This Sunday sees the Bafta TV awards and whilst we don’t know who will win the leading TV actress prize, we already know who won’t – a woman over the age of 38.
The five nominees have been hailed as the best and brightest and the category is seen as a triumph for diversity, which is true as long as you don’t include age in diversity monitoring and, funnily enough, most people don’t.
I suspect the reason why diversity in terms of age isn’t highlighted as a problematic issue is because it mostly impacts the careers of women getting older on screen, not men.
I’ve seen two interviews recently with famous actors talking about how they’ll keep going until they no longer want to. Nice work if you can get it lads, but women don’t get that privilege of opportunity in the UK.
When the nominees were announced for the TV Baftas, I did a deep dive into the last 21 years of nominees and winners, male and female. The results were truly depressing for anyone interested in gender equality on screen.
Whilst the average age of male nominees had trended downwards, from 48 to 45, the female nominees average age had plummeted from 52 to 32.
To all the women who contacted me after I launched my Acting Your Age Campaign in 2018 and said things had got worse in the last 20 years, here is the proof.
I call this diversity issue “gendered ageism”. Despite age being a protected characteristic for all employers to comply with, the entertainment industry shields itself from any criticism with the simple expedient of “artistic choices”. I prefer to view those artistic choices in a different way, the perceived sexual currency of young women.
Yet the audiences for featured programmes with older women at the centre are most definitely there. Social media explodes with love for shows that feature middle-aged women prominently: Bodyguard, The Pact and Mare of Easttown for example, whilst predictably, comedy and drama are still mostly led by young women and middle-aged men.
Another issue is that men presenting news or current affairs programmes don’t seem to be troubled by a need for chemical modification of their faces or hair follicles in the way that women do.
I often see beautifully fierce young women rejecting filters and fat shaming, demanding bodily and facial autonomy. I see them featured across the media and I cheer them on. But this call peters out to a whisper when middle-aged women do the same and there is a lack of women who are their authentic selves on screen. Apart from the magnificent Mary Beard, I struggle to count on one hand her unreconstructed sisters on TV.
Why too, in film, are the men playing James Bond and Ethan Hunt, Iron Man and other assorted heroes well into their fifties, while their female co-stars are usually much younger women?
If middle-aged women appear at all, they’re mostly putting other characters in danger (Taken), bringing up the divorce at inappropriate moments (Greenland), or ruining their daughters’ lives (Ladybird). Sometimes it’s all of the above, as in a film widely regarded as a feminist triumph. For example, Promising Young Woman, where there is an additional layer of choosing to ignore serious sexual assault.
However, as a middle-aged woman, I’m aware that my role is to make everyone feel better even in the face of gendered ageism, which so normalised that I’m the problem for mentioning it. So, I have some words to cheer the heart – Frances McDormand, Chloé Zhao and Kate Winslet, because the US is leading on this.
These women reject the status quo and have been rewarded for it. With McDormand and Zhao, that took the form of an Oscar apiece this year.
In Winslet’s case, it’s an Emmy nomination. She recently spoke about the executive’s horror when they saw her unreconstructed performance, notably saying: “Does she have to look so…?” Clearly it’s too awful to use the word natural, so they stopped themselves.
Winslet’s response in an interview in The Times was beautiful: “What? Like s***? … Yes, yes she does.”