If movies were one’s only view of American womanhood, it would be easy assume they are sent into exile on their 40th birthday. No matter how many Botox injections and face lifts actresses undergo, there are few leading roles for women once the bloom of extreme youth passes.
Yes, a few great actors – Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, for example – are retrieved from exile once or twice a year when they reach the age of doyenne, most frequently for the one-note role of indomitable matron on a mission. But women are generally absent in meaningful numbers during those years between 25 and 60.
Television, on the other hand, is increasing its offerings of dramas with women well past puberty in leading roles. The progenitor in the 1980s starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Not long after that, Helen Mirren played the lonely, alcoholic police inspector Jane Tennison in the British import Prime Suspect. But there hasn't been much else of note until now.
This year, Kyra Sedgwick (42), returns for a second season as police detective Brenda Johnson in The Closer on TNT. The extraordinary success of that show has led to the debut of at least three, new dramas this summer starring grownup women: Holly Hunter (49) in Saving Grace also on TNT, Glenn Close (60) in Damages on FX and on Lifetime, Lili Taylor (40) will play a psychiatrist in “State of Mind.”
This is good news for women of all ages. There may not yet be a series starring elders, but the idea that there is life for women after the age of bimbohood is beginning to be represented among the shows starring men of middle age.
Except for one thing…
As Alessandra Stanley writes in last Sunday’s New York Times,
“Older stars who once had to resign themselves to playing frustrated spinsters or docile moms are suddenly flaunting their ripened sex appeal on television. It’s not The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone anymore. This season marks the summer of hot cougar love…
“…Holly Hunter plays an Oklahoma sheriff with a ravenous appetite for cigarettes, booze and sex with younger men. Lili Taylor plays a successful therapist with family troubles of her own…She catches her husband, also a psychiatrist, in flagrante with their marriage counselor, then quickly finds a much younger lawyer to take over her husband’s office, and perhaps his place in bed…
“…Glenn Close [plays] a rapacious top litigator who terrifies her opponents and her subordinates. Ms. Close could turn out to be the exception to the rule because at least in the beginning her character is married to an age-appropriate businessman. But he does go out of town on trips.”
Booze, cigarettes and bad behavior are not bothersome necessarily - that is often the stuff of good drama. But coupled with boy toys in the bedroom, what television appears to be telling us is that women are allowed to get a little older than in the past, but only if they emulate the worst traits of men and young women who don’t know any better yet.
It is not fair to judge new series without seeing them, but if Ms. Stanley’s description is accurate then simulation of youth is once again being promoted as the only acceptable behavior for older folks and I can't decide if we should applaud these shows for giving older women a presence or if we should weep for their retro portrayal.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ronni Prior gives us tale of mahjongg and opium in Chinatown Alley.]