While the media's portrayal of women has been scrutinized for years, one demographic remains notably underexamined: women aged 50 and up. Despite the countless hours of media we absorb, multifaceted, realistic depictions of mature women are few and far between.
More often than not, we are depicted in one of two extremes. On one end, there's the archetype of the gray-haired woman who fades into the background at family gatherings or offers sage advice as a peripheral grandmotherly figure. On the other end, there's the "cougar," a woman presented as desperate and predatory, seeking to recapture her youth at all costs.
Do these portrayals genuinely mirror the diverse and complex lives of women over 50 that we encounter in reality?
No, of course not!
Ageism is deeply entrenched not only in Hollywood but also across the broader American social landscape. According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging:
a shocking 82% of older individuals report experiencing routine ageism, including exposure to derogatory jokes and messages.
The poll highlights that women are more frequently victims of ageism compared to men.
However, it's worth noting that the same poll found that:
88% of older adults felt more at ease with themselves as they aged, a sentiment that's seldom reflected on screen.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media has illuminated the scarcity of substantive roles for older actresses. Their report reveals that in the top-grossing films of 2019 from Germany, France, Britain, and the United States, not a single one had a female lead over 50. Moreover, only 25% of characters over 50 were women. Alarmingly, a mere one-fourth of these movies passed what the institute coined "The Ageless Test," featuring at least one female character over 50 who was essential to the storyline and not diminished to stereotypes. This glaring discrepancy demands attention and action.
Thus, for women over 50, our sense of self is more fully realized and robust than at any other point in our lives. Yet, while aging men are often depicted in film and television as wise, strong, and self-assured, these same media platforms continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about older women. This not only misrepresents our experience but also diminishes our societal value.
the Media's Narrow Lens on Women in Their 50s and 60s
You've likely seen her—a woman with graying hair, often tucked away in the backdrop of a bustling family dinner scene or relegated to the role of a wise, but inconsequential, grandmother. Maybe you've encountered the opposite extreme: the "cougar," portrayed as predatory and desperate, attempting to claw back her lost youth. While these characters pervade our TV screens and movie theaters, do they authentically represent the women over 50 that we know in real life?
A critical look at these portrayals reveals not only a staggering underrepresentation but also a distressing reliance on stereotypes that don't do justice to the vibrant, multifaceted lives of older women.
According to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media,
only 24% of characters who were between the ages of 40-64 in family films released in 2019 were female. Alarmingly, the representation dips even lower when we focus on women over 50, and it practically vanishes for women over 60.
This glaring imbalance in representation is deeply problematic, as it fosters a narrow and skewed perception of aging women that permeates our collective consciousness. While Hollywood is notorious for its youth-obsessed culture, these stereotypes resonate well beyond the entertainment industry, impacting societal norms, expectations, and treatment of older women.
Considering that nearly 23% of the United States population is expected to be 65 years or older by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, this disconnect becomes even more staggering. Why is there such a discrepancy between the real lives of older women and their on-screen portrayals?
The few roles that exist for women over 50 often perpetuate stereotypes. There's the doting grandmother, such as Betty White in The Proposal, or the wicked witch or evil stepmother, epitomized by Meryl Streep's role in Into the Woods. These characters often exist in binary roles: either disarmingly sweet or irredeemably malevolent. While these roles can be entertaining, they also send the message that older women fit into narrow categories, ignoring the rich diversity of their real lives.
But where are the nuanced, complex roles? Shows like Grace and Frankie and films like The Wife have started to break the mold, yet they remain exceptions in a media landscape awash with oversimplified caricatures. (A list of age-positive media can be found here)
The portrayals we consume matter. They shape how we perceive and interact with various segments of our society, including women over 50. So, isn't it time that our media did justice to the rich tapestry of their experiences?
Women over 60 fare no better. Think of Maggie Smith's character in Downton Abbey—wise but out of touch, and often used for comic relief. While her character is beloved, it nonetheless falls into the pattern of reducing older women to background figures who offer wisdom but are seldom involved in the action.
In contrast, let's look at the real world. According to the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor,
women over 55 are among the fastest-growing labor force segments.
They're not just grandmothers waiting at home to babysit;
they are CEOs, entrepreneurs, educators, and more.
Moreover, the CDC reports that women over 50 are more physically active than ever, contradicting the media portrayal of them as frail or past their prime.
Women over 60 are breaking barriers too. Take Christine Lagarde, who took over as President of the European Central Bank at the age of 63, or Carmen Farina, who served as New York City's Schools Chancellor until the age of 74. These women shatter the stereotype of being out of touch or irrelevant, yet their types are conspicuously absent in mainstream media.
The disparity between on-screen portrayals and real-life roles is not just a problem for Hollywood to solve. It shapes society's perceptions, influencing how older women are treated in their professional and personal lives. The media's narrow lens can affect hiring decisions, familial relationships, and even healthcare provisions.
Movies and TV shows need to catch up with the times. As audiences, we need to demand more authentic portrayals that reflect the diversity and complexity of older women's lives. With the aging population growing, it's high time the media started treating women over 50 and 60 as the vital, dynamic individuals they truly are. By closing the fiction vs. reality gap, we can hope to foster a more inclusive, respectful culture for women of all ages.
Generally, Hollywood tends to pigeonhole older women into certain categories. There’s the "Grandma" character, often overly sweet or, conversely, sassy and outspoken but ultimately defined by her age and status as a matriarch. Think of Betty White in *The Proposal*, or Judi Dench in any role where she plays a grandparent.
Then there’s the "Cougar," an older woman involved romantically with a much younger man. While the character often exudes confidence, she is commonly depicted as desperate to cling to her fading youth, as in the character of Samantha Jones from *Sex and the City*.
