A new campaign seeks to shine fresh light on the lack of middle-aged women in the movies.
Nicky Clark (@MrsNickyClark)
It’s a universally acknowledged truth that an actress in possession of more than 40 years lived must be in want of her retirement. In May 2018, I launched my ‘Acting Your Age Campaign’, which challenges the industry-standard ageism, targeting women over 40. That notion that when a woman reaches 40 she must happily give up any hopes of a meaningful acting career, because no one cares about any story that places a woman over that age at its centre.
I launched it in frustration after a week that had seen the launch of two male-led TV dramas by male actors in their 50s, with female leads in their 30s. There was also the latest in the Mission: Impossible franchise, showing us again, if proof were needed, that whilst its male star Tom Cruise has continued to work past the 40-year threshold comfortably into his mid-50s, his female co-stars have primarily remained the same age. Not the same age as him: the same age they were when the Mission: Impossible franchise first began in 1996. The truly impossible mission, it would seem, is getting Tom Cruise to be cast opposite a woman his own age.
My question is this: what shall I tell my daughter? She’s an actor and, at 24, she has at best 16 years of a career left, and it’s not even properly begun. More widely, what are we saying to all our daughters? A female drama student beginning her training has roughly half the career trajectory of her male student peers. Not because of lack of talent, not because of lack of professionalism, not because of fecklessness, but because she is female and he isn’t.
As I write this, the flow of awards season is still around, and a statistic which gives me pause is the fact that, in the last 20 years, BAFTA has awarded its film best actor prize to three times as many middle-aged men as it has its best actress gong to middle-aged women. When it comes to the Oscars, this figure rises to four times as many middle-aged men receiving leading actor as middle-aged women receiving leading actress. The equivalence problem between a 50-year-old Daniel Craig as James Bond and the typical adjunct role for actresses of his age is marked and depressing. Whether Britain’s leading fictional spy or Captain America’s co-worker superheroes, we’re shown that if you’re saving the world, you can be young or you can be a middle-aged man, but you can’t be any kind of avenger if you’re female and over 40. Even with a breakthrough film in the superhero franchise for women and girls like Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, Robin Wright’s character got, let’s say, a limited lifespan.
I worry too that the message we’re sending to younger audiences is grim in terms of older women. Two recent offerings targeting the youth demographic had women characters in the ‘Mum mould’ who left much to be desired. In Spiderman: Into The Spider-Verse, 54 year old Luna Lauren Velez plays Rio Morales, our teenage hero’s mother. She was, in my view, a box-fresh male adjunct, reduced to a few soothing words. Instead, the focus remained firmly on the parental dynamic between Miles and his father, Jefferson Davis. In BumbleBee, ostensibly another breakaway from typical stereotypical genre casting and story arcs, we have the patriarchal idealised deceased father figure, contrasting with the 52-year-old Pamela Adlon as Sally Watson, a mother written as irritating, distracted and unconcerned with her daughter’s feelings. Until danger looms, at which point she is irritating, focused and inconvenient.
The message this sends to young audiences is worrying. Representation we know matters hugely and, whilst we do see equality and strong, capable women who are also mothers in the storyline of The Incredibles franchise, those films’ Helen Parr is still young enough to have just had baby Jack-Jack. Fertility and vitality for women in film is a requirement, which doesn’t apply to men.
For me, the message sent about the value of young women in film is a clear and unpleasant one. It says that whilst men can and do age on screen, women have a perceived sexual currency which is finite. Whilst we see younger and much older women on screen, the time in between for actresses is invisibility until they once again fit the demographic imposed upon them. It’s saying that a woman’s value in the TV and film industry is built around her youth and sexuality, or old age and the comedic or emotional worth of her wisdom. This perceived sexual currency, or lack of it, is being determined by men. Men as writers, producers, directors or with talent casting veto. Women’s sexual expression mustn’t be curbed, but when that is the only reason for a woman to appear and when the sexuality of middle-aged women is reduced to a joke, or a statement of desperation, or tied into mental unbalance, then oppression becomes the driver and it insults women and men of all ages.
Who can age?
This is all being fed by an enabled notion that men can age, and can and should be having sex with much younger women as a right. The ‘trophy’ partnerships played out on our screens betray the fact of a sentient women, who loses value only because she ages. The women of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, who led the change and led the accountability, and the women who outed Bill Cosby, all lost their careers. We know sexual predation is about power not sex, but sexual currency is a huge part of exploitation, and exploitation once normalised is entrenched.
Although believed and applauded now for their bravery, the women of #MeToo are seemingly facing an industry which has no place for them as artists. Working women don’t see themselves on screen equally represented, whilst at the same time the fight continues for equal pay in every other sphere of life. The stories we tell must reflect society as it is. The message of the erasure of middle-aged women loudly declares that our lives have no value and our stories aren’t deemed interesting. Female actors over the age of 40 still need to eat and have somewhere to live.
As a society, we need to be reminded that the disposability of women as we age is a normality that needs changing. No woman should lose her career because she ages. No woman should be made to feel she doesn’t belong in an industry which at its core is about our shared humanity, because she no longer fits a business model that introduced the gendered age gap norm of ‘older man/younger woman’ as a reaction to the puritanical Hays Code. That alone is unpleasant to reflect on. Until all women are equal, no women are, and equality must start with representation. Until then, I will join the 12 million UK women aged 40 to 60 who struggle to relate to the women on screen and remain an untapped film audience demographic.