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Photo: The Acting Your Age Campaign
Writers Note: As a Black, Asian, and queer writer, I recognize that I believe that POC creatives need representation faster than other minority groups. However, this does not mean that gendered ageism does not need attention. For different people, different causes take priority, and like BLM, the AYAC is making strides for the cause of their choice. Please read this article remembering the multiple disparities across all minority groups.
The film industry doesn’t like older actors. Well, take that back: The industry doesn’t like older actresses. Hollywood doesn’t like older leads in their movies. Well, take that back: Hollywood doesn’t like older female leads in their movies. Hollywood doesn’t like stories about older women. There are some movies with over 40 female protagonists: ‘Gloria Bell’ starring Julianne Moore, ‘The 40-year-old Version’ starring Radha Bank, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ starring Frances McDormand, ‘Juanita’ starring Alfre Woodard, etc. But these films are few and far between. The true stories of middle-aged women are mostly ignored in the industry. And a campaign in the UK is fighting to stop that.
Writer’s note: As a Black and Asian writer, I believe issues of racism take precedence over issues of ageism, as any White entertainer in today’s European/American entertainment world of any age will be favored over their POC counterparts. However, this does not mean that the disparities faced by older women in the industry do not need attention.
Introducing the Acting Your Age Campaign (AYAC) and Nicky Clark
Back in 2018 50-year-old writer and performer, Nicky Clark took note of the film and television industry’s problem with women. During the time of so many movements, including #MeToo and #TimesUp, she felt it important to bring attention to another demeaning practice: gendered ageism. “Men have a whole life on screen,” she’s said, “and women only have a shelf life. It’s time to change.”
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In response to this mistreatment, Clark founded the Acting Your Age Campaign, whose objective, according to their #5050From45 AYAC Open Letter, is to “highlight and challenge the lack of meaningful representation of women over the age of 45 in the UK entertainment industry and to drive meaningful change for all women…This is the Acting Your Age Campaign (AYAC) parity pledge which we want the entertainment industry to sign up to – equal representation of men & women of all ages, or put another way, “50:50 from 45”.”
The campaign has garnered over 100 signatures, including actors and actresses Juliet Stevenson, David Tenet, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Meera Syal, and more. But what are the specific demands that have swayed such esteemed entertainers to sign it?
Why These Women are Type Cast: We are Afraid of Aging
“Why is it still an industry fact that middle-aged means ‘she can’t act’?” – Nicky Clark.
As part of their initiative, the AYAC is fighting to get women over the age of 45 to have the same kinds of parts as men. Usually, as shared in a poem read by actresses who have signed the open letter, these women are given “the mother role, the nagging wife,” “the bitter, sniping, aged hag”, “the humorless fool”, etc, while men are given desirable and distinguished, wealthy, powerful, parts.
Award shows have made it clear that the older woman is only worth rewarding if she fits these boxes. “Last year the BAFTA TV awards couldn’t find a single woman over the age of 38 for their leading TV actress category.” wrote Clark, “Despite a crucial and beautifully diverse lineup of actresses, all of them were under 38. In the men’s equivalent category there were two men over the age of 45.” Oftentimes, the older woman will be nominated for the role of the cruel mother, the tyrannical royalty, or the disturbed wife, all roles the AYAC is trying to separate from.
According to The Washington Post, USC professor Dr. Stacy Smith shared “‘My hunch is that the Judi Denches, the Maggie Smiths, are pushing the same stories and getting work often, which is fantastic, but it is a narrow view.’ She also cited Kevin Costner and Liam Neeson, both of whom appeared in two films in 2015, as examples of ‘a rinse-and-repeat … with the same actors in powerful roles.’” So, it is evident that both men and women over a certain age are type cast and forced into boxes. But for women, the damage is far deeper.
This is a fact that has been studied before the AYAC was formed. In a 2015 study performed by the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism with Dr. Smith, it was found that “Female teens (42.9%) and young adults (38.7%) were more likely than middle‐aged females (24.7%) to be shown in sexualized attire…”
When older women go for roles outside of the boxes they’ve been put in, “many have been advised to have plastic surgery of ‘tweakments’,” writes Working Wise, “[but] even if they do get the surgery, there are often very few parts to be had.” The industry’s refusal to even acknowledge the aging process is dangerous for the self-esteem and image of people everywhere. As much as we love a fantasy world, it’s important to see ourselves in the images we see on tv.
In the open letter’s first request to Broadcast/Production Companies, they ask that, for all onscreen content, “male and female leads/presenters should have 50:50 equal gender and age representation” in drama, comedy, and romantic and platonic leads. The emphasis on romantic leads feels very urgent to me. It’s important to remember, especially as young people, that getting older does not mean we become undesirable or abstinent. Love and sexuality can blossom at any point.
The fear of aging can begin to be eradicated if we remember that life does not end after a certain age. But our obsession with youth and our fear of becoming undesirable forces agencies and producers to type-cast women into boxes, which only pushes the message that older is negative. This isolates and denies an entire part of our population and perpetuates this fear and hatred of aging.
Writers are Suffering Too
The open letter’s second request is “All writer/performer dramas and comedy commissioning should feature 50:50 age and gender parity in programming (not just older men/young women)”. You may think all writers are just focused on younger stories. But it’s not always the writer’s fault.
