Where are the leading roles for women over 50 in major movies?
A new study finds that women of a certain age group are relegated to supporting roles in films – or are consistently portrayed as grumpy, frumpy or worse.
The Ageless Test study, released Tuesday by TENA in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University, reveals only 1 in 4 films passed what they call the Ageless Test.
The test examines whether women 50 or older are presented as having fully realized lives “rather than serving as scenery in younger people’s stories,” according to the study. In order to pass the Ageless Test:
- The film must have at least one female character who is 50+ who matters and is tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have significant effectThe character must be presented in humanizing ways and not reduce to ageist stereotypes
The study analyzed 2019’s top grossing films from the U.S., U.K., France and Germany.
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The results were sobering: No women over 50 were cast in leading roles in 2019’s top films, while two men over 50 were featured as leads. And when older women did appear, they were cast in stereotypical fashion (stubborn, 33%; unattractive, 17%; grumpy, 32%; unfashionable, 18%).
“Given that adults 50+ are 20% of our global population, we need to not only include diverse adults 50+ in our stories, but also show them having full lives in order to de-stigmatize the stereotypes around aging,” said Davis in a statement.
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The study noted that male stars enjoy a far wider berth: Females make up only 25% of characters over 50, compared to 75% of males, the study found.
Add the rub that in characters over 50, female are more than twice as likely to be shown as physically unattractive, more likely to be depicted as lonely (19%) and homebound (16%) than males.
“Ageism is pervasive in this industry,” Jessica Lange told AARP Magazine in 2017. “It’s not a level playing field. You don’t often see women in their 60s playing romantic leads, yet you will see men in their 60s playing romantic leads with co-stars who are decades younger. I think about how few wonderful actresses of my generation are still doing viable, important film work. You go to television. You go to the stage. You do whatever you can because you want to keep working.”
And older romance is thrust offscreen, the study found.
Characters under 50 are three times more likely than characters over 50 to be depicted in a sex scene, “sending the message that older bodies are not as worthy to be shown in a sexual way,” the study said.
“It’s one of the great myths that you lose your sexuality as you get older,” Glenn Close told the Guardian last year while promoting “The Wife,” which earned her a seventh Oscar nomination. “I feel as free and as creative, as sexual and as eager as I ever have.”
The study called for content creators to cast more women over 50, increase diversity in older characters, avoid stereotyping and embrace older characters being sexual (and show it).