Older Women in Film and Television: The Roundup

The Ruthless Power of Patty Hewes from Damages & Victoria Grayson from Revenge by Amanda Rodriguez

Older women in film and TV are generally a stereotypical lot. They’re usually sexless matrons or grandmothers who perform roles of support for their screen-stealing husbands or children. These older women are typically preoccupied with home and family, lacking a complex inner life because they are gendered symbols of, you guessed it, home and family. Occasionally we see older women who go beyond that trope, even defying it to focus more on power, prestige, winning, and their own personal success and public image rather than that of others. Two potent examples of this are Patty Hewes from Damages and Victoria Grayson from Revenge.

Aging and Existential Crisis in 3rd Rock from the Sun by Jenny Lapekas

Because Mary is teased for her old age, especially since she’s no longer viewed as the sexual being she was once known as, it’s at the forefront of particular episodes. In season three, Dick hounds a photographer who once took “tasteful, artistic” nude photos of Mary when she was younger, and he comes to terms with them only after he begins shredding them. He discovers that the shots are beautiful and capture how beautiful Mary was, but he also realizes that she’s still sexually appealing because he loves her; he tells her that she has aged “like a fine wine.”

The First Wives Club: “Don’t Get Mad. Get Everything.” by Jen Thorpe

There is a scene where Brenda is walking past a department store with a friend. She stops to look at a tiny black dress in the window. “Who’s supposed to wear that?” she rhetorically asks her friend, “Some anorexic teenager? Some fetus?” Her rant continues with her intent to lead a protest by never buying any more clothing until the designers “come to their senses.”

Charlize Theron: Too Hot to Be Wicked? by Katherine Newstead

In a scene toward the beginning of Snow White and the Huntsman, during Ravenna’s and the King’s wedding night, she tells of how she has replaced his old (emphasis on the “old”) Queen, and how, in time, she too would have been replaced. Thus, Ravenna speaks of the “natural” cycle of youth replacing age and appears to blame patriarchy for this situation, as men “toss women to the dogs like scraps” once they have finished with them.

“When a woman stays young and beautiful forever, the world is hers.”

Telling Stories: My House in Umbria by Amanda Civitello

“We survived,” Emily is fond of saying to a number of characters in the film – and while she’s obviously referencing the terror attack when she speaks to her fellow “walking wounded” – it’s apparent from its very first utterance that Emily has survived far more than the explosion in carrozza 219. As her story unfolds, we come to discover that Emily is a survivor of childhood abandonment: she was sold as an infant to a childless couple by her parents who had no place for a child in their circus-act lives. She’s a survivor of sexual abuse and a survivor of a succession of abusive relationships. 

Notes on a Scandal: The Older Woman As Predator and Prey by Elizabeth Kiy

Her loneliness is compounded by this narrative technique, as Barbara is often given no one to play off of and instead watches interactions from a distance, remaining an entirely closed off person with a rich internal life she only reveals in her private writing. For an older woman, whose age, unmarried status and perceived lack of attractiveness leave her virtually invisible and of no value to society, this narration allows her to express her resentment. But underneath her malice is the profound loneliness of a woman who seems to have never learned how to connect to people and to remain in their lives without manipulations.

How Golden Girls Shaped My Feminism by Megan Kearns

Golden Girls was ahead of its time. We rarely see female actors over the age of 50 portraying characters embracing and owning their sexuality. Reduced to our appearances, women are told time and again that beauty, youth and thinness determine our worth. When the media body shames and bodysnarks female actors’ bodies, it’s clear how how far we need to go in featuring women’s stories. And so in our youth-obsessed society, it’s revolutionary to see women over 50 on-screen as beautiful, vivacious and sexual. 


