Fade to grey: The lack of roles for older women in film

Where are all the older women on our movie screens? While men seem to be cast in action-packed leading roles well into their later years – think of the James Bond actors as a prime example of this – roles for older women seem to be few and far between. And by older, think any actress much over the age of 40.

Even the amount of dialogue a character has can be influenced by a combination of an actor’s gender and how old they are. A recent study examined the division of dialogue in Hollywood films not only by gender, but also by age. They found that, ‘The number of lines, by age-range, is completely opposite for women versus men. Lines available to women who are over 40 years old decrease substantially. For men, it’s the exact opposite: there are more roles available to older actors.’

One recent notable example of this prejudice against older women, was an interviewer commenting to James Bond star Daniel Craig about Bond, ‘succumbing to the charms of an older woman’, despite the fact that co-star Monica Bellucci is only 4 years his senior. Craig’s response? ‘I think you mean the charms of a woman his [Bond’s] own age’.

Actresses including Kristen Scott Thomas and Catherine Zeta Jones have themselves spoken out about the lack of roles for older women. In an interview Scott Thomas said, ‘I won’t bore you with all the stories of older women not getting jobs in film because it’s so boring. But it’s true. It’s a disaster.’

Last year Time Magazine also conducted a study of the careers of more than 6000 actors. It discovered that, ‘While male actors see their careers peak at the age of 46, female actors reach their professional pinnacles at age 30…’ It seems that things continue to get worse for older women while at the same time improving for older men. ‘Women today who are the age of 60 are seeing the number of roles they are cast in decline faster than their older peers once did. At the same time, younger men are seeing their careers peak even later than their older peers.’

Then there is a trend for young actresses to be paired with older male actors. A study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that, ‘Women are also younger than men on screen; the majority are in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). Men over 40 accounted for 53% of characters whereas women that age represented 30%. That has implications for the number of female authority figures onscreen.’ One theory as to why this is the case was put forward by the Executive Director of the Center. She said women attain more power as they age and that, ‘When we keep them [women] young, we keep them relatively powerless. ’

This issue is part of a wider problem within the film industry, and society in general. Stories by, for, and about women (and in particular older women) are often regarded as not having widespread appeal.

Part of the reason why there are so few roles for older women could be the fact that there are so few women making production decisions and creative judgements behind the scenes . Women made up only ‘11 percent of writers, 20 percent of executive producers, 26 percent of producers, 22 percent of editors, and 6 percent of cinematographers’ out of the top 250 grossing films in 2015. The majority of scripts are being written and produced by white, middle-aged men. They create and fund what they believe the audience will pay to see. The majority of executive and senior management positions – those with the decision-making power – are also held predominantly by white men.

Of course, there are some cases where “older” women take the lead; such as 2013 film “The Heat” where Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy (both in their 40s at the time) play an FBI agent and a cop in a buddy-cop gender switched film. But films like these are exceptions, rather than the rule.

Some countries, including Australia, have set targets to address the lack of equal representation of women in film, for actresses and for those who work behind the scenes. However, these targets don’t necessarily address the specific issue of a lack of parts for older women.

Another contributing factor to this discrimination against older women is that they are not highly valued by society. Influential elements of society, including much of the media and Hollywood teach that the most valuable women are those who are young and beautiful.

As women, the odds are already stacked against them. When you consider that as it is, women make up less than a third of speaking roles out of the top-grossing films, as well as the Hollywood wage gap – with the top earning actresses earning significantly less than their male counterparts – it’s an industry where being an older woman is a barrier to a successful career.

If the roles for older women exist only as a token part of a film, rather than as complex characters with their own journeys, what kind of message will women receive from this? Perhaps, that as you get older your stories aren’t worth telling, your life experiences aren’t worth reflecting in film and your contributions are no longer valued. While the opportunities for actresses continue to shrink as they age there is a danger that the stories of older women will fade from our screens.

Image: David Condrey


Jess - Bio PicJessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.


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One Comment

  • Kristopher commented on June 5, 2017 Reply

    My girlfriend and were discussing this, and your article has been very helpful to us. Thanks!

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