Rather than serve in praise of, the movies have been exceedingly unkind to older women. And by "older" I don't mean senior citizens; I mean women past the age of Jennifer Lawrence. Actresses have been telling us this for some time: that the dearth of roles for mature women has been terrible for the profession. I would add that it is also terrible for viewers. In particular, women of a certain age.
I may spend a lot less time looking in the mirror these days, but that doesn't mean I don't want to see myself reflected on screen.
A study released last month confirms that the older a woman gets, the less Hollywood gives her to say. But, surprise: for men, it's the opposite – the older they get, the more lines they get (and no, I'm not talking about crow's feet), at least up to age 65.
The data visualization website Polygraph analyzed dialogue in 2,000 films. Men between 42 and 65 spoke 55 million words, compared to women in that age range, who delivered a paltry 11 million. Not that younger women have it better; men were assigned more dialogue in every age range over 21 – even in romantic comedies and Disney films. Even Frozen.
Premium TV is showing some maturity on this front. In the past couple of weeks, two series have released second seasons that portray older women as smart, complex and sexy. HBO Canada's Sensitive Skin stars Kim Cattrall as Davina, a woman in her 50s dealing with midlife issues. Sensitive Skin has its flaws, but I don't care. The show presents a character who, entering this next chapter of life, is asking the same question so many real women her age are wondering: What now?
Another refreshing (if imperfect) show portraying older women is Grace and Frankie, the Netflix series anchored by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, playing septuagenarians whose husbands have left them – for each other. Shocked, the WASPy Grace (Fonda) and the bong-toting Earth Mother Frankie (Tomlin) move in together and contemplate life now.
The arc of Fonda's Grace has seen her evolve from uptight, entitled and empathy-starved to a kinder, stronger, not-quite-as-uptight woman exploring her sexuality.
How often can we talk about meaningful development in a female TV character in her 70s? Or her 40s, for that matter? In the best scene of The Good Wife's final season, (spoiler alert) Alicia (Julianna Margulies), distraught over a revelation about her dead lover, Will, nears the end of her middle-aged rope.
"Sometimes I swear I just want to go into my bedroom, pull the covers over my head and never do anything ever again," the lawyer tells a friend, tossing clothes into the wash. "I just sit here alone in this stupid little apartment wondering what the hell happened to my life. Was it all about having two kids … and then shoving them off to be someone important? Seriously, was that the point?"
How many women have felt frustration and emptiness as they cycle through endless loads of laundry? What was the point of all those loads? What was the point, period?
The series finale, which aired this month, has been controversial – in particular the final sequence (spoiler alert: to remain innocent, readers should skip ahead two paragraphs): Alicia approaches Diane (Christine Baranski), her mentor and perhaps future partner at an all-female firm. And Diane delivers a shocker of a slap. Many Good Wife devotees were outraged. How dare this series, one of so few on network television to give female characters the spotlight, break up this solid feminist duo?
I believe the slap was the ultimate feminist ending: because Alicia chose to stand by her (ethically challenged) man – to the detriment of the good women (and men) in her life, she winds up isolated. Being a good wife was a bad choice. Better to be a kickass lawyer, a loyal friend – and for viewers like me, an inspiring role model: a complicated, successful woman who demonstrated resilience in the face of scandal. I'll miss her. I want more of this kind of character on all my screens.
There are efforts under way to get more women behind the camera. Meryl Streep is funding a screenwriting lab for women over 40, the NFB has introduced a gender-parity initiative, Telefilm and the Canada Media Fund say gender parity is a priority. There are programs and awards for female filmmakers; Women in Film and Television Vancouver announced its Spotlight Award winners this week.
This is not unrelated to the on-screen imbalance. Cattrall, 59, Fonda, 78, and Tomlin, 76, are all executive producers on their shows and Margulies, 49, was a producer. Sure, few have their clout, but if women want to turn things around, not simply be cast as two-dimensional wife or mother (or not cast at all), we're going to have to take charge. And we may just have to mirror what's simply the best approach to aging: own it.