At a recent movie screening, I was so excited when the preview for Murder On The Orient Express started to play; I'm a huge fan of the source material and the cast. Unfortunately, the moment was ruined because someone in the audience sneered about Michelle Pfeiffer:
"She can't act because she's too old. She needs to retire. But [Johnny Depp], he's awesome, looks great, and he's still got it."
It struck a nerve to hear someone — let alone a woman — call Pfeiffer out simply because of her age, especially since the age gap between Pfeiffer and Depp is only a mere five years; they're both in their fifties. (While Pfeiffer is a vegetarian and stays active, she declines the use of plastic surgery; meanwhile Depp has chosen a more aggressive lifestyle of heavy drinking.)
It's not just this one person who has such a backward attitude — the movie industry has a major problem with ageism.
How Hollywood Unfairly Limits Actresses Based On Their Age
The destructive combination of sexism and ageism is stacked against women in film and television. For example, in 2015 Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old, at age 37, to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man.
Another prime example is the film Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence. It's loosely based on the real-life rise of entreprenuer Joy Mangalo — but Mangalo was much older than Lawrence when she actually hit the big time. Lawrence has plenty of talent, but Mangalo wasn't a young twenty-something when she found mass success. With so few leading roles for older actresses, shouldn't this opportunity have gone to one of them?
Also, as director Paige Morrow Kimball writes, Hollywood's ageism double-standard is so absurd that producers will depict "a 28-year-old mother of a 27-year-old son (Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell in Alexander)." To put it simply: Hollywood needs to do better.
How This Affects All Of Us
We're learning more and more about the significant impact of sexism in day-to-day Hollywood, from the wage gap to objectification to sexual harassment. I think we can all agree enough is enough on that front.
But ageism isn't just an issue in Hollywood. We see it all over the place. The internet is an environment where sexism and ageism are accepted and then spread worldwide by trolls. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of social media users have experienced harassment online, and women endure a much higher rate.
We absorb information all the time. And if we're constantly being fed these attitudes, then eventually they can feel completely normal. This pattern is even more difficult to notice because ageism is so often casually tossed in with general sexism against women. Audiences learn to attribute an actress's ability to act based on how old she is, but what exactly does that have to do with her ability to deliver onscreen?
The answer is simple: it doesn't. So, why are remarks like this still being made?
Is The Situation Getting Any Better?
The good news is that things are beginning to change; TV has especially been making great strides towards breaking this mold. From Netflix to HBO, major roles are going to big-name actresses, putting their talents and commitment to the best possible use without belittling or typecasting them.
The same can be said for the shows produced by Shonda Rhimes, whose Thursday night block on ABC is filled to the brim with some of the best female talent Hollywood has to offer. Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story, has favored putting actresses often labeled "past their prime" in his projects; Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy and Angela Bassett have all played major roles and gained newfound fandom, as has Sarah Paulson, the only female actor to appear in every season of the FX anthology series.
Actors such as Amy Poehler and Geena Davis have established production companies and film festivals to put female-fronted (and female-created) projects closer to the mainstream; Poehler's Paper Kite is responsible for bringing us Broad City and Difficult People.
The issue of age fades when more directors, writers and producers put these women front and center in such intrepid projects. Not only does it change the mindset of the audience, gradually creating more acceptance and less superficial judgment, but it opens the door for these leading ladies to transition back to the big screen.
And eventually, we might finally be able to eradicate this discrimination of talent based on appearance forever.
What do you think about sexism and ageism in Hollywood? Sound off in the comments below!