Getting older used to seem like a faux pas for women in the spotlight. But these are some of the women using their platform to make aging aspirational.
If there’s one word that can be used to describe the way women are portrayed in the media, whether it’s on magazine covers, ad campaigns, movies or TV, that word would probably be “aspirational.” This aspirational image is usually that of a young woman with smooth skin, shiny hair and something really going for her, whether that’s an active dating life or a burgeoning career. Only in recent years are women over the age of 50 or even 40 being shown as aspirational.
It hasn’t always been this way. When asked why even after winning two Oscars, she never considered moving to Hollywood, Emma Thompson told the popular Swedish show Skavlan, “I couldn’t… Every time I go to Los Angeles, I’m too fat to go there. They’re not going to let me in. ‘Hello, Emma Thompson? You’re fat and you’re old. Are you trying to hide the fact that you’re old?’ I really feel like LA is so mad and so hostile to, you know…” She trails off and then quickly says she’s partly joking, but her point is clear: Hollywood did not feel like a welcoming place for a woman if you weren’t a thin starlet in your 20s.
It’s common knowledge that it’s difficult for women over the age of 40 to land roles in Hollywood — so much so that in 2011, actress Junie Hoang filed a $1 million lawsuit against the internet movie database IMDb for posting her age. At the time she was 40, and she argued that she stood to lose opportunities if her age was publicized. She lost the lawsuit.
That was only six years ago, but in the short time since, famous women have become more open about their advancing age and even embracing it. Perhaps they feel they can be more frank about aging now that there is a growing positive representation of older women across multiple platforms. In the past five years women ages 40 and up have been showcased more than ever in TV, movies, advertising and social media. And they’ve been portrayed in largely aspirational ways.
In a move that will surprise anyone who’s ever so much as glanced at one, women’s magazines have become a source of aging inspiration. In 2012, 86-year-old Angela Lansbury graced the cover of the popular UK magazine The Gentlewoman. In 2015, 83-year-old model Carmen Dell’Orefice appeared on the cover of New You. Best of all, these covers and others like them tend to allow the women to be portrayed as their normal selves. W magazine featured the glamorous 77-year-old Jane Fonda, her cleavage front-and-center, on the cover of their June/July 2015 issue. New York Magazine had 71-year-old Joni Mitchell on the cover of their February 2015 issue and didn’t airbrush away any of her wrinkles.
Older women aren’t just being featured on magazine covers. They’re also increasingly being included in, or even starring in, ad campaigns. Eighty-year-old literary icon Joan Didion was featured with wrinkles, silver hair and all in a 2015 Céline ad. Sixty-two-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy stripped down for an American Apparel campaign in 2014. Most recently, the popular New Zealand intimates brand Lonely Lingerie used 56-year-old model Mercy Brewer to showcase their lingerie in an ad campaign this past March. If we weren’t used to seeing older women in our ads, then we definitely weren’t used to seeing them in swimsuits and lingerie. At first it was somewhat startling — then refreshing and bolstering.
There’s a renaissance happening in movies too. Actresses who land breakout roles that rest heavily on their youth and beauty often struggle to maintain a successful career when that youth fades. So it was particularly satisfying to see both Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia in Star Wars) and Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride) graduate from their decades-old iconic roles as princesses to roles as powerful generals in their middle age. Now older women are landing roles as warriors, superheroes or powerful politicians. For the most part, these roles require a certain gravitas that only comes with age.
One example of this, as mentioned above, is Robin Wright going from a princess role in her 20s to taking on roles of power in her 50s. Wonder Woman recently broke records at the box office, and although its main character is the 32-year-old Gal Gadot, it also features 51-year-old Wright as the strong and fierce General Antiope who trains Wonder Woman. Wright will reprise this role in the upcoming Justice League movie and will star in the new Blade Runner 2049 sequel.
Wright and other actresses over the age of 40 are also enjoying the spotlight on the small screen. Wright costars alongside Kevin Spacey in the popular Netflix original House of Cards, in which her character, Claire Underwood, shows a lust for power that matches and perhaps even exceeds that of her power-hungry husband. At the end of the fifth season, Claire is in a new position of ultimate power as the president of the United States.
Grace and Frankie is another TV show that stars women over a certain age. The titular characters are both in their 70s but, other than that, are different from one another in every way. Grace, played by Jane Fonda, is sophisticated and stylish and an experienced businesswoman, while Frankie, played by Lily Tomlin, is a zany and artistic hippie. What’s novel about Grace and Frankie is the way the show allows both women to have vivacious dating lives, and eventually they even start their own business making a vibrator for older women. It’s rare to see women over the age of 50 talking about their sex lives on TV, but both Grace and Frankie tackle the realities of dating and having a career at their age with frank humor.
Of course, in the end we’re still talking about TV shows, movies and magazines, so there is a polished veneer over all these representations of older women. Grace and Frankie and Claire Underwood all have lives of privilege, and the average woman probably won’t age to look the way wealthy actresses like Robin Wright or Jane Fonda do. However, the good news is that there has been, for the most part, a fairly diverse portrayal of what it means to be an aspirational older woman. Joan Didion, at 80 years old, may not be considered traditionally beautiful or sexy, but she is celebrated for her talent and wisdom (and she looked pretty damn chic in her Céline ad). Fifty-one-year-old Robin Wright is still as beautiful as ever as General Antiope in Wonder Woman, but the focus wasn’t so much on her looks as it was on her strength and courage as a warrior.
The media is finally allowing the message that it’s OK to age and not look like the same person you were in your 20s — that you can be someone better than who you were in your 20s or 30s. For once, women of all ages are being shown that it’s not just OK to get older, but it’s actually something to aspire to.