Redefining What It Means to Age as a Woman in Media

Post by guest contributor, Kate Harveston.

Many societies venerate the stereotype of the crone. Wisdom pours from her ancient eyes. Her face is a roadmap of experience and understanding. 

But if you tune in to any American television station, you’ll see bevels of younger beauties and hardly a female face over 60. When shows do portray older women, they pigeonhole them as evil stepmothers or meddling mothers-in-law. We need to redefine what it means to age as a woman in media and start treating wrinkles like badges of honor, not targets for the Botox needle!

Why Are There Negative Stereotypes Against Older Women? 

Think back to the fairy tales you loved most as a child. What do Snow White and Cinderella have in common? A wicked stepmother. Even Bugs Bunny featured the crone mystique as the decidedly ditzy Witch Hazel. If early writers needed a villain, an older woman fit the bill. 

Part of the negative stereotype stems from ancient times. Before the Romans arrived, older women were seen to hold the healing wisdom of generations. They prepared everything from cold remedies to love potions. However, in the latter years of the Roman Empire, the Romans subjugated these women, fearing their teachings interfered with those of the Church. Some evidence now suggests interactions with pagans weren’t always violent. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end for the worship of the older female generations.

As time went on, the patriarchy grew in power. Women had two purposes in society—to procreate and to raise children. Stripped of economic power, females learned to use their sexuality to survive. When it came to enticing wealthy males, the younger set had a decided advantage over older madams. Over the years, young women grew to represent vitality, while aged women symbolized decline. 

Compare this to how we treat men. Society venerates older men on TV and in films. Actors like Sean Connery continue getting roles — and garnering attention for their looks—well into their 70s and 80s. As actor Carrie Fisher said of her role in Star Wars—it’s not that men age better than women. It’s that men are allowed to age. Society conversely expects females to fade into obscurity. 

A Changing American Population

All of this bias cheats women who want to see themselves represented on the screen. Between 1900 and 2000, the average life expectancy increased by nearly 30 years in the developed world. People—both male and female—now find it common to live until their 70s or 80s. And women tend to live longer than men!

This generational shift means screenwriters need to change their formulas if they hope to draw crowds to the theater or make it in prime time. Women can tolerate only so many lithe young things scampering around the screen before they crave more realistic representations of the female form. 

The tides are certainly shifting as far as representation goes across the board. Fashion designers are finally starting to feature models who don’t fit the tall, skinny stereotype, and there’s certainly more representation nowadays of older women than just the occasional wicked stepmother trope.

Consider for a moment the success of “The Golden Girls,” which premiered way back in 1985. Today, the show still enjoys a large following, with viewers following the show on Hulu and even taking themed cruises and cooking lessons based around the characters. Many people consider the protagonists like family members. 

Shows like “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Veep” feature cast members aged 50 and older. Mariska Hargitay returns for her 20th year as Olivia Benson on “Law and Order, SVU” this year. 

Older women even make up some of the world’s most beloved actresses. Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench continue to electrify audiences — and both are well over 60. Dame Judi Dench returns to Cats this Christmas in a movie version of the Broadway classic. Older women are not only tearing it up onscreen—they’re changing the world. For example, actor and activist Jane Fonda recently got arrested during a climate change protest on Capitol Hill. 

Overcoming the Bias Against Older Women in Media

Audiences demand more diversity, not only in the films they flock to theaters to see but in everyday programming. It’s well past time news organizations hire more female broadcasters who don’t spend a fortune on Botox and dermal fillers. Directors should sign actors of every body shape and size—and age. 

When the images we see projected match those we see around us daily, we’ll likely see more empathy and respect for everyone across the board—not only those whose appearance conforms to our conventional ideas of attractiveness.

A Woman’s Age Is Only a Number

Women, like fine wine, get better with age! In fact, most people probably do. Age brings wisdom through experiences and empathy from a lifetime of overcoming obstacles. Older women have a lot to offer, and it’s important that executives in film and TV continue realizing that and representing it.

Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys topics related to culture, feminism, and women’s health, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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