Written by Malin Evita
For actors, the film industry is a place that women age out of, and men age into. You’ve probably heard about successful actresses who fear turning forty because they know that their career is about to be put out, or at least cut in half. But why? This is obviously not because they suddenly become bad at their job once the sun has circled around them for four decades. If anything, as with most professions, they become better, more skilled, with age. But for women in Hollywood, it doesn’t matter if they are world-renowned superstars, award winners, and critically proclaimed masters of acting. They turn forty, they are no longer barbie. They are no longer desirable; no longer a product they can sell.
“We are invisible. We are supporting characters, always,”
— Pam Munter.
And this is not just a gut feeling that many of you probably sense if you think about the movies you’ve watched throughout the years. This is something that is absolutely evident once we look at the stats. According to the film data study Film Dialogue from 2,000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age by Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels (which is the largest ever analysis done on film dialogue and gender), male actors between ages 42 and 65 speak five times more dialogue than actresses in the same age range.
In fact, age 42-65 is the point where male actors speak the highest amount words (55 million), and one of the times actresses speak the least. If that doesn’t feel like a slap in the face, I don’t know what does. That’s not even to point out how the actresses aged 22-31 speak the most amount of words (21 million) compared to other women still speak seven million words less than men of the same age. And for male actors, that is one of the times where they speak the least!
“But what about Meryl Streep?” I hear you say.
Yes. What about Meryl Streep? One of the few select older actresses who still have a career in Hollywood. She is nothing short of a legend, that goes without saying. But even for her, you can see the difference in filmographies compared to the (many) men of the same age who have been allowed to build longstanding careers.
Take Robert De Niro for example. Between ages 40 and 70 (1983-2013) De Niro has been credited with an in-person role (no voice-acting) under 68 narrative feature films. In comparison, Streep has between the same ages (1989-2019) and under the same criteria, been credited with a role for 42 films. That is a 27 amount difference.
Now, of course, this doesn’t take into account the scale of the role, words spoken, etc. It is merely an example to go with the above-mentioned statistics that already say it loud and clear: Women of a certain age are silenced, while men of the same age are admired.
It is the age-old tale of the wise old wizard and crooked evil hag.
In our most recent podcast episode, “Ageism and Abuse in Hollywood,” I asked film historian and author of “Fading Fame”—a book following famous women’s descent from the stage—Pam Munter about the sexist charged ageism women are exposed to in the industry. “At their certain age, [men] are wise. They are elderly statesmen and we go to them for advice,” she says. As for the women, society basically tells them to go sit in a chair and read and, essentially, ‘leave us alone,’ Pam says.
And again, actresses aren’t like, say, athletes who often retire earlier than the regular worker because their profession is based on their physical strength and endurance power. But actresses, like athletes, are most certainly judged by their physicality. Here though, it is on appearance, not ability.
Cinema is a reflection of our society. And in our society, women—due to centuries of being treated as shallow objects and being exposed to horrific beauty standards that alienate anyone with a single wrinkle—have been given an expiration date that comes decades before the grave. Ageing for women and showing any slight signs of not being twenty-one has been demonised and shamed. From anti-ageing cream commercials being smacked in your face wherever you go, to the very women we see in movies, talk shows, magazines, everywhere and anywhere. It almost seems like an endless cycle has been created. What is the root cause? Is it our culture? Is it the entertainment we consume? Or are the two perhaps inseparably intertwined?
This reflection works both ways though, and for Hollywood the problem first and foremost lie in the characters and stories that are told. Because even when women of a certain age are cast, it is most often as someone’s mother and grandmother; as roles who barely appear and rarely have anything to say.
But we need more Nomadlands’. We need more stories that explore the lives of all these women around us. Their thoughts, their passions, their struggles, their wins. We need more women working behind the scenes, telling their own stories. And we need to move away from the status quo that before all else treats women as eye candy.
For more on this topic…
Podcast episodes (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, etc.):
- #35 | Ageism and Abuse in Hollywood with Film Historian Pam Munter
- #27 | Eating Disorder Awareness in Film & TV with Brooke Trantor
- #14 | The Revolution for Women in Film is Here with Activist Filmmaker Naomi McDougall Jones
- Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood, by Pam Munter
- The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, by Naomi McDougall Jones
Written by Malin Evita
Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and currently studies Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.