Shame Day: Hollywood and Older Leading Ladies

Take some time, maybe ten seconds or so, to come up with as many older actresses as you can. I’m even going to give you a head start with the picture on the right. Okay, are you done? In spite of the fact that I’ve had this intro in my head for the past few days I could still really only come up with two: Meryl Streep, obviously, and Dame Judy Dench.

Now take the same amount of time and do the same with male actors [I use the qualifier because the term is in fact gender neutral]. Off the top of my head I already have a handful: Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and the list goes on. That, in general, should set the stage to what I’m going to be discussing here.Sexism in Hollywood is certainly nothing new, with women in the industry having more than a few things to say in regards to how they’re viewed and treated.  I mean, just look at the sorts of questions leveled at Scarlett Johansson during interviews for The Avengers:

What’s hilarious is that this same dude did the exact same thing with Anne Hathaway.

That’s all to say that this issue is a broad one, which is why I want to boil it down to a discussion of why there’s such a dearth of older women on the big screen. I came across this article on Vulture from last year which sported ten handy-dandy graphs that tracked the age discrepancies between leading men and their love interests. Below is George Clooney’s:

I did the math, and that’s an average age difference of 8.7 years for every film where he’s the older actor. The all-time high, given the 11 movies listed, is 15 years. This trend is consistent for the vast majority of others chosen, including Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, and Denzel Washington. Tom Hanks proved to be more or less the exception to the rule, with his co-stars scaling as the years passed.

To take a step back and take into account the incredibly long comment on that article, the truth is that this is mildly consistent with life as we know it. According to the US Census Bureau’s 2013 Current Population Survey the wife is two or more years older than her husband in only 14.1% of married couples. But wait, considering that I’m doing so much math in this blog post I should at least see if the survey is consistent with the movies.

Rounding up from Clooney’s 8.7 year to a solid 10, it turns out that only 7.4% of married couples feature that sort of age difference between men and women. In other words, there are close to twice as many relationships where the woman is two or more years older than there are where the man is ten years older. Math, I think you need to apologize to Hollywood, because you are raining on their parade.

So I suppose the question we’re left with now is why this is. Why are there 177 films where “age difference between the two people is wide enough to risk social disapproval” when the older person is a man, and only 85 vice versa [thanks, Wikipedia!]?

In this case maybe when it comes to the Hollywood bestiary the truth is that silver foxes are just more popular [ie. profitable] than cougars. Which is actually a great way to insert a visual rest from all of this text and zoom out of this issue.

Part of the reason I focused on age disparity in on-screen movie relationships is because of the Vulture article and my poorly hidden desire to do a bit of math, but also because said relationships are the most likely place to find female actors. The reason for that being that the vast majority of films have male leads, because male leads bring in more money.

This is backed up by Marcus James Dixon of GoldDerby, who shared with Cate Blanchett that “‘Films with women at the center’ don’t make money” in response to her statement at the Academy Awards that audiences want to see them. This was overturned over at Indiewire with the revelation that of the 100 highest-earning movies of 2013 “movies with a female protagonist earned 20% more on average than movies with a male protagonist” [emphasis theirs].

That got us more off track than I wanted it to, but the gist is that most people in Hollywood agree with Dixon’s math, and as a result there are less female-led movies. That makes films headlined by the likes of Streep et al. less in number to begin with. Being relegated to side-characters, often as love interests, in male-led movies things are narrowed down further as it’s primarily younger women who fill these roles, regardless of the age of their co-stars.

In other words, her bipolar disorder and drug problems aside Carrie Fisher was still always going to be fighting an uphill battle compared to Star Wars co-star Harrison Ford. Thank God for 30 Rock for doing what it could to keep her in the public eye.

star wars animated GIF

The best case scenario here is that older actresses and their agents will have to put more work into finding and landing roles. The worst case scenario is that our general perception of what women look like as they get older becomes severely warped due to us assuming that, at least within the narrative, they are the same age as their co-stars.

To sum things up, the Jodie Fosters and Meg Ryans of this world are getting the short end of the stick, and it just ain’t right. I’m not asking that we get a slew of older-woman-younger-man romances, I’m calling for Hollywood to at the very least have its relationships close their age gap. The actors are all aging at the same rate [give or take a plastic surgery or two], let’s not have the roles drop off for the ladies as the men have their pick of scripts.


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