest crop of young and promising talent as it is about honoring cinema. The red carpet is their coming-out party, a chance to reveal how they will play one of the most complicated roles that will ever be given to them: newly minted celebrity. Some, like Kristen Stewart and Rooney Mara, stay cool with a careful balance of spotlight avoidance and provocation, while others, like Jennifer Lawrence, disarm us with their goofy smiles and forthrightness, instantly convincing us that they should be our best friends.
As intriguing as the new faces often are, this year all my excitement for awards season is directed towards another group of ladies: women of a certain age. Viola Davis! Lily Tomlin! Jane Fonda! Maggie Smith! Helen Mirren! Jamie Lee Curtis! And newcomer to the over-45 club, Taraji P. Henson! These are the women, all Golden Globe nominees (Tomlin twice so), I most look forward to seeing be interviewed on the red carpet, give acceptance speeches, and take drunken after-party candid shots, ideally together. I doubt I am alone.
The past few years have been marked by a rising enthusiasm for actress in the peri- and postmenopausal set. According to Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of website Women and Hollywood, the proliferation and diversification of quality television has created a space for stories and characters that might not have appeared in the age of network television.
New shows such as Grace and Frankie, Angel From Hell, Sensitive Skin, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, and Scream Queens and the return of critical favorites like Mom, How to Get Away With Murder, Veep, Orange Is the New Black, The Good Wife, Getting On, and The Fall, all offered us a window into the lives of complex older women. Next year we’ve got new shows from Sarah Jessica Parker and another from the holy comedy trinity of Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn called Divanation (!!!) to look forward to.
As exciting as all this is, Silverstein wants to make it clear that we are still far away from gender equality in Hollywood. “Our work isn’t over. It is just beginning,” she tells ELLE.com. “Women are still a minority behind the camera, and they are still getting paid less. Think about what happened to Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda,” she said, referring to reports that the actresses, who play the leads on Grace and Frankie, were being paid as much as their male costars in supporting roles.
According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television, in 2014 only 27 percent of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography working on broadcast programs were women, while just 25 percent of those performing these roles on cable and streaming services were women. During the same time period, women made up only 20 percent of behind-the-scenes roles in films. And while women are decently represented in front of the camera on television, they are less common in film. A study from the University of Southern California found that, in 2014, only 28.1 percent of characters in the top 100 films were female. Of those, just 21 featured a female lead or co-lead and none had a female lead over the age of 45.
Still, Hollywood’s sclerosis, frustrating as it is, doesn’t mean that we can’t be delighted by what we’ve got. While numbers may not have budged, older women suddenly feel more culturally relevant, a shift that might be necessary before larger changes can take place. Also, they’re really entertaining.
I’ll confess, part of this pleasure is a product of nostalgia. Many of these actresses are ones I grew up watching. Seeing them reminds me of simpler times, and also creates a sense of continuity between my past and my present. These are the same women I watched wedged between my mom and my sister on the former’s bed, or on my Urban Outfitters-tapestry-covered college couch following a night of unanticipated heartbreak. They’re the human equivalent of comfort food, and have been there for me as long as I can remember.
But, of course, this isn’t all about looking backwards. Watching older women also helps me process where I am headed. I turned 36 last October. Middle age, once a specter of the distant future, has become an around-the-corner reality that I am starting to believe might not be that bad after all. Watching these women helps release me from the tight grasp youth has on our culture and reveal to me the complexity and, yes, joy of aging while female.
For one thing, I’m looking forward to saying how I really feel, a faculty seen in many older women, fictional and real. Carrie Fisher’s recent press tour for Star Wars was a master class on the power of honesty and how age and experience can put extra oomph behind whatever it is one decides to reveal. (One of our favorite declarations: “We treat beauty like an accomplishment and that is insane.” Indeed.) Gone is the false humility about one’s talent and success, the I-woke-up-like-this affectation, and the abiding need to please. In their stead, women who know their own minds and are completely at ease with speaking them. Now that is an insane accomplishment.