Partially fueled by good champagne, we had some silly chitchat with good friends on New Year’s Eve regarding stupid celebrity “news” stories. My husband won the “top this” prize with a rumor that made the rounds a while back about Morgan Freeman planning to marry his step granddaughter.
Apart from the very obvious yuck factor, there’s this: Freeman is 72. His intended is 27.
Now, at the risk of starting out the new year in a pair of the cranky pants, I can’t help but notice that nowhere (yes, I googled) is Freeman referred to as, ahem, an “older” actor. But women actors? Once they become old enough to be, say, Freeman’s daughter, “older” becomes their middle name.
Case in point, a recent post on Broadsheet riffing on a CNN.com piece by Breeanna Hare about the new screen stereotype of the woman-of-a-certain-age: the boozy grandma. First, from Hare’s post:
“These women, they’re not knitting — they’re more interested in mixing their drinks than watching kids,” said Entertainment Weekly’s pop culture writer Tim Stack. “They’re more inclined to offer a witticism or a barb than to give you sweet advice. These ladies aren’t cooking — I don’t think they even eat. They drink their lunch. And their dinners. And their breakfasts. … Maybe they eat the olives.”
They’re the exact opposite of the stereotypical grandmother, said TVGuide.com’s senior editor Mickey O’Connor.
Or, apparently, the over-50 woman. While Broadsheet rightly bemoans the fact that good parts for veteran women actors are slim and none, I couldn’t miss a certain patronizing subtext in the way writer Kate Harding brings up Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, both playing real women on the big screen this season, and her need to frame them in terms of their age. Ugh. From her post:
For all the talk of Meryl Streep rocking Hollywood’s socks off this year (and believe me, I’m as thrilled about that as any other female moviegoer who’s not invested in Edward vs. Jacob), let us not forget that she’s Meryl Freakin’ Streep. Is her recent wave of success really going to help other women her age to open movies and land the cover of Vanity Fair? TVGuide.com senior editor Mickey O’Connor provides the reality check: “Maybe it’s become, play a drunk grandmother and you get to work past the age of 60. Even if you’re Susan Sarandon …
I suppose the boozy grandma is better than the dotty — or nonexistent — older woman character, in that she at least has a discernible personality, opinions and enough brains to produce just the right clever, cutting remark on the spot. But does she have to be a functional alcoholic for the audience to accept those things? Does a woman over 60 — or 50, even — have to be snobby and self-absorbed to be interesting?
Et tu, Broadsheet? Do we ever categorize men in terms of their last birthday? It may be celebs we’re talking about here, but make no mistake: the trickle down hurts us all.
One of the things we talk about in journalism classes is the damage done by unwitting stereotyping – see above — often, a reporter’s form of shorthand. One of the most insidious forms that affects marginalized groups is overcompensation: “gee whiz” features on 75-year-old marathoners, for example, or inspirational series on the academic success of the so-called “model minorities”. All of which leads me back to the way that Meryl Streep’s over-50 sexual being in “It’s Complicated” or Susan Sarandon’s smoking, drinking granny in “The Lovely Bones” have been framed in the media: as novelties, the anti-stereotypes who, apparently, are the exceptions who prove the rule. The unkindest subtext of all: that they – apparently, unlike most women their age – not only have lives of their own but are attractive to boot.
Shouldn’t they be in the kitchen, wearing frumpy clothes and sensible shoes, humming 1950s show tunes?
Clearly, Streep, currently gracing the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair, is not. The VF profile of her does one great job of thumbing its nose at the stereotypical way the media treat women of a certain age. Consider this:
Any inhibitions notwithstanding, a vibrant sexuality has remained a crucial aspect of Streep’s appeal, despite her advancing years and the limitations that others might try to impose in response. When Clint Eastwood cast her to star opposite him in The Bridges of Madison County, which won Streep an Oscar nomination for best actress, in 1996, his reason was simple: “She’s the greatest actress in the world,” he said with a shrug.
That said, Streep reports, “There was a big fight over how I was too old to play the part, even though Clint was nearly 20 years older than me. The part was for a 45-year-old woman, and Clint said, ‘This is a 45-year-old woman.’”
When casting female roles, directors and producers have often applied a comically exaggerated double standard about age. With Streep now playing the ex-wife and current love interest of Alec Baldwin, who is actually nine years younger than she is, many observers have started wondering whether such old-fashioned biases are really changing in ways that will affect other actresses, or only in relation to Streep, who has always been sui generis. In any case, a good part of her aforementioned glee may have to do with her ongoing amazement that, after all these years, she’s still getting away with doing what she loves. “I’ve been given great, weird, interesting parts well past my ‘Sell by’ date,” she says. “I remember saying to Don when I was 38, ‘Well, it’s over.’ And then we kicked the can down the road a little further.”
Refreshing, no? But back to the case in point, we – that’s the collective “we” – rarely box in men in terms of their age. Did anyone but me bat an eye when Michael Douglas was paired with Demi Moore in Disclosure? When Sean Connery’s love interest in Entrapment was Douglas’s wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones? Oldies yes, but you could pull just about ANY movie made today to prove the same point: The leading man needs only a recognizable name. His costar, on the other hand, needs not only a name — but must be young and stunningly beautiful, too. Men in their 50s and 60s not only get to be leading men who still get the girl, but in the real world, they also run companies and countries. They’ve got status that is earned by (wait for it…) AGE. Their female counterparts, on the other hand, generally are considered redundant at best, silly at worst.
All of which makes me wonder if ageism holds us back every bit as much as sexism does, whether the tyranny of the ticking clock that Shannon wrote about here and here may be one reason why we agonize so much over our choices. Sure we’re raised to know that we can be or do anything. But that nasty little voice keeps on whispering: we better get it done before we turn 40.
Maybe we ought to just take it from Meryl. The best way to ring in 2010 is to silence that voice — not to mention the clock — once and for all. As Streep points out in the VF profile, Julia Child did not become, well, Julia Child until she was 50.
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