A report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media concluded that even now, there is a dearth of roles for older actresses, and the roles that do exist portray them as senile, homebound, feeble or frumpy. In the highest-grossing films from Germany, France, Britain and the United States in 2019, there were no female leads over 50, the report said, and just one-quarter of characters over 50 were women. Only a quarter of films passed what the report called “The Ageless Test,” meaning they had one female character over 50 who was significant to the plot and was presented in “humanizing ways and not reduced to stereotypes.”
But it’s possible that this year’s Emmy winners are a sign of changing times, changing demographics, and changing — or long-ignored — tastes. So how did we go from “frail, frumpy and forgotten,” as the institute’s report is called, to Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing a hilarious, diabolical and still-sexy politician in “Veep,” or Sandra Oh starring as an embattled professor on “The Chair,” or Angela Bassett, Felicity Huffman and Patricia Arquette starring as unappreciated mothers who take back their lives in “Otherhood”?
“We are in the midst of a demographic revolution,” Dr. Douglas said. As of 2019, there were just under 72 million baby boomers and over 65 million Gen Xers. “There are more women over 50 than ever before in our society. And millions of them are not really ready or eager to be told to go away and obsess about their grandchildren without participating in and doing other things.”
Amy Baer, president of Landline Pictures, which debuted earlier this year to focus on the over-50 crowd, said aging had become a much more “dynamic experience” — less about retiring than about starting something new. “They may have raised children and they’re finally at a place where they can focus on themselves professionally and personally,” Ms. Baer said. “They may be changing jobs. They may be finally falling in love after being professionally focused.”
She says this shift — living longer, living better — is just one reason that portrayals of older women in Hollywood are finally improving, both in number and scope. Women over 45 are being cast as leads in complex roles, sometimes the best roles of their careers.
It began with a couple of outlier films in the early 2000s, Ms. Baer said. Two romantic comedies from Nancy Meyers — “Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and “It’s Complicated,” with Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin — portrayed women in their 60s as romantically desirable leads. The films had enough commercial success to alert industry gatekeepers to an untapped audience. They started to realize, Dr. Uhls said, “there’s a market we’re not exploiting here.”
That audience had both time and money, and was conditioned to going out to the movies, but could adapt to streaming. The media for and about this market appealed to other demographics, too. One of Netflix’s first streaming megahits, “House of Cards,” starred Robin Wright, who was 46 when the series debuted, as the frosty mastermind of the country’s most powerful couple. Not long after, “Grace and Frankie,” a comedy about two vibrator-designing octogenarians, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, became a hit among many different demographics; it’s now Netflix’s longest-running original series.