One of the dozens of things I have been tracking about movies for my upcoming book on the sexualization of women/violence against women is actresses' ages. I have analysed 428 movies so far, which does not include all the movies I watched before I started writing my book over two years ago. One thing that always struck me about the cinematic landscape was the paucity of women over 40. For each movie I can name that stars a woman over 40 I can name at least 15 in which they are totally absent. Filmmakers have and still are overwhelmingly men. Female film stars have and still are, overwhelmingly, women under 40. The root of this is that women over 40 are past their sexual prime and therefore of little interest to male filmmakers. Because men prefer younger women, who fit the Barbie image better—and Barbie lookalikes being central to male fantasies—they are the ones filmmakers cast. This is patently obvious when one considers the age gap that separates Hollywood couples (and even male and female leads that are not paired romantically). Older men's love interests are now almost exclusively much younger women.
However, the sexist Hollywood age gap is not the only time older women are excluded from movies. Filmmakers also have a habit of avoiding casting older women when the story actually calls for one. For instance, in Forrest Gump (1994) Sally Field plays Tom Hanks' mother even though she is only ten years older than he is. In several other movies that cover decades of a person's life two or three actors play the character at various stages of their life, for example Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which River Phoenix plays Young Indy and Harrison Ford plays present day Indy. The same could have been done in Forrest Gump with Sally Field playing young and present day Mrs. Gump (in the credits she has no first name) and an elderly woman could have played elderly, dying Mrs. Gump. It is not as if there are no elderly women to be found in Hollywood.
Most people can name many elderly male actors. Few people can name as many elderly actresses, with the notable exceptions of Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. As an experiment I challenge you to name, from memory, 20 actresses over 65 who have starred in a movie from the 21st century (no cheating with a search engine). Male filmmakers may be uninterested in seeing women over 40 on the big screen but I daresay they are of much greater interest to modern day female audiences. Baby boomers want to see women their age represented, and younger women are interested in seeing models of who they may become. Generally, we want to see the types of women who actually populate our lives. Why should women in their eighties and nineties be virtually nonexistent from movies when they make up a significant part of the human population? In Canada women’s life expectancy is around 82 years. Women over 65 made up 17.8 percent of the population in Canada in 2016, and yet movies are very far from reflecting this reality.
Filmmakers have made Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Colin Firth, Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McKellen, Gary Oldman, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, etc. welcome in their movies for decades—arguably when they were well past their sexual prime. In the 21st century we want to see women over 40 welcomed in the same way. It's time.
© 2018 Alline Cormier