Ageism and Sexism

By Elisa Cottarelli | Team MM

We all know of sexism. We’ve lived with it since day one.

But we often don’t talk about ageism (discrimination based on age) and its relation to sexism. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was told at the age of 37 that she was “too old” to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. Actress Jamie Denbo (known for her role in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black) was told at 43 that she was “too old” to play the wife of a 57-year-old and the mother of an 18-year-old. Instead, they wanted a 38-year-old…do the maths, and let that sink in. These cases aren’t rare. Helen Mirren has called this phenomenon ‘fucking outrageous’ highlighting how ‘we all watched James Bond as he got more and more geriatric, and his girlfriends’ got younger and younger’. Likewise, Meryl Streep revealed that once she turned 40, ‘she was offered multiple wrinkly, old witch roles’ since that’s apparently how Hollywood sees older women…is that what we have to look forward to? Why are older men seen as silver foxes while older women are cast aside?

It’s perfectly natural to want to feel desirable, and it’s silly to think that the desire to be attractive is something we should suppress or discount the older that we get.

Of course, men have anxieties and fears about getting older too, but adding that extra layer of sexism to ageing is like rubbing salt into a deeply ingrained, societally-produced wound. And it’s not just a problem in Hollywood: it affects women in the workplace and in everyday life. In fact, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study found that older women in particular were least likely to get hired for a variety of different jobs, both compared to younger women, and men of the same age. The researchers suggested that part of the reason for this came down to one thing: beauty. As they explained, “older women may in fact experience more discrimination than older men, because physical appearance matters more for women and because age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men”. What are we to do? Find solace in our hair dye and saviour in our weight-loss regime?

We are worth much more than society gives us credit for, and we deserve more respect.

Now, wanting to be attractive isn’t a problem, or at the very least, it isn’t abnormal. It’s perfectly natural to want to feel desirable, and it’s silly to think that the desire to be attractive is something we should suppress or discount the older that we get. Instead, the problem is in how we define beauty. Why is grey hair considered by some to be inherently unattractive? Why are wrinkles associated with a loss of beauty? Why are older men seen as sophisticated, wise, and handsome, while older women are at the very best, invisible?

This may come as a ground-breaking and shocking revelation to some, but older women do have value. We are worth much more than society gives us credit for, and we deserve more respect. We have a valid place in society, beyond being mothers, wives and caretakers. We are smart, hard-working and valuable contributors to society, all while constantly battling the prejudices of society and the perils of old-age and the menopause…and through all of that, on average we live longer than men!

…what we define as beautiful and how we respect older women in our society is what is really in need of a makeover.

Some of this is changing, with many women and writers breaking the silence on ageism and sexism and asking these important questions. On-screen, roles for women are continuously being redefined. Reese Witherspoon, who started her own woman-focused media production company, recently starred in the Nancy Meyers (producer of Father of the Bride, The Holiday, It’s Complicated) produced rom-com Home Again, which centres on a younger-man-older-woman love story, without the usual cougar-like, Mrs. Robinson-style negative connotations. While Reese is only 41 and as such might not be the best example of redefining beauty in old age, the under-representation of this kind of relationship onscreen is symbolic of the general ageism and sexism in society. It’s important to start reimagining the role of older women on-and-off screen. Again, it’s completely normal to want to feel attractive and beautiful, and it’s okay to change or work on your appearance if doing so empowers you. But what we define as beautiful and how we respect older women in our society is what is really in need of a makeover.


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