Primetime TV shows mostly ignore women 60+
She’s the almost invisible woman on TV.
Who is she? Someone who’s lived long enough to put things into perspective. Someone who is comfortable with herself, even if she no longer follows trends. Someone who can handle both mansplaining and youthsplaining.
She’s a major television character aged 60 or older, a demographic that’s most often missed on the small screen.
According to this year’s Boxed In report, which focuses on how women fare in front of and behind the cameras, there’s a disappointing connection between the age of female characters and their ubiquity.
For the 2021-22 season, 42% of major female characters on broadcast networks were in their 30s, while only 15% were in their 40s. A slightly smaller, but equally steep drop occurred with streaming platforms.
And if the age range is old enough to include fabulous actresses like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin from Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’, Michelle Yeoh from Paramount+’s ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, Jean Smart from HBO’s ‘Hacks’ Max and S. Epatha Merkerson of NBC’s “Chicago Med”? This is where things really go downhill.
Only 3% of major female characters were 60 or older, for both broadcast and streaming. As the study concludes, older women “continue to be significantly underrepresented.”
The annual Boxed In, produced by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, examined a randomly selected episode of an ABC primetime original series. , CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW and Amazon. Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+ and Peacock.
He tracked over 3,000 characters and over 3,800 credits to reach his conclusions, which cover a variety of areas, from historical comparisons to race and ethnicity comparisons of major female characters to percentages of women in jobs such as than directing and writing.
As a member of the 60+ women’s club, I found this 3% figure surprising, especially since in real life women of this age make up about 25% of all the US female population, according to 2019 census estimates.
Older male characters, unsurprisingly (but quite blatantly), are more prevalent on television: 6% of lead male characters are 60 and older, twice as many as their female counterparts.
Why is there such a lack of representation of older women? Dr. Martha Lauzen, who founded the study and is a professor of film and television at San Diego State University, said by email that it was “due to the low number of women in the age category working in key behind-the-scenes roles, the belief that viewers aren’t interested in seeing these characters, and the belief that characters over 60 live less interesting lives.
Lauzen summed up, “In other words, their demise is due, in large part, to ageism.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Angela Lansbury’s death earlier this month has affected women so deeply. The 96-year-old star was a versatile performer known for her Broadway and film roles, but it was television that made her a pop culture figure. As Detective Jessica Fletcher on the long-running CBS mystery “Murder, She Wrote,” Lansbury was virtually the only woman in her 60s and 60s to lead the kind of prime-time drama that older men have ruled since, well, forever.
This year alone, 72-year-old Jeff Bridges earned critical acclaim with FX’s “The Old Man.” Now try to imagine an action show plugged into a former spy called “The Old Woman” getting the green light from a studio.
Women over the age of 60 don’t see themselves much on TV in general, let alone find and appreciate portrayals of busy, successful, and sexually active characters. They may say 60 is the new 40, but it might as well be 80 by today’s standards of comedy, drama and reality shows, which too often reduce older women to stereotypes or brief roles of mother and grandmother.
So how can this image be modified?
Through the power of the wallet, of course. As The Hollywood Reporter pointed out in its coverage of a Nielsen report on women 50 and older that covered January 2020 to January 2021, “the use of internet-connected devices during prime time has increased 41% among women aged 50 to 64 and 51% among women aged 65. and older – exceeding the 21% increase in use among all women 18 and older.
This represents significant growth potential for streaming platforms interested in courting older women — and it’s a reason for broadcast networks to fight to keep the same demographic from turning away.
Plug into these
If, like me, you want to see more women over 60 playing vital roles on television, you need to watch the ones that are already breaking the records. The shows below offer a range of characters, some powerful, some immature, some scary, some selfless. None fall prey to old lady clichés and all are compelling.
If only more TV programmers could figure this out.
“The White Lotus”. The second season of the HBO series begins on Sunday, with season one star Jennifer Coolidge returning as the flighty, wealthy Tanya McQuoid. Coolidge is the exception to the rule that getting older diminishes your acting opportunities. She lands better roles than ever (and, while accepting her Best Supporting Actress Emmy this year, won over audiences with her impromptu dance when the orchestra tried to play her with “Hit the Road Jack”).
“Young Sheldon.” Meemaw isn’t your typical sitcom grandma. In this CBS prequel to “The Big Bang Theory,” Annie Potts plays a matriarch who drinks, hangs out, and runs a small, illegal gambling business behind her laundromat. At 70, Potts brings a sexy attitude and tolerant wisdom to her character’s life, which is the antithesis of Sheldon’s mother’s strained religiosity.
“The crown.” Netflix’s hugely popular docudrama returns on November 9 with Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in her sixties and new challenges in the form of Charles and Diana’s ugly split. There has been controversy over the fact that the fifth season comes so soon after the real monarch died in September. But the larger message of Staunton, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman playing Elizabeth at different stages of Elizabeth’s life is that a woman changes over time as she faces a life of joys and sorrows.
“Elemental Abbott.” In this kiss from the head of an ensemble cast, 65-year-old Sheryl Lee Ralph makes the biggest impression on ABC’s hit sitcom as Barbara Howard, a seasoned teacher who faced all odds. that the public education system might oppose. Ralph (who broke into glorious song while accepting her supporting actress Emmy this year) is the epitome of real women with professional skills, grace and enough compassion to understand young colleagues who think they know it all.
“The Handmaid’s Tale. The final season of Hulu’s drama inspired by Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel continues to spotlight longtime actress Ann Dowd’s standout performance as lead villain Aunt Lydia. Finally, Dowd’s character faces real doubts about Gilead’s divine image, a change that could devastate her.
“Blockbuster.” The new Netflix workplace comedy from creator Vanessa Ramos (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Superstore”) premieres Thursday and is set in suburban Michigan, supposedly the last Blockbuster store in America. Only this set includes 66-year-old Olga Merediz, who played Abuela Claudia from “In The Heights” on Broadway and in film and was the singing voice of Abuela Alma in Disney’s “Encanto.” true to herself, even surrounded by colleagues old enough to be her grandchildren.
“9-1-1.” Angela Bassett brings strength and class to Fox’s first responder drama as Police Sergeant Athena Grant. Bassett’s ease in juggling the show’s star and executive producer with her stellar film career — she returns as the royal matriarch in the film’s sequel ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ — is proof that he doesn’t. there’s nothing to be over 60 that automatically requires any slowdown.
“The good fight” and “Golden age.” Greetings, Christine Baranski, who plays fierce lawyer Diane Lockhart on Paramount+’s “The Good Fight,” which wraps up her journey this season, and old school steel socialite Agnes Van Rhijn on HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” , which has been renewed for a Second Season. If Agnes was pitted against the “Downton Abbey” Dowager Countess played by Dame Maggie Smith, Vegas would give her an equal chance.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]