When I was 22, I travelled to Malaysia with a director to meet the producer of a film and a new rising starlet. She was late, and whilst we waited I overheard one say to the other “she’s very beautiful and very sexy… but she is 26.”
That was it. Nothing more needed to be said. We all understood the inference of this. She was too old. I was disappointed but from then on I knew the unspoken rule: youth plus beauty equals screen-time.
Dozens of actresses have spoken out about the industry’s ageism: at 37 Maggie Gyllenhaal was “too old” to play a 55-year-old’s love interest; Zoe Saldana described feeling “expired” at 28, like an old yogurt; and at 32 Anne Hathaway noticed all the 24-year-olds were getting all the parts.
The actresses fighting against sexism in Hollywood
The actresses fighting against sexism in Hollywood
1/12 Anne Hathaway
The 32-year-old actress said she has already experiences job rejections because of her age. “Now I'm in my early thirties and I'm like, 'Why did that 24-year-old get that part? I was that 24-year-old once. I can't be upset about it, it's the way things are,” she told Glamour.
2/12 Helen Mirren
On news that Maggie Gyllenhaal had been turned down for being ‘too old’, aged 37, to play a 55-year-old man’s partner: “It’s f***ing outrageous. It’s ridiculous. Honestly, it’s so annoying. And ’twas ever thus. We all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric, and his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.”
3/12 Maggie Gyllenhaal
Gyllenhaal revealed she was told by a Hollywood producer that she was too old, aged 37, to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. “It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made feel angry, and then it made me laugh,” she said at the time.
4/12 Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep has helped fund an all-female screenwriters group called The Writer’s Lab to encourage more women to pen Hollywood scripts. She previously told Vogue in 2011: “Once women pass childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level.”
5/12 Emma Thompson
The actress said she thought Hollywood is “still completely s***” when it comes to treating women equally to men. ““When I was younger, I really did think we were on our way to a better world. And when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it, particularly for women, and I find that very disturbing and sad.”
6/12 Elizabeth Banks
Banks said she was driven from acting to directing due to the lack of roles for older women in Hollywood. “"[Industry sexism] drove me to direct for sure. I definitely was feeling that I was unfulfilled and a little bit bored by the things that were coming across my desk. I mean look at Gwyneth Paltrow who has her Oscar [for Shakespeare in Love] and played fifth banana to Iron Man,” she told Deadline.
7/12 Viola Davis
“I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualised role in TV or film. I'm a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualised woman. I was the prototype of the ‘mommified’ role,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
8/12 Liv Tyler
The Lord of the Rings actress said she only get cast in roles where she is treated as a “second class citizen” at the age of 38. “When you’re in your teens or twenties, there is an abundance of ingenue parts which are exciting to play. But at [my age], you’re usually the wife or the girlfriend - a sort of second-class citizen. There are more interesting roles for women when they get a bit older,” she told More magazine.
9/12 Cate Blanchett
The actress famously called out sexism on the red carpet at the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards. When a camera operator scanned her up and down, she said: “Do you do this to the guys?” In her Oscar acceptance speech for Blue Jasmine, she reminded the film industry that movies with leading women can still be successful. “And thank you to... those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the centre, are niche experiences. They are not -- audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”
10/12 Ellen Page
Asked if she had ever encountered sexism in Hollywood, Page told The Guardian: ‘Oh my God, yeah! It's constant! It's how you're treated, it's how you're looked at, how you're expected to look in a photoshoot, it's how you're expected to shut up and not have an opinion, it's how you... If you're a girl and you don't fit the very specific vision of what a girl should be, which is always from a man's perspective, then you're a little bit at a loss.”
11/12 Zoe Saldana
The actress says she refuses roles where she has to play the generic girlfriend, wife or sexy bombshell. "It's very hard being a woman in a man's world, and I recognised it was a man's world even when I was a kid. It's an inequality and injustice that drove me crazy, and which I always spoke out against — and I've always been outspoken,” she told Manhattan magazine.
12/12 Charlize Theron
The actress spoke to ELLE about negotiating equal pay for the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel: "This is a good time for us to bring this to a place of fairness, and girls need to know that being a feminist is a good thing. It doesn't mean that you hate men. It means equal rights. If you're doing the same job, you should be compensated and treated in the same way."
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
So, with all these actresses calling the industry out, you might think that ageism is on the wane. Sadly that won’t be happening anytime soon. There are two major reasons why:
Money, money, money
Sure, at ages 25 and 26 an actress is still young. But, to become a ‘star’ takes time and investment from a studio. Putting the time and investment into a 25-year-old and spending three years building her profile is a waste of time and resource if by the time she makes it she’s almost 30, as there’s little time left to play the young love interest. If a film is going to be a trilogy, like Spiderman, there’s no chance.
Like Olympic athletes, they’re started young and trained up so that they are ready to compete from the ages of 18 to 20. Then the money and time spent investing in their careers will deliver a return for the next 10 years, rather than just two or three.
You won’t hear the rising starlets complaining
Rarely will you find a young actress on their soap box, banging the drum against ageism. Imagine if in the industry you were dying to break into, you merely had to wait a few years for your predecessor to “expire” – would you protest?
As Anne Hathaway said, “I can't complain about it because I benefitted from it. When I was in my early twenties, parts would be written for women in their fifties and I would get them.”
In Hollywood, there’s no shortage of young talent willing to do whatever it takes, so age is immediately a disadvantage. There’s always someone of equal, if not greater, talent sat beside you on the casting couch and with far more years ahead of them (on the screen at least).
The acceptance of this within the industry is etched in botox on the faces of Hollywood actresses. Rather than questioning the system, they are too preoccupied with playing by the rules and trying to slow the ageing process. But by playing along, we become complicit.
Overriding the system
We need the ageism to end. When actresses aren’t allowed to age, real women aren’t exempt either. Men expect their girlfriends to live up to this ideal and wonder if they too should be dating an 18-year-old at the age of 35.
With the industry not looking likely to change anytime soon, it’s left to us – those approaching their sell by dates and the “expired” – to encourage younger actresses to take an active control of their careers from the start.
Actresses must train themselves up as a triple threat to override the system, viewing writing, directing and producing skills as the route to their acting career. I decided in my early twenties that I did not want to be a passive product; I wanted to create opportunities for myself. In my one-woman play, Red Rose/White Rose at this year’s Edinburg Fringe I play the parts of women of various ages and no one can tell me I’m too old, or too young, or too anything for the parts.
That way women can be their own bosses, create opportunities for both themselves and future actresses and reinforce their value as more than just a product to be built up and then expire on other people’s terms.
Gabby So’s one-woman show Red Rose/White Rose is on at Greenside @ Royal Palace, Edinburgh Festival FringeReuse content