Another frequent portrayal is the "Witch" or "Evil Stepmother," characters who often serve as antagonists in the plot, relying on cunning rather than physical prowess. Meryl Streep's role in *Into the Woods* serves as a good example.
However, not all is lost. Some films and television shows have broken the mold to provide more nuanced portrayals of older women. Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original, stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as women in their seventies dealing with the complexities of life and friendship after their husbands reveal they are gay and leave them for each other. The show has received critical acclaim for its handling of issues like ageism, family dynamics, and sexuality with humor and sensitivity.
The film The Wife starring Glenn Close is another example that takes a hard look at the sacrifices women often make for their families, especially as they age. Close's character, Joan, faces an existential crisis when her husband is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, forcing her to confront her own overlooked literary ambitions and talents.
(A list of age-positive media can be found here)
Why Representation Matters: The Importance of Change
Why does this representation matter? Beyond the obvious issue of gender equality, authentic portrayals of women over 50 can have a significant impact on society's perceptions and expectations. These characters serve as mirrors for older women watching, allowing them to see their lives, challenges, and aspirations reflected in a meaningful way.
Moreover, it affects the younger generation by shaping their expectations and reducing ingrained stereotypes. Better representation can lead to more nuanced understanding and, ultimately, greater societal respect for aging women.
The Way Forward
There is a pressing need for diversity in how older women are portrayed on screen. We need more characters that are complex, empowered, and integral to the storyline, who can be role models or cautionary tales, but who are always authentically human. With the rise of platforms that allow for a broader range of stories to be told, there’s hope that the narrative will shift. As viewers, we can contribute by supporting films and TV shows that offer diverse portrayals, thus signaling the demand for change.
In summary, women over 50 have been underserved and stereotyped in film and television for far too long. It's time we celebrated the full spectrum of their lives, struggles, and triumphs through better representation on screen.
Have you ever felt sidelined or underestimated because of your age or gender? You're far from alone. In fact, a staggering 88% of women over 50 experience ageism and sexism. If you're ready to turn the tables, shake off societal limitations, and redefine what your 'best life' looks like—then welcome to the Bloomer Brigade Revolution! We're an empowered community of women aged 45-65, embracing our wisdom, and unlocking our fullest potential.
We offer weekly mentorship sessions, expert-led webinars, and hands-on workshops specifically designed to elevate your life in meaningful ways. But that's not all—our thriving community of kindred spirits provides the emotional and intellectual sustenance to truly make this journey transformative. So why wait? Click below to apply and become part of a revolution that's redefining life after 50. Your best chapter starts now!
Films and Television that Defy Age Stereotypes
Here's a curated list of groundbreaking movies and TV shows that courageously defy stereotypes by offering authentic portrayals of women over 50. Did we overlook a gem that you believe should be celebrated? Reach out to us, and we'll be delighted to include it in our ever-evolving list!
Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original, stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin
The Wife starring Glenn Close
Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet and Julianne Nicholson
Ted Lasso starring Hannah Waddingham
The Crown starring Gillian Anderson
Hacks starring Jean Smart
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring Judi Dench
Elle starring Isabelle Huppert
Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, and Christine Baranski
The Queen starring Connie Ferguson
Book Club starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen
Philomena starring Judi Danch
Below are some recommended readings and references that delve into the media's often negative or stereotypical portrayal of women over 50. These works examine the issue from various angles including sociology, gender studies, and media studies.
Douglas, S. J. (1994). "Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media." New York: Random House.
This book provides a historical look at how media has shaped the socialization and perceptions of women. While not specifically focused on women over 50, it sets the stage for understanding how media impacts the depiction and perception of women at all ages.
Calasanti, T., & Slevin, K. F. (2001). "Gender, Social Inequalities, and Aging." AltaMira Press.
This book discusses how aging experiences are shaped by social factors like gender and class. It does a great job of unpacking how older women, particularly those over 50, are marginalized in media portrayals.
Byerly, C. M., & Ross, K. (2006). "Women and Media: A Critical Introduction." Blackwell.
This text delves into the historical and contemporary relationship between women and media. It discusses the underrepresentation and stereotyping of women, with some sections dedicated to older women.
Gullette, M. M. (2011). "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America." University of Chicago Press.
Gullette’s book focuses on the ageism experienced by both men and women, but gives ample room to the unique challenges faced by women as they age. The media’s role in perpetuating these stereotypes is a key focus.
"Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men" by Caroline Criado Perez (2019).
While not solely focused on media portrayal or women over 50, this book provides a strong foundational understanding of how a world designed for men disadvantages women, including those who are older.
Academic Journals: "Feminist Media Studies," "Journal of Aging Studies," "The Gerontologist."
Various articles in these journals have touched upon the issue of media portrayal of older women. They offer academic perspectives that include statistical data and sociological interpretations.
Reports from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
This organization offers multiple reports that touch on the subject of women’s portrayal in media across different age groups.
Podcast: "The Guilty Feminist" - Episode: Representation of Older Women in Media.
This episode provides an engaging, conversational perspective on how older women are portrayed in the media, with guest speakers often contributing their personal experiences and professional expertise.
TED Talk: "The dangerous ways ads see women" by Jean Kilbourne.
While this talk focuses mainly on advertisements, it’s a crucial part of media and plays a significant role in shaping perceptions about women, including older women.
If you're ready to turn the tables, shake off societal limitations, and redefine what your 'best life' looks like—then welcome to the Bloomer Brigade Revolution! We're an empowered community of women aged 45-65, embracing our wisdom, and unlocking our fullest potential.