The forthright presentation of lustful middle-aged women is probably the starkest example of a change in media portrayals. This development has both boosted and distorted our view of female midlife. Through the centuries, sexual middle-aged women have tended to be treated with either fear or ridicule.
Predatory older women were often viewed as deviant, even diabolical. In the fifties and early sixties, they lured men into ruinous Faustian bargains like Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd (1950), Gene Kelly’s wealthy patron Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) in An American in Paris (1951), and “2-E” or Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Science fiction B-movies in the late fifties fed on these sexual anxieties, serving up the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) who cared only about getting revenge on her husband for his affair with a younger woman (a different sort of fatal attraction) and Wasp Woman (1959), whose quest for eternal beauty turned her into murderous insect. The sinister side of midlife sexuality has also been a familiar theme on day and nighttime television soap operas.
Alternatively, the lustful middle-aged woman was treated as comical. On television sitcoms, she was a regularly mocked – the libidinous cooking show host Sue Ann Nevins in The Mary Tyler Moore Show or the love-starved landlady Mrs. Roper in Three’s Company – a lampoon that goes back to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Women on screen have long been subjected to what is known as the “male gaze,” where the assumed normal point of view is that of a heterosexual man. These depictions are evidence of how they also suffer from the “youthful gaze,” which makes youth the standard perspective.
Today, middle-aged female characters are much more physically desirable. For a long time, the repressed and joyless middle-aged woman was a stock character as the title of a 1997 study on aging women in popular films illustrates: “Underrepresented, Unattractive, Unfriendly, and Unintelligent.” She has pretty much vanished from the scene, at least on television. The Samantha Jones character in Sex and the City is the model, but she can be found in some form on nearly every network during prime time.
Though here, too, sexuality is often linked to fertility just as it was in the 19th century and much of the 20th century, a nexus that Betty Friedan defined as part of “the feminine mystique.” In ABC’s Desperate Housewives, which features suburbanites who could easily dominate a catwalk, Susan (Terri Hatcher, then 49), worried she was going through menopause, only to discover she was pregnant. In television-land that meant her breasts were big enough for her to be mistaken for a stripper at a raucous teen party.
Few directors and producers are willing to integrate the realities of middle age sexuality into their movies. Nancy Meyers recalled that when she was writing Something’s Gotta Give, “I showed an early draft to a guy I know who is around 60…There’s a joke in the movie where a middle-aged man is making out with a middle-aged woman, and he says, ‘What about birth control?’ And she replies, ‘Menopause.’ And this guy said to me: ‘Don’t mention menopause. Not sexy. Why bring it up?’ I said: ‘Hey, what do you mean? This woman is 55 years old—I’m not going to write a movie about people this age and have them act like they’re 32. It’s part of the story’.
Of course Hollywood is in the business of fantasy and myth. Movie stars are supposed to inhabit Mount Olympus. But when Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston’s Playboy-bunny figures are marketed as the new look of middle age, it emphasizes only the physiological dimension of aging. Aniston’s nude appearance on the cover of Esquire in 2008 was accompanied by an article that noted: “That body—well, as you can see, it defies both time and nature.” That’s okay for Aniston, but now that image of a 40-year-old body is filed in our mental database of what 40-year-olds look like.
Unless a script calls for a woman to be dumped by her husband, filmgoers have come to expect the kind of nature-defying casting decisions that had a then 28-year-old Angelina Jolie playing the middle-aged mother of Colin Farrell, 27, in the 2004 film Alexander. (Val Kilmer, at 45, was the father.)
Age appropriate casting has occurred more recently in the upscale worlds created by the director Nancy Meyers. A tiny clutch of privileged actresses like Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne (2011), Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated (2009) and Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) get to play desirable, funny and smart women in their middle years. Still there is a difference between the more consciously feminist films like Terms of Endearment (1983) and these later versions. Keaton’s successful 55-year-old playwright lived in a Hamptons mansion, is whisked to Paris by a handsome young cardiologist (Keanu Reeves) and followed there by a multi-millionaire entrepreneur (Jack Nicholson). The sex scenes showed only a quick and appealing flash of flesh. There is nothing like the bracing honesty of Terms, which had Jack Nicholson (also as an irrepressible playboy) and Shirley MacLaine display bulging bellies as they faced each other across a bed for their first sexual encounter.
Streep may have won this year’s Oscar, but researchers studying the “double jeopardy” of age and gender bias found that “youth was the most powerful criterion for women who won the Best Actress award, while middle age was the best predictor for male Best Actor winners.”
As the silent screen star Lillian Gish said: “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. That’s the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older.”
Patricia Cohen has been a culture reporter and editor at the New York Times for more than thirteen years. She previously worked at The Washington Post, New York Newsday and Rolling Stone magazine. Purchase the book here.