Ageing under the spotlight

Sophie Burdge condemns ageism in pop culture and our generation's obsession with beauty

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

The film industry has been wracked with controversy in recent years, with accusations of discrimination flying left, right and centre. From the #oscarssowhite trend of 2016 to Patricia Arquette calling out Hollywood’s wage disparity in her Oscar acceptance speech in 2015, we are all finally starting to wake up to the fact that the seemingly perfect and polished celebrity world is just as infiltrated with prejudice as every other aspect of society. Despite our societal tendency to position our celebrity idols under a microscope, it is only in recent years that issues such as ageism have really been highlighted in the media.

The very nature of celebrity is rooted in admiration, all too often aesthetic admiration. When we watch a film or listen to music, we often don’t recognise the complexity of the people involved, instead reducing them to a simplistic idea of straightforward beauty. Ageing complicates this admiration. We are used to categorising celebrities as someone to emulate, but when the first grey hairs and laughter lines appear, suddenly they become a bit less god-like, and all too human for our liking.

Both Hollywood and the music industry are guilty of perpetrating these ideas. Madonna is a prime example of a woman who can seemingly do nothing right these days. Her onstage kiss with Drake is an obvious illustration of the double standards she faces. While other factors are naturally at play when considering the incident—principally Drake’s lack of consent—the point remains that a lot of the visceral disgust voiced on Twitter and other social media platforms was related to the age gap between Madonna and Drake. While in theory we reject the convention which teaches us to be appalled by a relationship between an older woman and younger man, the legacy of such a heavy cultural influence is hard to shake.

Madonna resolutely refuses to relinquish her sex appeal, and rightly so. She was among the first to embrace her own sexuality at a time when few female artists did, and as a result has become a feminist icon. Rather than retreating to ballads and black dresses like many singers of her age, she continues to joyfully prance around in bodysuits and leotards, throwing her legs above her head in a way which many in their twenties would envy. Yet her performances are often figured as grotesque, a laughing stock, or a warning to those also considered ‘over the hill’.

In 2015, Madonna went so far as to accuse BBC Radio 1 of ageism for their refusal to add her new single to their playlist. The response from the station was that they were trying to lower the average age of listeners, and that most Madonna fans were in their thirties and forties. A fair response perhaps, yet even on Radio 2, a station aimed at over 35s, Madonna’s single was only begrudgingly added to the C playlist, meaning that its airtime was minimal. Paradoxically, it was pointed out that Radio 1 often play songs by older artists, listing David Guetta (49) and Paul McCartney (74) as examples. For starters, it is significant that both of these artists are male, but also that the only Paul McCartney song that has been featured on the Radio 1 playlist in decades is ‘FourFiveSeconds,’ a collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna—two much younger artists.

The backlash to Madonna’s complaint reflects the all too conventional negative attitude towards assertive women. While undeniably a problem for all women, particularly in the workplace, the stereotype of subservience affects older women to an even greater extent. Being a ‘Girl Boss’ is becoming trendier and trendier, as young women are encouraged to go after the careers and lifestyles that they deserve. However, the aspirational image of the ‘have it all’ career woman is notably restricted to the young and glamorous. While the idea of a young and stylish business woman demanding the raise she deserves fills most of us with ‘you go girl’-esque admiration, a woman in her fifties doing the same thing would likely provoke discomfort in many. While Jennifer Lawrence was applauded for her open letter criticising wage disparity in Hollywood, Madonna’s claim that her poor chart performance was the result of discrimination was treated as the whining of an old woman who can’t let go.

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It is perhaps this differing standard applied to men and women which is the most disturbing aspect of ageism in our society. In a recent interview on Radio 2 promoting their new film ‘Going in Style,’ Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both expressed their happiness at the number of roles they are still receiving in their seventies and eighties respectively. They proclaimed it as a sign that ageism in Hollywood is really not such an issue, with Caine even exclaiming triumphantly: “I’m not sitting round watching Coronation Street!” While I’m glad that Freeman and Caine are continuing to have their talents recognised and appreciated well past conventional retirement age, what the industry really needs is respected artists such as them to acknowledge and call out disparities. Their blindness to the fact that they are the exception, rather than the rule, not only excuses, but perpetrates harmful views.

