It's the Sexism and Ageism, Stupid: 7 Bleak Ways Hollywood Shafts Actresses No Longer Deemed 'F*ckable'

Maggie Gyllenhaal at 37, being told she was too old to play a 55-year-old's girlfriend, is just the latest shocking example.

I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all "crazy." I have a suspicion — and hear me out, because this is a rough one — that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.  —Tina Fey

Imagine, for a moment, that actor Bradley Cooper, who turned 40 this year, started only being cast in buddy movies where he played the wisecracking—and obviously very old and thus sexually revolting—sidekick to a super hot mangénue. What if Leonardo DiCaprio, also 40, appeared in a summer blockbuster alongside Scarlett Johansson—as her dad? Better yet, what if James Franco, age 37, admitted in an interview that the director of a film he was up for told him he was “too old” to be believable as the onscreen love interest of the crone from a Grimms' fairytale, portrayed by a burlap sack filled with rags? Or imagine they decided to do a movie version of the Golden Girls, only with men (this one’s for you, MRAs), starring Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, and—the piece de resistance—George Clooney as Sophia.

It sounds ludicrous because it is, but only slightly more so than the reality of what happens to women's casting choices after a certain age—and that age turns out to be somewhere just over 35. That’s when Hollywood decides that women’s vaginas shrivel up and turn into dust, transforming them from girlfriend material to just plain immaterial. Actresses talk about this all the time, with the last few weeks serving as sort of a banner period for discussion of ageism in female casting.

A few days ago, in an interview with The Wrap, Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37, announced she had been “told recently [that she] was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55.” That viral Amy Schumer skit with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette talking about actresses’ “last fuckable day” was such a hit because it told us what we already know: actresses are only seen as sexually desirable for so long, while male actors are fuckable even when there’s nothing but “white spiders coming out.” At a 2009 Emmy Roundtable discussion put on the Hollywood Reporter, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler came to the shared realization that they’d both nearly been cast as Jonah Hill’s mom. In the same conversation, Christina Applegate recounted going up for one part, only to be told she was actually being considered for the role of “the hag that lives next door.”

Who, then, could really be surprised that Rebel Wilson—and let's be frank, plenty of other actresses—has probably been lying about her age? After a disgruntled and clearly hobby-less former classmate recently let the press know that Rebel is actually 35, and not 29 as she claimed, the actress responded with an irreverent tweet stating she is “actually a 100 year old mermaid.” It was a great response, but all things considered, it seems kind of hard to blame her for opting to maximize Hollywood’s allotted shelf life for actresses. Yes, I know, there are exceptions to this rule, as I’m sure those of you who also played active roles in the #NotAllMen and #AllLivesMatter campaigns are dying to point out. But overall, actresses get shafted. And if we were to narrow this discussion to aging actresses of color, who are given limited opportunities to perform from the get go, the stories of omission would get even bleaker.

So let’s talk women about women and aging in film and television.

1. You are cast as the mother of people barely younger (and sometimes older) than you. There is nothing wrong with being a mom or playing one on TV, but when matronly roles become your only option, there’s a problem. Angela Lansbury, 35 at the time, played Elvis Presley’s mother in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii, despite being just nine years older than Elvis. Anne Bancroft, who famously portrayed Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, was only eight years older than Katharine Ross, who played her daughter. Likewise, Amy Poehler is only eight years older than Rachel McAdams, her onscreen daughter in Mean Girls. Zachary Quinto, Spock in J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot, is a mere five years younger than movie mother Winona Ryder. And Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell’s mom in Alexander, is a whole year older than her onscreen charge. One year, people.

And then there are cases in which actresses are actually younger than their onscreen offspring. Actress Jessie Royce Landis was 10 months younger than her “son,” played by Cary Grant, in the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest. Rachel Griffiths, who played Johnny Depp’s mother in the film Blow, is actually five years younger than the actor.

