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Invisibility of Middle Aged Women

Invisibility of Middle Aged Women
Jack Wetherall and Idina Menzel as Elliot and Jodi
in "Skintight." Photos by Joan Marcus.

In Skintight, both Jodi, a woman in her mid-40s, and Elliot, her 70-year-old father, grapple with what it means to age in modern society. Elliot, a successful fashion designer and businessman, is in a relationship with a much younger man, while Jodi, a lawyer, is dealing with the emotional fallout of her husband leaving her for a much younger woman.

Jodi and Elliot's stories highlight a frustrating reality: while men gain status as they age, middle-aged (and older) women are considered less valuable than their younger counterparts. This devaluation effects how how women are hired, promoted, and paid; how they are (or aren't) depicted in the media; and how they see themselves.

Women of all ages are underrepresented on TV and in film, but middle-aged and older women are all but invisible. The largest number of leading roles are available to women in their late twenties and early thirties, while the number of leading roles for men increases throughout middle age.

Invisibility of Middle Aged Women

Source: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film

Leading men in the movies retain their sex-symbol status as they age. Their love interests, however, aren't allowed to grow older with them. For example, Denzel Washington. In Malcolm X, released when Washington was 37. Angela Bassett, then 34, played Betty Shabazz. Fast-forward to Flight, shot when he was 57, and his love interest is played by 35-year-old Kelly Reilly. Reilly is on the older side of actresses to have played opposite Washington.

After their short careers as sex symbols, women are relegated to "mom roles," and they frequently play mothers to actors they never could have given birth to. Sally Field played Tom Hanks's mother in Forrest Gump despite being just ten years older than Hanks. In Alexander, Angelina Jolie played Colin Farrell's mother; in reality, she was not quite one year old when he was born.

Invisibility of Middle Aged Women

Calvin Klein 1995 - Calvin Klein 2013

When middle-aged women appear on screen or in advertising they are often made to look younger and to fit an ideal of female beauty. In 2013, supermodel Christy Turlington, then aged 44, posed in a series of Calvin Klein underwear ads to mark the 25th anniversary of her first Calvin Klein underwear ad. While other current photos of Turlington show a beautiful woman with some wrinkles and signs of age, the new ads appear to have airbrushed Turlington's skin back to 1991.

A 2017 video advertisement for Calvin Klein Eternity perfume and cologne again featured Turlington, this time with her real-life husband, actor Ed Burns. Turlington's face, body, and hair show no indicators of her age, while Burns' salt-and-pepper scruff and minor wrinkles are on display.

The cultural obsession with youth and beauty isn't just cosmetic; it has real-world repercussions. Women in the the professional world, like Jodi, a successful lawyer, are held to increasingly strict beauty standards. If women aren't allowed to age in popular culture, they aren't allowed to age at work. In 2016, Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, wrote a New York Times article about beauty standards for women in leadership roles, the very women who broke through glass ceilings and defined modern feminism. "For women in certain professional or social circles, the bar of normal keeps going up. There are virtually no wrinkles on Hollywood stars or on Broadway actors; ditto for female entrepreneurs or women in the news media. There are few wrinkles on the women in Congress and even fewer on Wall Street. Chief executives, bankers, hospital administrators, heads of public relations firms and publishing houses, lawyers, marketers, caterers: Certain standards of appearance have long been de rigueur for women in these positions, from being reasonably fit and appropriately dressed to displaying attractive coifs and manicured nails. But more and more, these standards also now include being blond, dark- or red-haired and nearly wrinkle-free. Just saying no - to chemicals, peels, lasers and liposuction - becomes harder under these circumstances, even if no one wants to admit that's the case."

Even women employed in low-wage jobs face this problem: recent studies have found that women experience twice as much age discrimination as men when applying for jobs.

Why are middle-aged women invisible in the media? Because media has traditionally been created by and for men, and women face gender discrimination behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Invisibility of Middle Aged Women

Source: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film

In recent years, older actresses have found successes shifting from films to cable and streaming television series: Glenn Close in Damages, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in Grace and Frankie, and Happy Valley with Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran all feature older women in leading roles.

Skintight is playing at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre through August 26, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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