Hollywood Has a Big Problem With Women Over 40, and It's Getting Worse
Adore, the Australian and French drama from director Anne Fontaine, opens today. It stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as lifelong friends who develop sexual relationships with each other's sons. The film's website describes it as "sensual and provocative" and "radiating with intoxicating sensuality." Reviews have described it as a "twisted sexual drama" and a "taboo sex drama."
Unsurprisingly, other reviews suggest that the movie leaves much to be desired. The forced hype about the scandalousness of the plot is enough to induce many an eye roll (the movie poster, alone, is reminiscent of that for the 2003 erotic thriller Swimming Pool), but what should really be getting our granny panties in a twist is the tired double standard with regard to the representation of aging women in film, and the fact that there are almost no film roles for actresses over 40, especially as compared to roles for men of the same age.
Media outlets often portray young women as hypersexualized, and women in television and movies are usually celebrated for both their attractiveness and youth. However, once the same actresses become middle-aged, their sexual nature is forgotten and ignored, as are the roles for them. Women have, historically, been valued for their sexuality in a way men have not, but that sexuality is only seen as valid until they begin to show signs of age, at which point they become useless as a product unless their sexuality is marketable. After all, you can't sell the public on MILF Island if there aren't hot moms in bikinis.
Older male actors aren't held to the same standard. We call Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, and George Clooney "distinguished" as they wrinkle and gray, and their sexuality generally isn't taken into account when they're sought out for roles, which remain abundant, even as these actors plow through their 50s and 60s. They're also paired with much younger actresses in their on-screen romantic relationships. In the post "Leading Men Age, But Their Love Interests Don't," New York magazine's Vulture plotted the striking age gaps between top male actors and their female costars, and found that, for the most part, men were paired with lesser-known love interests who are decades younger than they are.
Hollywood's beloved Meryl Streep, one of the handful of acclaimed actresses over 40 who's still regularly landing roles, told Vogue in 2012 (when she was 62) that she thought her career would end when she reached 40. After she was offered three roles as a witch, she realized that Hollywood sees women in her age range as “grotesque on some level.”
There appears to be little to no place in the film industry for aging women, unless sex is the main selling point. There's no room for "and," just "but." It's not, "They're moms, and they have their own dreams and desires." It's, "They're moms — but they're hot!" or "They're old — but they want sex!" As a result, a film like Adore, which stars two actresses in their 40s, has to be a dangerous, lusty tale of taboo boning, with hints of lesbianism and foursomes. Overkill, much?
(It's interesting to note that Adore was previously shown at film festivals as Two Mothers, and is based on Doris Lessing's novella The Grandmothers. It seems the matronly language was dropped for marketing purposes.)
There are certainly movies that cast older actresses in high-profile roles without resorting to this kind of desperate, forced sexuality, or a plot centered around the idea of their age (two examples: The Kids Are All Right and Rabbit Hole). In recent years, producers and directors have slowly realized that there's a large demographic that craves quality female roles. Unfortunately, Adore represents a step backward, as it dredges up the longstanding sex-based discrimination of the industry, encapsulates that double standard when it comes to aging, and epitomizes the strained efforts that come with creating "marketable" roles for middle-aged women.