You Don’t Own Me: The First Wives Club and Feminism by Mia Steinle

As a 12-year-old, my life bore little resemblance to theirs, but The First Wives Club gave me one of my first, delicious glimpses into womanhood — a womanhood that includes sassy retorts and getting drunk at lunch and hanging out with your best friends (and also with Bronson Pinchot and Gloria Steinem). It’s a version of womanhood where we know that Maggie Smith, no matter how old, is always cooler than Sarah Jessica Parker. Where finding out that your daughter is a lesbian is no big thing. (“Lesbians are great nowadays!” Annie remarks after hearing the news.) Where female empowerment isn’t just a nebulous buzzword, but something you achieve and celebrate.

Kind Grandmothers and Powerful Witches in Studio Ghibli Films by Eugenia Andino

The Castle in the Sky includes an ambiguous character which is probably the funniest and most groundbreaking of all of Ghibli’s older women: Captain Dola, an air pirate. She initially appears to be a villain, but later she joins forces with the protagonists, Sheeta and Pazu, against Muska. With her sons as henchmen, stealing treasures is her main objective. She shows a great love for her sons, companionship with her husband, and kindness to Sheeta while still fulfilling the role of reckless, greedy pirate. She’s arguably the most memorable element in the whole film.

Fried Green Tomatoes: A Celebration of (Older) Women by Amanda Morris

In American society and in Hollywood films, too often women are invisible, much less a force to be reckoned with. Older women in particular are meant to be hidden away, not viewed as holders of wisdom or desired as sexual beings or feared as people who could create change or cause damage. And when women ARE a force in film, there tend to be dire consequences for demonstrating independence and strength. This is not the case in Fried Green Tomatoes. Ninny and Evelyn are older female characters who not only carry the film with their stories but also demonstrate real strength and determination in the face of denial, obstinacy, and youthful swagger. 


Funniest After Fifty: Four Comediennes to Love Forever by Rachel Redfern

Betty White, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren… At first, when writing this article, I thought about pointing out the ways in which Hollywood has shorted these prolific and amazing actresses, and while I’m sure that’s happened to them at some point in their careers, in reading about their lives, I realized that would almost be a disservice to all that they’ve accomplished. Rather, this piece is meant as a tribute to these enduring female comediennes, who have not only flourished but also paved the way for so many other actresses and actors.

Pretty Little Zombies — The Lure of Eternal Youth in Robert Zemeckis’ Death Becomes Her by Artemis Linhart

This is the turning point of the movie. All the conflicts revolving around jealousy, beauty, and, of course, youth, are henceforth turned into a spirit of sisterhood. The dependence on Ernest transforms into a friendly co-dependent relationship between the two women. However much of a love-hate sentiment resonates throughout the final part of the movie, friendship and solidarity triumph. The special bond that Madeline and Helen share is still based on the wish for eternal youth, but they have finally turned to each other.

Judi Dench Carries Notes on a Scandal Amongst Other Badass Accomplishments by Janyce Denise Glasper

There’s an imperative reason why Dench was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a film for Notes On a Scandal. The Academy can be a load of BS with their ageism and racism, but sometimes, they get it right. It’s also quite wonderful to point out that Dench scored her first nomination at 64, her first and only win at 65, and four nods after– the last being Notes on a Scandal. For people to say that she is too old for anything is simply wrong on all counts. She truly is at her artistic best.

The Extraordinary Romance of an Ordinary “Old Girl”: Thoughts on Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by Rachael Johnson

Of course older women have traditionally not been allowed to be sexual beings, and mothers have always been held to a higher sexual standard than fathers. In fact, when a woman of any age does not conform or transgresses sexually she customarily suffers greater social condemnation. What Ali: Fear Eats the Soul makes clear is that the Whore-Madonna complex still reigned supreme in 1970s Germany. When Emmi first tells her daughter and son-in-law that she has fallen in love with a much younger man, they laugh. The thought of an old mother in love and lust is so impossible, so unnatural–horrific, in fact–that laughter is the only fitting response. When she introduces her children to her new husband, one son calls her a whore and another kicks in her television. In the eyes of her deeply conventional, racist children, Emmi is guilty of the most profane double betrayal–racial disloyalty and defilement of the maternal role.

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