Ageism runs rampant in the U.S. In many cultures the elderly are revered and loved, and here they are often cast aside as having outworn their value...especially in Hollywood, and its worse for women than for men. With ageism in filmmaking, we are wasting our greatest resources. We are missing out on deeply impactful stories coming, from someone with the gained wisdom of a life well-lived.
When I look back on my youth, I did feel like an old soul who came in with a certain amount of inner knowledge, but boy, are there things I still would have done differently if I knew then what I know now. This is not to discount the brilliant, fresh ideas and potent energy of youth, it is vital to society. Look at the students gathering and speaking up for safer gun laws. Yet, if our life is lived courageously, we will end up considerably wiser and more enlightened by the end of our journey, that is life! There are things you simply must learn through experience. You learn from where you put your priorities, from your relationships, the consequence of your choices and reaction to things that simply seem to happen in your life. You learn from your mistakes. You learn through joy, pain, gains, losses...and how you respond to them. Some never learn life’s lessons, and others gain insight after insight, acquiring tremendous wisdom. The latter is the reason why in many cultures, including the native American culture, the wise elders were the ones who were the storytellers, and who passed down their wisdom to the next generation. The youths who took to heart what these elders shared, and combined it with their own brilliance, avoided many of life’s most painful lessons, starting their own life journey from a more solid place. How incredibly ignorant and damaging it is, to keep that wisdom from being shared so often now.
I was late to a book publishing meeting not too long ago. There was only one seat left in the entire large room. As I sat down I noticed a book laid out on the table about the substantial benefits of collaborating with others. The author actually gave mathematical statistics on how dramatically it increases everyone’s effectiveness. Five people collaborating does not only increase those people’s effectiveness by five times, for example...it’s by many times more. Society needs both the intelligence of youth and the wisdom of the elders. When I think of the perfect collaboratory team it would be made up of a mix of the two groups... older wiser, and younger, filled with fresh ideas. Between these two groups positive change can happen. We need the youth to get us out of the rut and the wise elders to keep us from making avoidable mistakes.
There's tremendous power in story, it teaches us about life. We need a balanced mix of what the younger and older people bring to life, and to the films that reflect it. But therein lies the crux, at this point women of any age haven’t been allowed to direct and shape the stories. How differently we would depict the world and women in our films. For one thing female characters wouldn’t be so one-dimensional. Showing women in all their complexity would bring respect, understanding and healing. Allowing more women a voice in the directorial position, and working to raise the feminine energy back into balance on this planet, is to the benefit of both genders, as both energies reside in all of us. There’s no denying that there is a huge amount of imbalance and discord on the planet right now, and this energy being so out of whack is a key factor.
Ageism for men can’t be ignored either. Ageism, period, is the act of throwing away something precious and of great value, another reason the world is so out of whack. I’m not saying there aren’t old ignorant people out there, many of them are in positions of power. However, most people do become more empathetic and wiser as they get older.
Ageism doesn’t always look the same. I remember a friend of mine’s husband losing his job near the top of a corporation, not because they lost faith in his capabilities, he was at the top of his game. He was let go because they could hire someone younger for a fraction of what his salary was. He couldn’t find another company to hire him, even for jobs that he was actually over qualified for, likely because the guys at the top were afraid that he’d move up quick and eventually go after their position. So, he was simply aged out, though he was a precious resource.
For women the ageism is different and more insidious yet. The media has great power in creating the illusion that women somehow become broken after a certain age, but not men of the same age, because with women, much of their value is linked to their looks. In an NPR interview actress/director Sarah Polley states, “I feel like with young women, their bodies are constantly objectified and used in a sexual context. With older women, [their bodies are] constantly the butt of a joke. For me, the seminal scene that illustrates that is, in “About Schmidt”, when Kathy Bates gets into the hot tub and Jack Nicholson is horrified and the audience is supposed to scream.” She goes on... “I remember being so deeply offended by that scene. One of the first times you’re dealing with an older woman being naked in a movie — it doesn’t happen very often — and it’s the butt of a joke, or it’s supposed to horrifying.”
Now, let me point out that Jack Nicholson wasn’t physically youthful in that movie either by any stretch of the imagination. They were on the same playing field, yet he didn’t see it, and the audience wasn’t supposed to see it that way either. The guy was sitting in the hot tub in his old skin, acting appalled by the woman his own age.
Russell Crowe was to have said that women would get more roles if they acted their age...this is laughable, look at what they did to Kathy Bates character when she did just that. It's also a fact that women find it hard, if not impossible, to get cast in any meaningful roles when they show signs of aging. Liam Neeson, for example, is still jumping from building to building in his old age in endless series of "Taken" movies. I get a little out of breath for him, just watching, but as a guy, he is allowed this age-defying adventure. Usually if these male movie heroes are married in the story, their wife characters get killed off, when they age, so they can be replaced with a new, younger version. Remember, 94% of the films are being directed by men, so they create this stuff to put out in the world. So now, since there are so few interesting, leading roles written for women past forty, of course women do what they can to look younger. I admire those who don't go to those lengths, like Debra Winger, but has anyone seen her in big movie roles since the 90's? How are the women somehow creating this problem, Russell, and what’s with the double standard?
For example, just 2 years ago Maggie Gyllenhaal revealed she was deemed “too old” at 37 to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. This is common in films, yet it always feels comical to me. It’s hard to get completely into the movie, it’s so silly to watch these old guys with these girls. Outspoken actress Helen Mirren chimes in about the Maggie Gyllenhaal decision. “It’s fucking outrageous,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. And ’twas ever thus. We all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric, and his girlfriends got younger and younger.”
Helen Mirren said...that the fact that she is still considered sexual and beautiful isn’t as important to her as being powerful, and that is the flashlight illuminating the problem. The devaluing of women, which started already thousands of years ago, was likely not because anyone truly thought less of older women, but rather it was a fear of them moving into their power. False stories were made up about women like Mary Magdalene, who was never a prostitute, to take away their power. The many women who did great things, are strangely never mentioned in our history books.
We act out of love, or we act out of fear. People want to control what they fear. If young women were allowed feel their value, it would be hard to control them or use them, and older women are scarier as they become wiser, and ready to step into their full power. It was often the powerful women and healers who were falsely accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Most women will say that though they were strong in their youth, there was so much still to navigate then, they really feel like they are coming into their own as they get older, and that is precisely when the rug is being pulled out from under them.
Ageism deprives society of some of it's greatest resources. Hollywood has helped create a legacy of control and suppression, and Hollywood has the influence to turn it around. We have everything to gain by opening doors so more people can contribute again, regardless of race, gender or age. I believe the health of the planet depends on us utilizing everyone’s gifts that are brought to the table, and us working in collaboration.