2. Sexually, you often become invisible, a cougar, or a joke. In many matronly roles, there’s an implicit erasure of sexuality; mom is there to offer the protagonist sage advice and loving insights toward self actualization because she has a lot of free time, having long since stopped thinking about sex. This desexualization can happen fairly quickly. As they point out in the Schumer “fuckable” skit, in the six years between 1988 (Punchline) and 1994 (Forrest Gump), Sally Field went from playing Tom Hanks’ adorable love interest to his frumpy, sexless mother. There’s also the cougar archetype, who basically preys on younger men, a figure whose age often belies the definition. When Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson, the most famous proto-cougar of film, she was only six years older than co-star Dustin Hoffman. And consider the arc of the Samantha Jones character in Sex in the City, who by the time the second film rolled around, had aged out of being a powerful sexual figure and into a parody of a postmenopausal woman desperately trying to keep her sex drive up.

3. You might also turn into a witch. Even Meryl Streep, who has worked consistently over the course of her career, has had to deal with the cold snap that happens when actresses age out of ingenue roles. In an interview with People, she said, "When I was 40, I was offered three witch [roles]. I was not offered any female adventurers or love interests or heroes or demons. I was offered witches because I was 'old' at 40." In a Vogue interview she added, “Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level.”

“I just have had a political sort of reaction against the concept of old women being demonized and age being this horrifying, scary thing. I just didn’t like that. I didn’t like it when I was a little girl. I don’t like it now." Streep says.

4. Men in film get older; their girlfriends stay the same age. In 2013, Vulture did a study to find out whether the perception that female love interests in film remain young even after their leading men far outpace them in age was true or not. They looked at 10 popular male movie stars and their notable films, and compared the age gaps between those stars and the women they were paired with onscreen. (Among these were Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington.) They found that overwhelmingly, even as leading men aged into their 40s, 50s and 60s, their female co-stars mostly remained shy of 40. (The exceptions to this rule came when female stars such as Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts brought as much wattage to the film as the men.) Interestingly, the actors who most often bucked the trend were Tom Hanks and Steve Carell.

This fits comfortably alongside the findings in a 2015 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State that looked at gender in film. Per the study, “female characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters [in 2014 movies] were in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (28%).” The study also found that:

Males 40 and over accounted for 53 percent of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 30 percent of all female characters.

Whereas the percentage of female characters declined dramatically from their 30s to their 40s (30% to 17%), the percentage of male characters increased slightly, from 27% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s.

The percentage of male characters in their 50s (18%) is twice that of female characters in their 50s (9%).

Helen Mirren, who notably has been able to work into her 60s and still be treated as a viable sexual being, was quoted in a 2010 speech saying, “I’ve seen too many of my brilliant colleagues, who work non-stop in their 20s, their 30s, and their 40s, only to find a complete desert in their 50s...I resent having witnessed in my life the survival of some very mediocre male actors and the professional demise of some very brilliant female ones.”

5. Almost everything that is actually produced in Hollywood is written by men.

2014 WGA study found that nearly 90 percent of screenplays that were ultimately made into films were written by men. They were more likely to write stories from the perspective of people like themselves, which means the primary protagonist in films often ends up being male. This may be partly why Meryl Streep recently launched a screenwriting lab for women over 40.

6. There are fewer roles for women overall.

The aforementioned study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that, among the 100 biggest money-making films in 2014, women represented just 12 percent of protagonists. That was actually a drop of 3 percent from one year prior, and a decline of 4 percent from 2002.

Overall, numbers of women of color also fell by a few percentage points in same period. In an interview with the Daily Beast, John Ridley, creator of the television series American Crime summed it up succinctly: “The roles are not there in general for women, and once you add an ‘other’ into it, they’re far fewer.”

7. The ACLU has started a petition to involve more women in directing, which can help increase the number of women in film and improve their depictions. Per the petition:

[T]he ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the ACLU of Southern California have a campaign demanding that our government launch an investigation into the systemic failure to hire women directors at all levels of the film and TV industry ​in violation of state and federal civil rights laws. 

To learn more or to lend your support, click here.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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