Monica Brotherton explores the recent increased content centering the middle aged woman, as well as the enduring societal forces that still hold back the aging woman’s advancement on screen.
Despite long being discarded after they’ve reached the grand old age of 30, or God forbid they became mothers, some actresses (translation: White) are now enjoying roles well into their middle age. And not just the marginalised wife or mother that exists purely to contextualise the male character – but complex, meaty characters with their own lives beyond, or at the very least complicating, the gendered domestic sphere.
Take Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s careers that are showing no signs of slowing down. All three actresses recently starred in HBO’s acclaimed drama Big Little Lies; with the operative word there being starred. Their faces were splattered across the ads, promotions and covers; not a male in sight. Make no mistake, these women were the first-on-the-call-sheet stars, and while it still, rather stereotypically, focuses on the domestic lives of wives and mothers, the drama subverts other gendered ideals. The women are largely successful, wealthy alphas. Witherspoon’s character is even cheating on her meagre, devoted husband. An UNO reverse card if ever I saw one. And the women are freed of the parasitic leech-male too! Kidman’s abusive husband, a gross embodiment of total female oppression, is spectacularly murdered by the mob of women. Women, and actresses alike, are slowly suffocating the domesticated patriarchy; one perfectly placed pillow at a time.
“Women, and actresses alike, are slowly suffocating the domesticated patriarchy…”
But where is the non-White, middle aged actress in all this? In Big Little Lies, Zoë Kravitz is the only Black actress that plays a main character, and she was 28 when the show initially aired. Evidently, there is a clear gap; middle aged, non-White actresses are not being given the starring roles that White actresses are now enjoying. Beyond Big Little Lies, this is still disappointingly apparent. In fact, with Witherspoon and Kidman themselves respectively leading recent hits The Morning Show and Nine Perfect Strangers, they appear to be the only ones getting the gigs. Of the top 20 highest paid actresses in 2020-21, only one Black woman in her 50s made the list. In fact, only one Black actress was named: Viola Davis. Older non-White actresses are still being left on the side lines; their absence in the glossy ads is perceptible. Deflatingly, Davis seems to be the only name ever heralded in these conversations, a tokenistic nod given by White casting directors, feigning the attainment of true diversity. To quote Davis herself: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.”
“To quote Davis herself: ‘The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.'”
Yet despite their increasing presence, even White, middle-aged actresses are still struggling to overpower their male counterparts. Whilst in the last six years or so, streaming TV services have been conferred a prestige once exclusively reserved for film, these women are not getting any top movie billings. Excluding Marvel’s recent venture, Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, middle-aged women are largely not being centred on the major glossy billboards and in the studio-funded press junkets. Scarlett Johansson’s embarrassingly overdue performance in her own Black Widow film, whilst her male co-stars are enjoying their third or even fourth principal film (looking at you, Hemsworth), further shows that progress is still to be made. How often do you see the chiselled, middle-aged Marvel man heroically sprinting across the ads on First buses?
But this emphasises what is really at play; the entertainment industry is still catering solely to the implied White, cis-het male audience. Men’s argument that male middle-aged actors are as sexualised as middle-aged actresses unveils the limitless capacity for men to ignore the Male Gaze. It was explicitly Johansson whose body was outrageously photoshopped during her stint as Black Widow. Perhaps this alludes to the wider homoerotic homosocial relationships between men. They think that middle-aged actors are as sexualised because a beefcake picture of Hemsworth is apparently what women want; when, most women attracted to men fawn over the likes of the ambiguous Styles or the self-assured Harlow (women personify men, while men objectify women!).
“Men’s argument that male middle-aged actors are as sexualised as middle-aged actresses unveils the limitless capacity for men to ignore the Male Gaze.”
Taking this further, studios de-sex older actresses to fulfil the heteronormative wants of the implied cis-het male audience. Think of Adjoa Andoh in Bridgerton – the steamiest show in recent memory – being without a love interest and presented only as a mentor figure, or Judi Dench in anything in the last 30 years: playing the ancient queen, commander, and granny, generally some aloof, cold head or placid old woman. She is not presented as a sexual being because the implied audience will never see her as one. On the other hand, WLW TikTok can’t get enough of the MILFs and GILFs! Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jessica Lange are edited in intense mashups upon intense mashup.
So, in catering to the implied male cis-het audience, studios are ignoring the desires of other audiences. It is not that the middle-aged actress, of any race, is not wanted, but that gendered and racialised obstacles of ageism in the entertainment industry keep them from our screens.