An Analysis of Aging Women in Film and Television

Carolyn Adams-Price
Department of Psychology
Mississippi State University
P.O. Box 6161
Mississippi State, MS 39762

Mark Goodman
Department of Communication
Mississippi State University
P.O. Box PF
Mississippi State, MS 39762

Bonnie Oppenheimer
Division of Science and Mathematics
Mississippi University of Women
P.O. Box W-100
Columbus, MS 39701

Jim Codling
Mississippi State University
P.O. Box 9705
Mississippi State, MS 39762

Porter Roberts
Mississippi State University
525 First St. South
Columbus, MS 39701

Bretton C. Albrecht
Mississippi State University
2606 15th St.
Vero Beach, FL 32960

A survey of over 100 participants liked actresses more as they aged than when they were young. Further, the study participants characterized the actresses as more feminine as they aged than when they were young.

Research on aging and gender shows that a broader range of images exists in the real world than in the "reel world." In reality, older women may be stereotyped as kind or cruel, maternal or unaffectionate, wise or foolish (Sherman, 1997). However, in children's films and television shows, older women are particularly likely to play negative roles. Sherman (1997) suggests that older women are portrayed as evil or cruel in children's media much more often than young men, young women, or older men.

Theories on women and aging may be used to explain the image or archetype of the "cruel" older woman. One common theory has long suggested that women become more androgynous as they get older; that is, in addition to their feminine "communal" characteristics, they take on traditionally masculine, "agentic" characteristics such as decisiveness, assertiveness, and aggressiveness (e.g., Gutmann, 1985). It is common for people to perceive such masculine traits, when they are demonstrated by women, as bitchiness or cruelty. Hollywood uses the villainous archetype to its advantage, but it does not seem interested in challenging the stereotype by writing roles or casting older actresses in more positive ways. Although this archetype may be potent, people may not assign it often to people they know. Recent research indicates that women in real life are not typically perceived by others as especially agentic: older men and women tend to be perceived similarly, with older men seen as more powerful than older women, and older women seen as more caring than older men. However, older women have been perceived as less sexual than older men in our culture for centuries (Sherman, 1997).

The typical roles for older women are similar in television and film. They include the good wife, the contented homemaker, the harpy, the matriarch, and the bitch (Meehan, 1983, pp. 110-111), the feisty older woman or the loveable granny (Lindsey, 2003, p. 626), or the nurturing mother or the sadistic mother (Kaplan, 2000, p. 467; M. Haskell, 1987, p. 8; Doane, 1987, p. 79).

The actresses playing these roles were the lucky ones. Northcott (1975) found that older female roles were almost non-existent on television in the 1970s with only 1.5% of all female characters on television over the age of 64 (p. 184). Signorielli and Bacue's (1999) longitudinal look at television discovered that women over 65 received only 3% of all roles. The majority of women (60%) played settled adults (p. 557). In examining data from Fall 2001, Signorielli (2002) indicated no changes in the presentation of women and aging. McCormick (2001) asserted that Hollywood has a "wrinkled ceiling" for women, but not for men (p. 46). Deutsch, Zalenski, & Clark (1986) described a double standard for aging that appears in the media. Men retain their attractiveness and competence as they age, whereas women lose their attractiveness and become incompetent. Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook, & Harris (1997) noted that "older females were cast in a particularly negative light" in film (p. 541). Signorielli and Bacue (1999) reported a similar trend in their study of television roles from 1960 to 1990 (p. 557). Griffin (1993) referred to the negative portrayal of aging women as "the politics of aging" (p. 2).

Signorielli (1982) helped explain why so few older women are cast in television roles. Most scripts, she claimed, emphasize home, family, marriage, or romance for women, meaning most of the roles are for women young enough to be perceived as romantically attractive to the male leads and the audience (p. 594). By extension, as women age, and lose their fertility and sexual desirability, they are presented as less feminine, more unhappy, less attractive, and as having colder personalities (p. 595). It further follows, argued Bazzini, et al. (1997), that women are going to be held to "a more rigid standard of beauty" than men since being young and romantic is crucial to the roles written for them (p. 532).

D. Haskell (1979) concluded that the women's movement changed the jobs held by television women, but not the script focus on romance. Markson (1997) concurs: She suggests that relatively few older female characters are presented as professional women, and those who are, are portrayed as harming themselves or their families by focusing on their careers. McNeil (1975) reported that 74% of female roles on television fit into the family-romantic categories (p. 266). Thus, the emphasis on relational roles keeps women confined to the "inner world" of the family, while men deal with the more important concerns of business and politics, argued Van Zoonen (1994, pp. 93-94).

Hollywood films and network television shows are built on a basic premise: The audience likes younger actresses (under 40 years of age) because they are perceived as attractive and feminine. Conversely, the audience dislikes older actresses (over 40 years of age) because they are perceived as unattractive, and they demonstrate behaviors more typically defined as masculine in our culture.

To test these Hollywood assumptions, we designed a study. We chose five actresses who had 30-year careers so each actress could be evaluated when she was early in her career, in the middle of her career, and late in her career. Therefore, we selected Jane Fonda, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, and Maureen O'Hara.

