What’s Age Got To Do With It? Less and Less.

October 7, 2016

Ageism is still a thing, but not if pop culture has anything to say about it.

Simone Missick, Cassandra Freeman, Alfre Woodard and Karen Pittman in Luke Cage (Photo Credit: Netflix)

One thing in life is certain: Everyone gets older until the day they die. We’ve talked about how Hollywood treats aging before, but since the entertainment industry continues to judge women as if they’re not allowed to get old, we decided to take another look.

Ageism appears to be the last -ism to fall. Older women bear the brunt of the scrutiny for having the audacity to look and act their age. Age discrimination is very real, particularly in Hollywood, which is one reason for a new California law requiring entertainment websites like IMDb to remove an actor’s age or birthday upon request. Still trying to understand why that’s needed? A recent study showed that after actresses turn 40 they’re given less dialogue in films – and men over 40 are given more. Meryl Streep (MERYL STREEP!) said that the year after she turned 40 she was offered three roles, all of them witches. Even in her Academy Award nominated role in Into the Woods, her transformation back into her beautiful pre-spell self didn’t seem all that far removed from her witchy incarnation. They didn’t let her authentic beauty shine.

Meryl Streep, Into The Woods

Meryl Streep, Into The Woods (2014)

For the most part, TV and film have tended to reinforce stereotypes about older women. Women over 40 are either desexualized think moms or gal pals like Paula on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or, like The Graduate’s iconic Mrs. Robinson, they’re portrayed as intimidating cougars rather than sexually confident mature women.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, The Graduate (1967)

However, there are some refreshing signs that the entertainment industry – and pop culture on the whole – is starting to humanize women of a certain age. And it’s happening in a big way on television. Netflix’s  Grace and Frankie starring the incomparable Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin is part of a growing recognition that older women don’t, and shouldn’t have to, fit into the narrow stereotypes assigned by society. Fonda notes in an interview that there haven’t been many films or TV shows that look at aging with the honesty that Grace and Frankie does.

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Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie (2015)

Any show that Shonda Rhimes has her hands on such as Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder tends to offer well-rounded portrayals of women aging with complexity and power. Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating are just two examples of women who are at the top of their game, despite facing some extreme life challenges, and unafraid to act their age and live out loud.

Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder (2014 -- )

Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder (2014)

Another current TV show that tackles the topic of ageism with particular panache is TV Land’s Younger. The show chronicles the adventures of Liza, a 40-year-old whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. Having abandoned a promising career in publishing years before to raise their daughter, Liza decides to return to her professional passion. Yet every interview ends with her being told she’s too old. Of course, the people interviewing her never say that “o” word. Instead, Liza is told she’s too “overqualified” or “orange – it’s an industry term.” After all, there would be lawsuits to deal with if Liza were denied a job because of her age. But, Liza looks younger than she is so she reinvents herself and passes herself off as a 26-year-old.

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Sutton Foster, Younger (2015)

Younger may seem like frothy fun, and it is, but it strikes at the heart of a deeper truth: Liza has to lie about her age to be successful. Why? Because American society puts women in that position. Even Sutton Foster, the 41 year old actress who plays Liza, admits she’s faced ageism in her own career.

We like what we’re seeing in shows like Younger that are taking on the issue on in a creative and smart way. We also strongly endorse casting women for roles that match their ages, as was done in Netflix’s Luke Cage, in which the female characters over 40 are anything but kind older ladies and pushovers. For the good guys, Detective Misty Knight’s (Simone Missick) supervisors are Betty Audrey played by Sonja Sohn, and Priscilla Ridley played by Karen Pittman. There is nothing one-dimensional about these police women, because even though they are supporting roles, they are well written, and cast perfectly. For the baddies, Alfre Woodard as Mariah and LaTanya Richardson as Mama Mabel are terrifying and complex villains. And all of them are playing their ages.

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LaTanya Richardson and Alfre Woodard, Luke Cage (2016)

The needle hasn’t moved much on age bias for women, at least not yet. But television is a beacon of hope that the issue of ageism is getting some much-needed attention at last. A final sign of progress: relish the fact that Golden Girls action figures were among the hottest collectibles at this year’s New York Comic Con. You tell ‘em, Sophia.

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Amy Lynn Smith for AndACTION