I recently obtained access to an academic library. Having a little time on my hands I decided to explore the subject of the representation of older women in films. The first article I came across is from Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures (2015). Lucy Bolton’s chapter The Intertextual Stardom of Iris: Winslet, Dench, Murdoch, and Alzheimer’s Disease, delighted me. At long last a paper that asks the right questions about a whole film and not an isolated part of it. After a detailed analysis of all the aspects of the film she asks:
At the forefront of this is the matter of whose perspective is being shown and whose voice is being heard. Then there is the question of which elements of the woman’s life are foregrounded – biographical, psychological, or intellectual – and whether the camera’s gaze is a pathologizing one. Iris grimly illustrates how a star persona can be hijacked by a social concern or cultural preoccupation.
Things have changed while I was not looking. When I started being interested in the representation of old women in films the research literature was sparse. Some images and scenes were used to illustrate an argument or confirm a film theory, and there were generalised statistics about old women stereotypes.
Although Bolton addresses a specific film about a writer and philosopher and celebrity actors, the questions she asks can be applied to all films featuring an old woman. Had we had these questions in mind, I think that our discussions in the film group would have been much richer.
Notes on a Scandal
I remember clearly coming out of seeing the very popular and well reviewed Notes on a Scandal feeling disturbed by its sexism and ageism. A member of the film group was also there. She said “I loved it”. I retorted “don’t you think it was ageist?” Her reply is one that I often hear : “but there are people like that”. I did not write about Notes on a Scandal but referred to Daphna Baram in the Guardian who expressed my feelings better than I could.
When the members of the film group worked on the paper British Films 1997-2006 we all found The Mother and Notes on a Scandal profoundly misogynistic and ageist. But we differed on Iris. Some women thought that the very good exposition of Alzheimers disease was all the more tragic affecting a writer and thinker. Other women thought that the film contrasted the young Iris Murdoch with the old Iris without stressing her life as a writer and philosopher.
I think that Bolton’s questions applied to the highly popular films featuring an old woman: The Mother, Iris, Cloud Nine, MidAugust Lunch, Le Week End, would give us more understanding of ageing and ageism issues than the adulating reviews about the old woman ‘still doing it’ of The Mother and Cloud Nine.
A film image, clip, sequence isolated from its context can support a variety of contradicting arguments. Reviews, often sexist, prime us to look for the features described and we dismiss important elements of the film. To be critical of the representation of old women in film it is most important for old women viewers to ask:
– whose perspective is being shown and whose voice is being heard?
– which elements of old women lives are foregrounded
– what do the mise-en-scene, the camera gaze, the dialogue, the music express?
– what do the critics and reviewers say.
– Does the film challenge or collude with the general sexism/ageism of the industry?