Age diversity in the movie industry

Why women over 25 years old are completely invisible in the Hollywood landscape – whereas men are allowed to age.

The American cinematographic system has provided, for years, multiple examples of the discrepancy which puts women at an inferior level due to their age. Indeed, the Hollywood industry has developed a real discrimination against women who are condemned to secondary roles when they become older. The age gap between actors and actresses in the cinema industry is the imprint of systemic sexism. Leading men age, but their love interest doesn’t. Women over 30 are not represented in the cinematic landscape and this reality reflects in a way the society of today which reproduces and shares what is shown in the media. This misrepresentation has raised a large number of questions and has encouraged a lot of women to express their feelings and denounce the system of which they are the victims. Their powerful voices represent a major influence today in order to prevent the next generation of boys and teens from growing up with sexist and stereotypical norms. Maybe it is time for the industry of dreams to turn to reality. 

As a society, aging in general makes us uncomfortable. We are surrounded by slogans for anti-wrinkle creams, lifting effect treatments or rejuvenating masks. The eternal quest for beauty and youth and maintaining them is nothing new to human society, however, the film industry is the very example of the issue of seeing a woman age. Men’s bodies, as much as women’s, do age but it is not a problem in Hollywood. Regardless of their age, men are always associated with actresses in their twenties, creating an age gap. On average, male leads in romantic films are 4.5 years older than their female co-stars according to new research. While men over 50 such as George Clooney or Daniel Craig are portrayed as womanizing businessmen, women of the same age such as Laura Dern are confined to the roles of secondary characters, or of tired mothers giving everything for their homes. Only women under the age of 35 can be desirable according to the film industry’s schemes.

In No Time to Die, agent 007 is played by Daniel Craig, 53 years old, as charming as ever, accompanied by his James Bond girl played by Léa Seydoux, 35 years old. All the films of this saga are testimonies of the sexism of the Hollywood industry. James Bond is a hero who ages, unlike his partners. Daniel Craig is represented as a desirable man, just like Léa Seydoux, but he is more than 20 years older than his partner. She plays a sexy and desired woman because she is young. If this same actress was 10 years older, it is very likely that she could not have played this role. The camera magnifies our wrinkles and imperfections, and we could make the assumption that audiences don’t necessarily want the reminder of their aging selves reflected on the faces of their movie idols. 

Leading men age, but their love interests don’t ©Vulture

The above charts prove that women are always younger than their male love interest. This confirms Hollywood’s refusal to represent women of all ages. If more and more actresses turn to plastic surgery to look younger, it expresses a real complex imposed by an industry led by men. 

But what came first? The egg or the chicken? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? For actor Antonio Banderas, “when it comes to ageism in Hollywood, society is to blame”. This lack of diversity is proof that the image of women is biased by sexist prejudices, fueled and sustained by a patriarchal system. It is a man’s world, so it would be a lie to say that the film industry is not sexist. Movies are projections of integrated stereotypes. Cinema is often a reflection of our societies and its evolutions. Women generally hold two roles, that of the “madonna” or the “whore”. Between the ages of 16 and until 25, they tend to be hypersexualized and often paired with men older than them, the latter holding positions of power. It depicts a reality but does not attempt to challenge it.

« Actress years are like dog years »
– Cate Blanchett

“The Ageless Test” is a study, completed in 2019 by TENA, a female personal hygiene brand, and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media based in California. This is the first global study to systematically analyze representations of older adults, with a specific focus on women ages 50+ in entertainment media. This study examines the extent of the influence of media in stereotypical representations of women. It focused on “the top-grossing films of 2019 in Germany, France, the UK, and the US”. It shows that 17% of films contained portrayals of older women as unattractive. Older women are depicted as “senile, homebound, physically inactive or feeble”. Relationships between people over 50 are almost completely invisible in the cinematic landscape. 