Many writers have been asked to “age down” their female leads for their projects to be greenlit, putting the creative into a professional headlock: Do they decline the job and stick to their character’s original age, or finally get a story put on-screen and age her down? “AYAC have been repeatedly told by writers submitting many scripts and ideas for dramas, comedies, and features, that the ages of the leading characters are routinely aged down by commissioners, producers and production companies, ” it reads in the open letter, “particularly the age of the female romantic leading actress.”
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But it is also writers themselves that are being discriminated against. In an open letter from the Writers Guild of America West, Catherine Clinch, the chair of their Longevity committee wrote, “For decades, members of the Writers Guild of America have lived under the burden of this painful reality – that older writers are the only diversity category that it is socially- acceptable to discriminate against. Hollywood has not even created the façade of pretending to include older writers in the workplace. Diversity programs sponsored by the Writers Guild have been able to find employment and representation for members of all other categories – except for older writers.”
In the fourth and fifth sections of Broadcast/Production, the letter reads, “There should no longer be an upper age limit on any new writer schemes/talent searches…Age should become a mandatory requirement for all broadcaster diversity monitoring (off and on-screen) to ensure representation of women over 45.”
Without older writers, there aren’t accurate older experiences being told. But this doesn’t just apply to writers. Like I wrote in my ‘Black Women in Hollywood’ article, “We need [older] women in the writer’s room, behind the cameras, as photographers, directors, casting agents, producers: each cog in the machine helps to tell the story…” Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, ‘Wine Country’ is a perfect example of the positive result of this inclusion.
‘Wine Country’ is written by ‘SNL’ veterans Liz Cackowski and Emily Spivey and stars Poehler, Spivey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Paula Pell, and was inspired by some of the friends’ real-life adventures. “The women I know in their 40s and 50s are incredibly interesting, funny, accomplished, doing a million things,” Amy Poehler told Vanity Fair, “There’s a lot of rich stories to tell there that don’t involve loss or fear of being left….[‘Wine Country’s’] not about ladies who can’t act their age…”
In a review of the film on The Wrap, writer Yolanda Machado shares the significance of a film like ‘Wine Country’: “Turning 50 used to be the end of an actress’ career in Hollywood, and in life, a sign she was long past her expiration date. ‘Wine Country’ shows that women in their 50s are in one of the best phases of their lives, a time to be celebrated, welcomed, and enjoyed with good friends and good wine.”
Ageism in Newscasters and Presenters
Have you ever been watching the news and noticed that the male news anchor is older than his female counterpart? Have you ever wondered why?
AYAC is not just addressing fictional characters. In their section for News and Current Affairs, the open letter asks that “All contributors to political panels/discussions/news packages/studio guests should feature 50:50 age parity of women over 45 in line with men and young women. (A panel of only middle-aged men and young women is dated and unrepresentative).”
Older men are brought onto our screens because they are believed to be more trustworthy, and younger women are brought in because they are pretty to look at, to say the least. This level of ageism and sexism dates back centuries when women started being represented as the succubus or the jezebel, tempting honorable men with their sexuality and leading them astray. We trust the men to tell the truth and the women to lure us in to watch. And an older – which is synonymous with “ugly” – woman would not draw us in.
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In another request in this section, the AYAC asks for proper 50:50 representation in the news that is covered about both sexes: “Celebrity based/entertainment news should feature women and men over 45 equally in terms of achievements.” Oftentimes in the news, younger female entertainers’ successes will be secondary to their outfits and their love lives, whereas older female entertainers won’t be featured at all. And, returning to our topic of the fear of aging, the AYAC is also requesting that “obituaries of women should use recent photographs as with men.” When a female actress passes away, the photos representing them in news segments and award shows are often decades older, while hosts and producers have no problem showing men in their older years. The AYAC is trying to make the point that women have every right to be remembered as they were just like men: Age is about living just as much as a part of dying.
It Should not be a Crime to Age
The USC study showed that “women in their early 20s have a tremendous edge over men the same age. That advantage diminishes for every year that a female actor ages, though. Among 20-year-old actors, women got 80 percent of the leading roles. By age 30, women only got 40 percent of the leading roles. And past age 40, men claim 80 percent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 percent…women have shorter careers that start earlier.”
There’s always a new movie about a younger man (‘Fire Island’). There’s always a new movie about an older man (‘Memory’). There’s always a new movie about a younger woman (‘Senior Year’). But the older woman’s story is a rarity, especially one that passes the Bechdel test.
Ageism is not just in the entertainment industry. It’s all around us. It’s in our workplaces, our families, and for it to be in our entertainment is probably the most dangerous: Everyone needs entertainment, and when our media is saturated with racist/sexist/ageist/homophobic content, it seeps into our minds and we fall victim to these hurtful ideas.
We need to change the way we think about women. Ideally, we would get rid of our fear of aging and our fear of middle-aged sexuality, which could help eradicate our fear of death, which would eradicate our rush to un-age women. But, that’s a bit of a big ask.
Women like Poehler are already making moves to make a difference. And, like most things, the only way to get anything done about injustice is for the subjects of it to take a stand. I highly encourage every reader to go find some films that represent older women in positive and realistic lights and to keep track of the AYAC, since it, hopefully, will be changing movies as we know it.
By Z Murphy
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Z Murphy (she/they) has a passion for storytelling. As a queer person of color, Z always aims to challenge their readers to look at art in a new light by putting racial and sexual identities in conversation with pop culture. With this dedication to inspiring respectful and insightful dialogue, Z is thrilled to be a part of the Hollywood Insider cohort, a media network that supports content focused on perceptive exploration rather than gossip.