The full-page article in the Guardian of Saturday 19 March is headlined “Older women criticise ‘grotesque’ portrayal as cinema is accused of lazy stereotyping.” Since the Film Council Survey on diversity is not available on their website at the time of writing, I am forced to take the article at face value. I would like to know the age composition of the ‘older women’ of the survey who criticise the ‘grotesque’ portrayal, and what films they refer to. Harriet Walter points out in her column on the same page ‘stories never involve women aged over 50’. I would like to refine this observation. A study would show that the maximum age of women in leading roles is still lower. I am not aware of research concerning the 35-60 age group but I remember that an Equity representative reported to an audience of U3A members (the majority of them women) that middle age actors often remarked that they could not wait to be older so that they would get at least minor parts in films. On the other hand our Older Women in Film group research shows that women over 60 are represented in films. They appear in minor roles but also in highly publicised and widely distributed films, praised by critics and reviewers. (See under ‘resources’}. There is a gap in the presence of middle-aged women in films but for the woman over 60 the problem is different.
As far as the woman over 60 is concerned, contrary to the article’s claim that the stereotype of the sexless old woman is prevalent I would point out that there have been recently 3 major films where the old woman’s sexuality is predatory or destructive: The Mother, Notes on a Scandal, Cloud 9 . The three films were generally praised, were nominated for and won prestigious awards. Sexuality in the woman over 60 is seen as dangerous. Other films however where the old woman is more sympathetic, her sexuality a part of a more rounded character, have not made the headlines or obtained a distribution that would have reached the older audience. One example would be Paul Cox’s Innocence. Why do people who write about older women in films always focus on the ‘sexless old woman’ stereotype and ignore the English eccentric old woman, as in Tea with Mussolini, Ladies in Lavender, Mrs. Henderson Presents ? Or indeed the woman with Alzheimer disease: Iris, The Notebook, Away from Her, a category well overrepresented. Do we have to always equate old age with dementia and film with sex? Have we no other life and role in life and society?
This leads me to Steve Evans, research director of the report, in the quote about the “cougar” image. I had to refer to the urban dictionary to know what this expression means. The numerous, some of them offensive, definitions include ‘older women’ from 35 – yes 35 – to 60 who seek younger men for sex. Older women, says Evans, are increasingly comfortable with this image. Really? which older women?
Finally if Ariel Levy is quoted accurately her argument that the ‘structure’ of films make it ‘ almost impossible’ to show nuanced, accurate portrayals of women does not make sense. Of course not all films are character driven and yes films are like fairy tales. Does that justify the difference of representation between male and female? Is the ‘structure’ of films gendered? Lilian Gish: ‘You know, when I first went into the movies Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived I’m sure I would have played his mother.’ Has there been any change since then? I do not know the serious research about middle age women in films but there are some films of different genres that demonstrate that older women can be the subject of great films. There are not enough of them and the few that have been made do not get the distribution they deserve. After all both Tokyo Story and Fear Eats the Soul, two great classics have an older woman at their centre. Volver has been very successful, but Strangers in Good Company, Spider and Rose, Innocence (Paul Cox 2000) are not available on DVD . Why are films like The Whales of August Antonia’s Line, Pauline and Paulette, Hold Back the Night, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Since Otar Left, Alexandra not known and why has the recent For Eighty Days not been released yet?
Harriet Walter in the Guardian 0f 15/01/11 says: ”We can’t impose on creative people the instruction, ‘you have got to write a part for an older woman’. Even the increasing numbers of plays written by women seem not to have parts about the older woman. [She] is usually feeding into a story that is centred on somebody younger. And that means that we have to shrink to a more two-dimensional role than our actual lives are.” Creative people will not write if the whole chain of the industry from the producers to the distributors, exhibitors, cinema programmers are not made aware of our value both as subject of films but also as an audience.