There are a handful of female actors who have received the highest acclaims of their respective industries and continue to accumulate nominations, awards and box office smashes, despite our expectation that older women recede from the public domain in silence and whilst their dignity is intact. I want to honour these women who have embraced the stages of life they are at and refused to be limited by them, but I also want to honour what they represent; celebrating their success is also an indictment on the limited roles and visibility of older female and gender diverse characters in film, literature.
Growing up, the only older women characters I remember are the formidable ones, whose no-nonsense approaches were for the good of all concerned, and most often because the men on whom the responsibility should have rested in certain scenarios simply weren’t up to the task. Miss Medlock, from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, is the one who typified this characterisation for me. She was abrasive, aloof, unsympathetic and unmoved. Played by none other than Maggie Smith in the most popular film version, one of that handful of elite women who have managed to scrape together enough roles as an older woman to continue to have a stellar career despite her mature 86 years, she was, quite plainly, terrifying.
Of course, Julie Andrews was the soothing balm that assured me that there was a greater variety of characters available for older women than just those that typecast them as scowling, bitter spinsters, without a backstory of their own. Her radiance had followed her into maturity and she continued in roles that reflected the same warmth as her early success in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Her advisory role to a budding princess in the Princess Diaries series cemented these qualities and typecast her somewhat as the loving but firm grandmother.
As I grew older, the likes of Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Jackie Weaver and Judi Dench impressed me with their command of unruly families, organised crime gangs, workplaces, military operations and countries; but whilst many of them should have been the lead roles in the films in which they were accomplishing these impressive feats, they were still, most of the time, secondary characters to men (James Bond, most of Helen Mirren’s films, Animal Kingdom) or young women (The Devil Wears Prada), whose trajectories seem to be more relatable, more interesting, or at least a narrative that doesn’t end with an extremely confronting possibility: invisibility and indignity.
And if you are an ageing diverse woman or woman of colour, the odds of establishing or maintaining a career in film, featuring as a character in literature or seeing yourself on the small screen are even slimmer.
And those are the questions I am left with as a woman who is nearing middle age herself: does my society see so little of interest and value in my story as I age as to ignore these stories almost completely? Why aren’t we interested in these stories and these incredibly complex and accomplished women? Why do we not accord them rich inner lives of their own, but instead portray them as only secondary to the journey of those younger, or male? Do we see decay and frailty as inevitable and, if we do, does this bore us, or scare us?
As Julie Briggs’ blog post this week investigates, most of what we attribute to the ageing population, that heaviness and decay, is actually a perception rooted in our own fear of our demise and scramble to differentiate ourselves and maintain our belief that we are still young, virile, untouchable. But for the women we know, the women we watch on our screens and the characters we read in our books, this is not their reality; they feel young and they see youth in their reflection.