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  • Dave Barry

Maintaining a Delusion: Ageism & Sexism in Hollywood

I've always thought that hiring younger women to play older roles is like Photoshopping with casting. And the same analogy applies in reverse: Hiring sexually mature women to play teenagers fiddles with our perceptions. It distorts reality. Myrna Hant, a researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, says that the inconsistency surrounding female age on film feeds a larger, systemic problem in our culture:

“Viewers never really know what an older woman, say 50 or 60 or 70, should realistically look like. This precludes women from having any positive role models for aging.”

And Natalia Borecka, in a recent article for Lonewolf, "Ageism in Hollywood: The Disappearance of Female Adulthood", takes an even deep and more disturbing dive into the cultural consequences of this very type of casting and what it reveals about our Hollywood – and what Hollywood reveals about us, as a culture.

(Pictured left: Elizabeth Taylor was 32 when she played Martha, a 50-something character in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.")


At the time of filming Silver Linings Playbook Jennifer Lawrence portrayed a thirty-nine year old widow, but was herself barely old enough to drink legally in the US. Similarly, in Joy Lawrence played a women in her mid-forties, while in American Hustle she played a middle-aged love interest to a nearly forty year old Christian Bale. Strange as these casting decisions look, no one really noticed, let alone asked the burning question: why cast someone barely over her teens to play a woman in her mid-30s, especially when there are so very many talented older actresses sitting on the sidelines? It has become unheard of to cast an actual thirty-five year old to play a thirty-five year old onscreen. It would seem that pop culture is slowly killing off the adult female, effectively erasing any visual onscreen age differences between a woman pushing 20 and a woman pushing 40. The mature woman has all but disappeared from film.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has a serious problem with representation. There’s really only one way for a woman to look in Hollywood – white, usually blond, baby-faced and somewhere between 18 to 25 years old. There are no parts for actresses who fall outside of those absurdly narrow parameters. But it wasn’t always this way. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, starlets were revered for their woman-ness. There was a certain powerful comfort and elegance in their age that no amount of youthful charm could emulate. Back then it wasn’t about being sexy as much as it was about being sophisticated, and it’s harder to put an expiration date on sophistication. So, when did becoming a grown woman stop being aspirational? And what does this gaping representational void in the media mean for how we, as women, come to terms with the process of aging?

The age breakdown in Hollywood today goes something like this: If you’re a woman in her 20s, you’re good for pretty much any role (again, especially if you’re white and blonde). If you’re a woman in her 40s and 50s however, you’ll exclusively play grandmothers and witches, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be a woman in her 30s, you’re basically shit out of luck. As a 30-something year old actress you’re too young to play really old parts, and too old for everything else. In Hollywood it’s virtually unheard of for a 35 year old to actually play a 35 year old onscreen...

You can link to the full article, written by Natalie Borecks for Lonewolf, here.

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