When Nicole Kidman accepted the SAG Award for her critically acclaimed turn in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” last January, the Oscar-winner and industry veteran praised her colleagues for instigating change, while also imploring those who run the studios to continue investing time and money in the stories of women who’ve reached middle age.
“[H]ow wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40 years old because 20 years ago, we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives. That’s not the case now,” she said. “We’ve proven — and these actresses and so many more are proving — that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us because our stories are finally being told.”
“It’s only the beginning and I’m so proud to be part of a community that is instigating this change, but I implore the writers, directors, studios, and financiers to put passion and money behind our stories,” Kidman added. “We have proven we can do this. We can continue to do this, but only with the support of this industry and that money and passion.”
Yet, while prospects for women over age 40 have begun to expand, many face the same level of typecasting that’s come to define the maturing female’s career. While many are relegated to nothing more than supporting roles, others find themselves playing one-dimensional wives or mothers that contribute very little to the given film’s basic plot. Despite the fact that women — especially those with decades of life experience — are complicated, emotional, and endearing, these dynamic humans rarely star in stories of their own.
While marriage and motherhood might be part of the mature woman’s narrative, such factors often become the defining elements of the given character’s story. Judging by Hollywood’s vision, women lose their identities once they become wives and mothers. They’re devoid of any individuality and exist only to support the ambitions of their partner or child. If said woman hasn’t tied the knot or given birth, she’s portrayed as an outlier — a so-called “spinster” that’s fixated on snagging herself a husband and having a baby before her biological clock becomes a ticking time bomb that renders her undesirable by society’s standards.
Even though it’s 2018, for some reason we still assess a woman’s worth by whether or not she’s fulfilled her duty as the vessel for another life. And, if a woman has aged beyond her childbearing potential, she’s cast aside, essentially proving that society believes mature women aren’t “sexy” because the act of intercourse could never lead to new life. Thus, those women over 40 must maintain a certain aesthetic in an effort to retain this youthful appeal.
Men, of course, are allowed to age on-screen because, while actors are revered for the name they bring to the project in question, women are valued for their face, first and foremost. Only the beloved few — Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench, for instance — have managed to overcome the age hurdle and find success on the other side. Even when men have lost that handsome, boyish appeal, they find new life, as male maturity often leads to more serious roles (although their love interests rarely age in unison). For men, their résumé sustains their reputation, while actresses are assessed by nothing more than their headshot.
Hollywood needs to stop fixating on sex appeal and start focusing on substance. Few films offer an intricate, complex look into the lives of mature women. For years, we’ve been forced to accept Hollywood’s caricature of the average woman, yet this trend has only hindered the way we perceive women in real life. We’ve been conditioned to expect wives and mothers to maintain a pristine exterior regardless of their actual age, which only contributes to the unrealistic beauty standards we must battle every day. Perhaps, if women on screen looked and behaved like the women we meet every day, we’d be more accepting and intrigued by those whose stories have yet to find an outlet. There’s so much untapped potential, after all, so let’s heed Kidman’s plea and put the passion where the people are.
(This post originally appeared on Storia.)