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Reel Representation: Ageism against Hollywood actresses may be reaching its twilight years

(Claire Sun/Daily Bruin)

By Olivia Mazzucato

January 28, 2018 11:17 pm

Potent. Powerful. Viable.

These are the words Nicole Kidman chose to describe fellow actresses over the age of 40 in her Screen Actors Guild award acceptance speech, an opportunity she used to point out the ways in which actresses were challenging perceptions and changing norms.

“How wonderful it is that our careers can go beyond 40 years old,” Kidman said. “Because 20 years ago, we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives.”

Ageism in Hollywood still runs rampant – perhaps most evident in the disparity between older actors and actresses in romantic films. However, Kidman’s win is indicative of a shift in Hollywood toward an increase in opportunities for actresses of all ages, expanding their variety of roles and lifting unspoken restrictions that have confined middle aged and older actresses for decades.

Hollywood is slowly becoming a place of equity for older actresses, which can sometimes make it appear like ageism has disappeared from the industry. Actresses like Meryl Streep and Viola Davis have both made careers playing strong, unabashedly middle aged women. But as Tina Fey pointed out at the 2014 Golden Globes, Streep’s roles are the exception rather than the norm, and don’t necessarily mean that there are more roles for older actresses. Fey joked that Streep’s myriad of nominations and awards showed that there were great parts for “Meryl Streeps” over 60, but not necessarily all actresses over 60.

The vast majority of Hollywood still holds on to notions about what women over the age of 30 can embody. While older actresses aren’t necessarily considered washed up, as Kidman said, they’re still limited by outdated perceptions. For example, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed in a recent interview with TheWrap how she lost a part in a film due to her age – at 37, she was told she was too old to play the love interest to a 55-year-old man.

It’s galling to think that people who work in Hollywood genuinely believe that an 18-year difference between a man and a woman is too small – a persistent idea that isn’t an isolated incident. In 2013, Vulture examined the careers of several top actors, from George Clooney to Steve Carell, and found that even though the actors themselves aged, the women playing their love interests didn’t.

Vulture also looked at the careers of A-list actresses such as Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson and found the same phenomenon. The actresses were consistently romantically paired with much older actors – in some cases, with actors who were more than double their age.

When it comes to the age disparity between actors and actresses playing love interests, it is important that Hollywood casting directors acknowledge the alarming trend and work to correct it. Not only does it limit opportunities for older actresses, but it also normalizes a culture of imbalance between men and women.

Inequity as a facet of ageism in Hollywood remains ever-present, as do the limitations on the complexity and genre diversity for roles available to older actresses. Taraji P. Henson has been a vocal critic of ageism in Hollywood and pointed out in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “When women get older in this business, they tend to send us out to pastures. Meanwhile, you have Liam Neeson, however old he is, still kicking ass in ‘Taken’ and Denzel Washington, who, at any given drop of a dime, will do an action film.”

Henson makes a good point: Older male actors aren’t held to the same restrictions as older female actresses. Neeson just starred in “The Commuter,” an iteration of the same type of action movie he’s been making for the past decade. And yet it’s very difficult to find a comparable actress of the same age who gets the same opportunities.

Viola Davis, another outspoken actress against ageism, also continues to defy Hollywood standards for older actresses. Davis has spent the past few years playing Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away with Murder,” winning countless awards in the process. When accepting her SAG award for outstanding performance by an actress in a drama series, she praised the show’s unconventional take on a female character, saying, “Thank you … for thinking that a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman who looks like me.”

Davis’ role as Annalise Keating exists because someone was able to create it. Someone imagined a complex, dangerous, nuanced, middle aged character and believed it could be a woman. The future for older actresses in Hollywood is clear. The solution to eliminating ageism from the industry isn’t to limit the roles older actors get, but to extend similar acting opportunities to women of the same age.

As male actors age, the film industry deems them more experienced, more distinguished and more capable. It’s time Hollywood starts thinking about older actresses in the same way.

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Olivia Mazzucato
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