Why are there so few older women in our media?
Actor Russell Crowe was recently criticised for remarks he made regarding older female actors not wanting to act their age, but the truth is, there are vanishingly few roles for women over a certain age. Television and film doesn’t lack for older men, and in vastly disproportionate numbers – for every Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, or Oprah Winfrey you’ll easily find a dozen or more Richard Geres and George Clooneys. Those older women who are visible are often praised for their ability to remain youthful looking. Few older women are allowed to actually look their age.
In the UK, over a third of women over 55 feel underrepresented on TV. Women over 50 make up the largest demographic segment in the US, and yet they are practically invisible. Samantha Bond, of Downton Abbey fame, has spoken out about how few roles are available for older women, and how painfully rare it is to see aging female faces on our screens.
Many women approaching middle age speak of feeling forgotten. After a lifetime of being objectified and sexualised by media, suddenly they are ignored, judged as no longer attractive or worthy of looking at. For some women, this is a release. No longer subject to appearance politics, they finally feel able to approach life on their own terms. For others, they feel neutered. This sudden invisibility often coincides with the beginning of menopause, and women already struggling with physical changes can feel as if their sexual potency has been taken from them. Most women will likely feel a combination of the two. Women don’t all fit the singular mould we are so often pushed toward. We vary in height, weight, body shape, skin tone, sexuality, culture, personality, even anatomy. Every woman will experience womanhood differently, and those differences are worthy of celebration. But one thing that all women will experience, without exception, is getting older. As a society, we accept that everybody dies; what we seem incapable of accepting is the fact that before we die, we age.
And yet older women still have valuable stories to tell. Real life is hardly lacking in inspiring women over the age of forty. Julia Child was nearly fifty when her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published, and she revolutionized food in the US. Aun Sung Suu Kyi is 67, leader of the Opposition in Myanmar, and a truly inspiring figure of Asian nationhood. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, now 76, is president of Liberia and a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights. Gina Rinehart, 61, is one of the wealthiest women in the world and known for her ruthless business sense. All these women have stories worth telling, and none of those stories falls into any typical narrative about how older women should be, or whether they should ‘be’ at all. They run the gamut of personalities and politics, but none of them feel (or felt) terribly limited by their age.
The truth is that women, regardless of age, remain human. They have wants and needs, loves and hates. A woman does not stop existing because she turned forty, fifty, sixty, or onward. She just becomes wiser. Or not, because, of course, the entire breadth of womanhood available to humanity doesn't diminish as a woman grows older – older women still tell silly jokes, still want sex, still desire friendship, still read trashy books, still drink too much or get into fights or leave wet towels on the bathroom floor. We often forget that older women are really no different from the younger sort. We need to celebrate our elders – they are, overwhelmingly, the ones who paved these roads for us. We need to write more stories about these women, support more projects by these women, and remind people and ourselves that we deserve to be seen and heard all our lives. Older women are women too.