5. Ageism

How does the lack of realistic female representation on screen contribute to the social and cultural response to ageism for Women?

The Hollywood norm when it comes to ageing is a subjectivity of attractiveness and physical youth, especially for females. Girls and Women in Hollywood must meet the demands of audiences, and the creators of content, who are usually male. It seems that Hollywood has shaped society; “We live in a culture where youth is still revered, envied, fought over and ageing, and particularly ageing women, widely feared” (Jermyn, 2012, pg. 2), and society has shaped Hollywood. Susan Sontag’s essay (1979) on the double standard of ageing claims that “standards of physical attractiveness differ for men and women…those for men are less stringent and less connected to youth, whereas for women any sign of advancing age is an indication of diminished attractiveness” (Deuisch et al 1986). The way that older women are presented on screen can be viewed as an unrealistic representation of ageing in a society obsessed with youth. “In western societies, ageism is rooted in an ‘insidious obsession with youthfulness’ that results in the ‘assigning of social value, resources and opportunities based on actual and perceived chronological age” (Hurd Clarke & Griffin, 2008, p. 655, ins Spedale et al, 2014). All women exposed to western media may feel pressure to fit into the Hollywood norm of perfection. Older women are expected to present as youthful and ageing gracefully, as a response to rhetoric focussed on their age and how they’ve stayed ‘looking young’, “The dominant ideology dictates that ‘youth is good, desirable, and beautiful; old age is bad, repulsive, and ugly” (Healey, 1993, p.48, ins Spedale et al, 2014). What we see on screen has created a bias about how the ageing female should present to society and has normalised a culture obsessed with youth.


The evidence

Maggie Gyllenhall recently commented that she was already considered too old by Hollywood standards, to play the love interest of a 55 year old man. Writer and producer Steven Fellows, based at Ealing Studios in West London, posted a study in response to Gyllenhall’s claims regarding age and gender in film by analysing the demographics of lead actors in 422 romantic films which grossed over $1m at the US box office, released between 1984 and 2014. Fellows found that “On average, males leads in romantic films are 4.5 years older than their female co-stars and the age gap is slightly smaller in films directed by women” (stephenfollows.com, 2015). In another study conducted by TIME Magazine (2015) an analysis of 6,000 film careers found that “male actors see their careers peak at the age of 46, female actors reach their professional pinnacles at age 30”. This anecdotal evidence shows that there has been no improvement in recent years; “Women today who are the age of 60 are seeing the number of roles they are cast in decline faster than their older peers once did” (TIME Magazine, 2015).


Historically and now

Historically ageism was not always so apparent. In classical and post classical Hollywood cinema, some female actors became free agents by negotiating their own Hollywood deals, away from contractual work to freelance work, allowing them to work as they aged; these early classical Hollywood women stars “broke new ground to help establish practices that have become commonplace for A-list stars negotiating deals in the industry today” (Jermyn, 2012). However this shifted in the 1950s to favour men in Hollywood, and older women would transition to television to stay on screen, then seen as a graveyard of Hollywood film. The past few decades have seen ageing stars turning to cosmetics endorsement roles, boasting the unattainable dewy glow that only Hollywood lights and surgery can provide, “Contemporary femininity seems to have become about the constant recreation of the self through changing hairstyle, dress, appearance and – ultimately – plastic surgery” (Van Zoonen, 2006 pg. 291). The ageing star is the ideal spokeswoman for age related cosmetics – Sharon Stone, Dianne Keaton and Jane Fonda are some examples. And therein lies the paradox “..these women stars come to be embedded in promulgating the very products and industry that perpetuates the ageist culture which so often delimits their careers as they age” (Jermyn, 2012, pg.4). Look young and survive in public, survive and look young to endorse our product.


Case Studies
Meryl Streep

After years of success and accolades, 66 year old American actress Meryl Streep chooses to work with many female directors. A glance at her most favourable romantic comedies of the past decade shows distinctive contrast in character and portrayal between the films directed by males when compared to those directed by females. In It’s Complicated (2009) (directed by Nancy Meyers) the character is open and free; the audience is on her ‘side’. In Prime (2005) (directed by Ben Younger), the character is reserved and judgemental; the audience is against her, she is demanding and abrupt. As the overbearing Jewish mother, Streep disapproves of her son’s new older girlfriend; “religion is paramount in a persons life” she tells him, saying “don’t do this” of the relationship. The audience sides with the young (23 year old) son, portrayed as ‘brave’ by dating someone outside of his Jewish faith and much older (37 year old). In films directed by men, Streep is often coy, dowdy and hesitant. In films directed by women Streep is confident, youthful and decisive.

Streep 1
It’s Complicated, 2009
Streep 2
Prime, 2005











Jane Fonda

Monster In Law (2005) (directed by Robert Luketic) and starring then 67 year old Jane Fonda tells a similar story to Prime; an overbearing mother figure against the younger new love interest of her son. The character is introduced as an ageing news anchor who has a breakdown on set after being told she’s being replaced by someone younger as the network must appeal to a “younger demographic”. The notable codes are there: Fonda in black, young starlet in white; she attacks her (after shedding a single tear) and in the next scene she is back in beige apologising for her unrealistic ‘outburst’. This films was Fonda’s (now 77) ‘comeback’ to film. She currently has lead roles in Hollywood film and television, however discourse about Fonda is usually about her age, her social value is rarely mentioned. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Fonda advocates for victims of sexual abuse and how she has been an activist most of her life, only accepting roles that she feels bring issues that have meaning and worth. The article titled “Jane Fonda: Plastic Surgery Bought me a Decade” opens with Fonda discussing death and her fake hip, diminishing her social value to that which only seems worthy to be mentioned half way through the article. Fonda confesses in the article; “I wish I were brave enough to not do plastic surgery but I think I bought myself a decade.” (The Guardian, 2015). Fonda continually makes headlines as an older woman who’s ‘still got it’ and what she’s doing to ‘keep it’ in a society where youth is currency. Fonda’s appearance as spokeswoman for L’Oreal cosmetics challenges the Hollywood norm when it comes to ageing. In one campaign, Fonda exclaims “I’ve never felt this good, I’m 69” as she endorses the product. Jermyn (2012) calls this ‘girling’ of older women, “symptomatic of post feminist culture and indicative of a move to push back the boundaries of ageing; now in her seventies, this ageing woman star is figured as being just as excited – and just as entitled – …as a woman or girl a fraction of her age might be”. Fonda challenges the role of an ageing woman on screen, but creates a parallel of unrealistic expectations about how women should look in their seventies. Women who remain in the spotlight after a certain age challenge the Hollywood norm, but are often resilient to the human condition of ageing.


Why is this important?

We live in a society with an increasing aging demographic. Ageism as an issue is becoming increasingly prevalent; unsurpisingly the film industry was an early example. According to Tunnaley et al, (1999), retirement is typically seen as the indicator of ageing, the sign that someone has hit ‘old age’. Studies done in this area predominantly focus on white men through ageing and into retirement, gender blind and exclusionary to minorities; “The political economy approach to aging expanded in the later 1980s and 1990s to take into account other dimensions of inequality by including race and ethnic inequalities as well as gender” (Tunnaley et al, 1999, pg. 72). It’s important to discuss this issue because it contributes to policy. Women quite often exit the workforce to be the carer of children and family members, receive less compensation for paid work, and are sometimes have less choice when it comes to priorities about finance and carer responsibilities. Policy is never a sexy topic and showing older women on screen may one day assist in forming policies which will assist ageing minorities. Having women write and direct realistic characters on screen can contribute to shifting norms about age and the social value of older women.