The following is a list of the actresses and the films from which their clips were chosen. Lucille Ball appeared in The Long, Long Trailer (1954), Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), and Mame (1974). Jane Fonda appeared in Cat Ballou (1966), On Golden Pond (1981), and The Morning After (1986). For Katherine Hepburn, we selected clips from The Philadelphia Story (1940), African Queen (1951), and On Golden Pond (1981). Angela Lansbury performed The Court Jester (1956), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (1992). Maureen O'Hara starred in Redhead From Wyoming (1953), The Parent Trap (1961), and The Christmas Box (1995). In all, 15 clips were included in the study, so that each of the five actresses appeared three times. Each clip ran about 1.5 minutes; the actions of the actress dominated the clips.

The clips were edited together randomly and shown to 76 college students at a research university in the American South. After each clip, we asked the participants to rate the actresses for likeability and for attractiveness. In addition, we asked the participants to mark a list of adjectives they would assign to the character in the clip. The adjectives were feminine and masculine modifiers borrowed from the Bem Sex Roles Inventory.

Our results found no interaction for gender or for race (African American and white). What we did find surprised us. Predictably, all groups rated the actresses as most attractive when they were young. However, all groups liked the actresses the least when they were young. Even more difficult to explain was the fact that the participants marked the highest number of masculine traits and the least number of feminine traits when the actresses were young. The participants marked fewer masculine traits and more feminine traits in the late career clips than in the early career clips.

Table I:
Number of feminine traits assigned to characters

Early CareerMiddle CareerLate Career
Females 2.08 5.09 4.92
African Americans 2.42 5.62 5.18
Caucasians 2.29 5.59 5.29
Totals 2.35 5.60 5.23

Table II:
Number of masculine traits assigned to characters

Early CareerMiddle CareerLate Career
Females 5.62 4.40 4.45
African Americans 5.81 4.82 4.30
Caucasians 6.02 4.55 4.79
Totals 5.91 4.69 4.54

Table III:

Perceived likeability of characters

Early CareerMiddle CareerLate Career
Females 3.04 3.62 3.25
African Americans 3.20 3.48 3.25
Caucasians 3.06 3.61 3.24
Totals 3.13 3.55 3.24

Table IV:
Perceived attractiveness of characters

Early CareerMiddle CareerLate Career
Females 3.46 3.41 3.07
African Americans 3.28 3.25 3.05
Caucasians 3.49 3.35 2.91
Totals 3.39 3.30 2.98

In effect, the participants found the actresses most attractive when they also found them most masculine. Nothing in the literature we reviewed explains these results. We discussed the following possibilities:

  1. One possibility is that the participants' cultural perspective( affected the experience. However, we have tended to reject this theory. Males and females, African Americans, and Caucasians demonstrated the same response patterns. A shared cultural perspective is highly unlikely.
  2. The actresses do compose an atypical grouping, since all of them have had long, successful careers. We did ask the participants to rate the actresses based only on the scene shown. However, we cannot preclude the possibility that the participants liked these actresses before they took the survey or were familiar with the actresses from other roles. This could explain why the participants loved Lucy and liked Hepburn. However, Maureen O'Hara probably was an actress unknown to many in this college-aged population, and yet her numbers reflect the same trend. Further, this is not an audience that would like the politics of Jane Fonda. Jane was the least liked of the five actresses, but the trend remained the same because the participants liked her better when she was older than when she was early in her career. If intertexuality was a major influence on the results, we think the results for Fonda, Lansbury, and O'Hara would have reflected a different statistical pattern than that for Lucy and Hepburn. Since the trends were constant among the actresses, intertexuality does not explain the results.
  3. None of the scenes from their early careers showed the actresses in a maternal or caregiving role. Fonda, Hepburn, O'Hara, and Lucy played the romantic leads and all engaged in a dyadic conversation with a male.y Lansbury, the lead female, discussed love with a female confidant. In the ten scenes when the actresses were in the middle or late in their careers, children were present in five of them. Fonda is the only one not shown with a child. Caregiving to a child could lead to more feminine traits being marked. However, this possibility does not explain why the trend continued in the five other scenes when no children appeared with the actresses.
  4. Perhaps the results are due to personality being evaluated differently than physicality. When the actresses were young and attractive, the participants focused on their physical appearance. Once the actresses had aged and they less attractive, the participants might have focused more on personality. In effect, the salient characteristic as the actresses aged shifted from appearance to personality.
  5. When the actresses were young and beautiful, they were assertive, and they could get away with being assertive because of their physical attractiveness—explaining the high number of masculine traits marked. The later-life roles were designed to be more feminine and nurturing because the filmmakers wanted to make the actresses more appealing to the audience—explaining the high numbers of feminine traits marked. This is a theory we plan to study in our future research.

There is some indication that television scripts are including more women over 40 in prominent roles (Lindsey, 2003). Dixie Carter, now over 50, plays the role of a lead attorney on The Practice (Lindsey, p. 629). In the role of “Maxine”, on Judging Amy, Tyne Daly plays an active, professional woman and grandmother (Lindsey, p. 626). It is interesting to note that Daly's character was to be married during the 2002-2003 season.

Our results suggest that Hollywood and television should write more scripts that provide major roles for older women. Extrapolating from our results, we think the audience would enjoy older characters, particularly if they had meaningful roles. Our results challenge the stereotypes which confine older actresses to being portrayed as wicked hags or doddering grannies. Television and movie roles should reflect the dynamic roles that older women play in real life as part of families, as professionals in the work force, and as important members of society. Scriptwriters have proven that they can create these roles; Captain Janeway, of Star Trek Voyager fame, is one example. Audiences may be ready for older women to be part of media life.

Works Cited

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