Meryl Streep is one of the few high profile individuals in the film industry who does actively call out the ageism and sexism that she experiences. Although some may be sceptical of Streep’s claims of discrimination, due to her continuing relevance in Hollywood, she is vocal about how much harder she has had to fight for these opportunities since turning forty. In 2011, she confessed to Vogue Magazine that upon exiting her thirties she was only offered three roles–all witches–astutely noting that “once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level”. But unlike Freeman and Caine, who refuse to acknowledge the issues present in their industry, Streep is actively trying to solve the problem. She is helping to fund a screenwriting lab for women over forty, in the hope that diversifying representation behind the camera will propagate a similar growth onscreen.

While it is of course true that male actors will often face a decline in opportunities as they age, perhaps restricted to roles such as ‘senile old man’ or similar, it is undeniable that female actors suffer this fate to a much greater degree. The collective decision taken by film industry professionals, and even viewers themselves, that a woman is no longer at her peak attractiveness, epitomises the very objectification which the majority of us so vocally condemn. The recent Women’s Marches across the world demonstrate that feminism is a very prescient issue, and one being taken seriously, so why is that as a society, we still enable and encourage ageist attitudes towards women in popular culture? The fact is that films with female leads over forty don’t make as much money at the box office. Of course there are notable exceptions such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but movies fronted by lesser known older actors often fall flat. Although our tastes are obviously moulded to a degree by the film industry itself, the influence goes both ways, and so by supporting films featuring older actors, we can help to foster a culture in which ageing is not something to be dreaded in our own lives, or disgusted by in others’ lives.

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It is the idea of the female actor being intended for titillation which perpetrates this problem. Of course we are all guilty of objectifying our favourite celebrities to a certain degree, but this sense of ownership goes much further than teenage girls wondering what it would be like to kiss Zayn Malik. There is a cultural expectation that a female celebrity owes her followers something, her sex appeal translating into a currency of success. While male celebrities become ‘legends’ and ‘icons’ as their conventional attraction wanes, women struggle to make a similar transition. Their value is irrevocably tied to their appearance, and once their appearance ceases to be pleasing to their audience, the unspoken contract between performer and viewer is infringed.

And it’s not as if this objectification is even purely sexual. The attitudes of straight women towards their favourite female celebrities can often be just as harmful, particularly in the Instagram age, in which we can follow and fawn over their every move. The rise of social media has fostered trends such as the ever present ‘#goals’ hashtag, an idea which has always existed, but has only recently been explicitly named. It’s more than just petty jealousy. In fact, it’s taking active pleasure in the beauty, glamour, or success of someone you admire. But when your favourite female celebrity becomes a bit less #goals and a bit more grizzled, then why bother watching them anymore?

After all, whatever the content of a movie, the primary goal is ultimately escapism. For many viewers, this manifests itself in an appreciation of the seemingly perfect lives of its stars, as we perversely revel in the levels of glamour and beauty which our own lives can never hope to attain. Such admiration in itself is not necessarily harmful—society has always orientated itself by its idols. However, it does propagate the idea that ‘perfection’ and hence, happiness, is only attainable between the ages of twenty and forty.

As a society we still consider women, especially beautiful women, to be flat and one-sided, with little more to offer than being aesthetically pleasing. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all have an inherent discomfort with women who are perceived as ‘unattractive’, a bias which we must do our best to fight. Perhaps the unpopularity of older female celebrities simply reflects our own fears of ageing—the idea that if we don’t see it reflected in the media then we can pretend it will never happen to us—but this attitude in itself is deeply harmful. The infiltration of ageist attitudes in popular culture reflects a wider obsession with beauty, and a concerning cultural shift towards superficiality. Prejudice in the film and music industries makes a significant contribution to this, filtering down to us, and infiuencing our own ideas of beauty and happiness. Perhaps the first step to developing more healthy attitudes towards our own appearances is to appreciate the performances of older people in the film and music industries.