WOMEN of a certain age are invisible in film, television, newspapers and elsewhere.
Or so we are constantly being told. Every few weeks, we are treated to a new version of the tale, whether it be the claim by AA Gill that the classicist Mary Beard is "too ugly for television", or Rowan Atkinson telling us that Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly's successful age discrimination case against the BBC amounted to an "attack on creative free expression".
Newspapers, meanwhile, are full of pictures of vaguely glamorous, good-looking dames who may be over 50, but certainly don't look it. This was the case last week, when the Daily Telegraph published quotes from an interview with 50-year-old actor Samantha Bond, who looks about 30. Bond's gripe was not so much that older women's faces aren't being seen, but that their experiences are also invisible, on stage and on television. Middle-aged women, she says, are "the backbone of drama audiences and yet their story is nowhere to be seen".
All of which sounds terribly wrong. Except that the tales Bond is talking about include "parental loss, cancer, dealing with Alzheimer's, children growing up" – a list that is enough to send anyone's spirits spiralling down a plug-hole of mid-life gloom. It's not difficult to see why the vast majority of the television-watching and play-attending public would rather tune into some crime drama or racy Mistresses-style titillation. And that, indeed, is where many of our older ladies are to be found these days – being saucy, not serious. Meryl Streep may have won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs T, but it was her role in Mamma Mia! as a mother organising her daughter's wedding, brought back in contact with a slew of old lovers, that was her smash mainstream hit.
And what actress wouldn't want one of these glam, sexy roles over that of a middle-ager struggling to choose a nursing home for her ageing relative? Part of the problem is that most actresses and presenters have served their apprenticeship in a field that highly rates their sexual appeal and beauty – it's what got them there in the first place and it's the language they understand. The result is that, increasingly, older women are making extraordinary and confused bids for their cause. Last year, four middle-aged TV stars – Sherrie Hewson, Andrea McLean, Beverley Callard and Gillian Taylforth – stripped off for a naked photo shoot to fight ageism. Their grand revelation? That, according to this photographic evidence, older bodies can still look hot and young and that we should still want to look at them. Hardly a grand strike against the edifice of ageism.
Meanwhile, at the high-brow end of the film market, older women do very well. With a list of recent Bafta and Oscar nominees that has included Glenn Close (65), Judi Dench (77) and Meryl Streep (62), one could argue that the prime years for an actor and an actress at this top end are not very different at all. Men, too, experience ageism. Pierce Brosnan got sacked as Bond for being too old. It's also true that the vast majority of male viewers do not want to see tales of sixtysomething blokes having heart attacks, terrible divorces and golden handshakes, any more than they want to see similar-aged women coping with the empty nest. What is more, there is evidence to suggest that even outside the visual media of television and film, women don't necessarily want tales that reflect their own lives, just as men don't. Research into the favourite novels of women aged 45-60, found that the most popular genre was romance.
But all this distracts us from the real issue. Rather than dwelling on who plays what in the worlds of media fantasy, we should fix our energies on ensuring that people working in other fields aren't subject to the same visual demands. In recent months, Hillary Clinton, who looks fine and normal for a 64-year-old, was criticised by the US media for not wearing enough make-up and going "au naturel". Clinton made short shrift of this, pointing out that she preferred to focus on more important things than her looks. "I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now, because if I want to wear my glasses, I'm wearing my glasses."
Nevertheless, it seems many have continued to worry, including the author, Ed Klein, who recently queried whether Clinton would be up to running in the 2016 presidential race: "She'll be 69 years old. And - she's not looking good these days. She's looking overweight, and she's looking very tired."
To me, this comment reeks more of ageism than sexism. After all, this is not just an attitude projected towards female politicians – it is increasingly applied to men. Consider the youth of the current UK Coalition Government leaders, Cameron and Clegg, both only in their mid-40s. Consider the way, too, in which each fresh grey hair on Barack Obama's head is counted, just as Tony Blair's were when he was UK prime minister. Then consider that William Gladstone was appointed prime minister for his last term at the age of 82. Imagine the improbability of it happening now.
There are, indeed, many people far more invisible in our culture than the fiftysomething woman.
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