Feud on FX with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, How to Get Away with Murder with Viola Davis, The Good Fight with Christine Baranski. What do these shows have in common? They all feature women over 40. Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t be a big deal but it is – it really is.
While male actors can become more distinguished and even sexier as they get older, actresses in that same age group suffer a different and often demeaning fate … cast aside entirely or relegated to matronly, mother and grandmother roles.
Ryan Murphy, producer of American Horror Story, Feud and Nip/Tuck has this to say to ABC News, “I write a lot of roles for women over 40. I think in ‘Feud' alone we have 15 roles for women over 40, which I'm very proud about.”
He also addresses something I have seen it my own life and in the lives of those around me. Fifty-year-old Murphy noted, “At the age of 40, you're just sort of figuring out who you are and you're getting started, and then — boom — down comes the curtain and the industry doesn't write [for] them. They're not interested in that demographic — which has never made sense to me. Because that demographic controls so much money and has so much economic power.”
Imagine that. Just as you hit your stride … it’s over. I’m a Murphy fan and was ready for Feud as soon as it was announced. It had me at the first episode. With no roles coming her way, Crawford found the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, got it, put into a script, found a director and brought on her nemesis, fellow ‘aging’ actress, Bette Davis.
The moral of that story is clear. If you wait, you’ll be waiting. If you want something done, sometimes you must do it yourself. The movie defied the studio’s predictions and became a blockbuster, earning Bette Davis an Academy Award nomination. None of it would have happen if Joan Crawford hadn’t found that story.
Sadly, 50 years later, some things have changed, but much has remained the same. And while we’ve been talking about film, it can also apply to the sciences, to business and any number of fields. The road is hard for women in general but women over 40 face an additional hurdle.
When I was living in L.A., I wrote a script, Pushing Platinum, a dark comedy about a couple on the verge of their 20th anniversary. I specifically wrote it for an older couple so actors over 40 had to be casts. As a writer, I am interested in characters who have depth and nuance, and for me, those people have a little bit of length in the tooth.
Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a place for coming-of-age- stories and stories about those finding and growing into themselves in their 20s and 30’s. But life doesn’t stop at 39, so why should roles for women. There is strength, elegance and beauty in ‘older’ women. There are stories to be told. So, let’s tell them.
And while we’re at it. Let’s start pairing older male actors with female actors in their same cohort. Sure, a lot of male producers love the idea of a younger woman. But, there are men and relationships where the age gap isn’t as significant … and the woman is still vibrant and sexy.
It might make sense with a movie like Pretty Woman for 40-year-old Richard Gere to hire a 22-year old hooker (Julia Roberts). Lost in Translation 53-year-old Bill Murray romanced an 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson.
According to a study by GraphJoy, until the age of 35, male actors are paired with female actors around the same age. However, as a male actor ages, the age of his female co-stars decrease. After the age of 35, Denzel Washington’s costars were an average of 15.33 years younger than him (even his Fences costar Viola Davis is 11 years younger). Harrison Ford has an age gap of 13.89 years. George Clooney only shows a difference of 5.89 years (he was 54 when the research was released in 2015).
After the age of 60 though, things begin to level out.
So, what can we average, non-Hollywood women do to help even the score? Producers respond to ratings. By watching TV shows and going to see major films with older women, we are making a statement. Watch them on Hulu and Netflix. The show’s producers that you enjoy what they are doing and it encourages them to do more of it. Protests, letter-writing campaigns and boycotts may have their place in other realms. However, when it comes to TV/Film, ratings and box office are the only things that matter.