Fading Fast: Where Are the Older Women in TV and Film?

By Goldrick-Jones, Amanda | Herizons, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Fading Fast: Where Are the Older Women in TV and Film?


Goldrick-Jones, Amanda, Herizons


Fading Fast: Where Are the Older Women in TV and Film?.

Forty and suddenly you're old? Out on the margins or out of a job? Maybe that's true in Hollywood; anything can happen there. It seems harder to believe that women over 40 can 'disappear' in Canada, where a number of older women have been, and are, highly influential in TV and film. News anchors like Pamela Wallin, the late Barbara Frum and TV actors like Meg Hogarth (now executive director of Media Watch), Martha Henry (The Wars, Dancing in the Dark), Tantoo Cardinal (Dances With Wolves, North of 60); and the late Colleen Dewhurst also come to mind. We may also think of executives like Trina McQueen of The Discovery Channel and Rita Shelton Deverell of Vision TV; Kathleen Shannon (retired) of the National Film Board's Studio D, and Barbara Barde, vice president of programming at the new Women's Television Network (WTN), which went on air January 1, 1995. TV shows discussing and celebrating older women, like Jan Tennant's Time of Your Life, CBC's 50 and Up, with J. J. McCall, and the upcoming WTN series Double Take, which producer Shari Graydon says plans on devoting an episode to media portrayals of older women.

All positive; all worth celebrating. And almost all of them exceptional. Next time you read a magazine, skim through an ad, watch a TV show, or go to a movie, ask yourself: how many of the women whose images I see are over 40? Of those, how many are in positions of power, or are playing central, vital, or positive roles? How many portrayals of older women reflect the realities of women's lives?

Twenty years ago, older women in the media were all too often marginalized, if they were present at all. Today, feminist researchers and critics find that the entertainment industry still overwhelmingly showcases youthful faces and female figures, with a dusting of "distinguished" older men. Only in Hollywood? Unfortunately not. A 1991 study published in the Journal of Women and Aging, which examined how middle-aged women are portrayed in Canadian magazines, found that images of women between 40-59 are absent both from covers of traditional magazines and entire sections on fashion and beauty.

Similarly, in the performing arts, older women are conspicuous by their absence. As feminist film theorist Karen M. Stoddard argues in Saints and Shrews: Women and Aging in American Popular Film, even when older women are present, they are often disliked or denigrated. She notes that "the average older individual, and especially the older woman, is often treated as a burden or a social relic...a curiosity." The results of a 1990 study in the Journal of Women and Aging focusing on prime-time TV characters seems to bear this out. It indicates that viewers perceive older women much more negatively than they do older men.

The Second Wave of feminist activism has produced a strong critique of ways women are portrayed in the media. Film and media scholars like Laura Mulvey and Teresa de Lauretis, and feminist organizations like Canada's Media Watch, continue to scrutinize images of women as sex objects and men's subordinates. It was almost 20 years ago that Mulvey defined "the determining male gaze" that dominates and determines how women are portrayed in films. Among other things, this insatiable gaze demands that women in film and TV be perpetually glamorous and sexual-as Mulvey argues, an "erotic object" for the pleasure of the screen characters and the film viewers.

Some of this is now changing. As Charla Krupp, writing for Glamour, puts it, "The real reason that actresses over 40 aren't working? Men run the studios and they green-light what they want to see. Sex with women their own age isn't a turn-on."

But it isn't only the "male gaze" which has set impossible standards for older women. Stoddard points out that it's all too easy to blame the media for their negative portrayals of older women when TV and film legitimate our already ingrained attitudes toward aging. …

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