The use of social media as a tool to denounce ageism ©Instagram

Yet, it is essential to display a variety of different age relationships and not just one type, as movie characters serve as role models for children and teenagers. As far as little girls are concerned, it certainly is a depressing message that these movies send : after 25 years old, you will expire, both as a woman and as a careerist. As film producer Stephen Follows said: “The age gap matters because films are a major part of our culture and inform how we think about the world. Movies are so pervasive, it’s impossible that they don’t have an effect on what we consider an age-appropriate relationship. […] generally the problem is the system rather than overt sexism.” Indeed, the percentage of female directors, writers, producers, cinematographers on staff of top-grossing films was only 21% in 2019. Men mostly write and direct movies hence the birth of the expression “male gaze”. But change is undoubtedly underway. In a male-dominated industry, women are gaining power. They are speaking out. 

One of the first women to start the conversation was Maggie Gyllenhaal. In 2015, she revealed in an interview with The Wrap that she was turned down for a role in a movie. Why? Because by Hollywood standards, she was too old to play the on-screen love interest of a 55-year-old man. She was 37 at that time. The absurdity of this commonplace practice of casting a much younger female against a much older male struck her. Then, more and more testimonials followed. For example in 2016, actress Olivia Wilde stated in an interview with Howard Stern that she was deemed “too sophisticated” to star alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. She was rejected in favor of Margot Robbie, who is 6 years younger than her. In the end, Dicaprio was 16 years older than his on-screen wife. Weird.

The striking age gap between Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street ©Paramount Pictures

From that moment on, women started to express themselves. In recent years, Jessica Lange has become an unapologetic voice in this fight. For the cover of the AARP Magazine in 2017, she opened up about what she calls the pervasive problem of ageism in Hollywood. “You don’t often see women in their 60s playing romantic leads, yet you will see men in their 60s playing romantic leads with co-stars who are decades younger.” she said. It’s okay for men to get older, because in this patriarchal society they become more desirable by being powerful. With women, it’s all about how they look. More recently, Sarah Jessica Parker gave her opinion on the matter and talked about the misogynist comments she faced for the Sex And the City reboot: “I know what I look like. I have no choice. What am I going to do about it? Stop aging? Disappear?”. Like all women in this business, she has to grow older in a youth-obsessed culture.

Twenty years after Sex and the City, the three characters are back in the reboot And Just Like That ©HBO

But are there any real uprisings? Fortunately, actresses in Hollywood are beginning to revolt. For example, Kristen Stewart pulled out of Focus when Will Smith (44) replaced Ben Affleck (then 40). The age gap was too big and she didn’t want to feed this toxicity. One solution that might possibly lead to change, is having more female directors. Meryl Streep has used her own money to help fund a screenwriting lab for women writers over 40 in order to shift away from the white-male-dominated point of view. Actress Amy Poehler has also contributed to change. By directing the Netflix comedy Wine Country (2019), she gave visibility to a group of actresses in their fifties. Regarding the age gap issue, she told the Press Association: “If you’re a director, a male director or a male actor and you have a spouse in your movie, make them the same age as you. I think that’s an easy fix.” 

Wine Country, a movie displaying six middle age women as main characters ©Netflix

Can these small – but significant –  shifts in mentalities be enough to disrupt a very stigmatized industry? Indeed, Hollywood finds itself under increased scrutiny for its failure to represent women fairly on screen. It is hard to admit, but young women are better accepted  in cinema. Ageism has become a problem especially when it comes to analyzing how men and women are considered in movies. But this misogynistic point of view has been challenged thanks to the large number of denunciations of major actresses. 

But ageism is not the only pitfall of cinema in terms of gender equality. A solution has been recently set up, the Test of Bechdel, in order to evaluate the quality of the female presence in movies. Through these following three questions “Are there at least two female characters?” “Are these female characters talking to each other?” and “Is their conversation going to be about a subject which is not a male character?”, the cinematic landscape could become a tool in the fight against gender clichés and a springboard for women’s fight against sexism. 

Written by Emma Lichtenstein, Greta Guerini, Lucie Chiquer and Manon-Madeleine Remetter.

Cover: 007 Spectre ©Colombia Pictures

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