A few years ago, a gem of a survival job colleague told me that if I haven't made it in the acting business by the time I hit 30, I should give up.
Now when I first sat down to write this piece, the punchline to the above anecdote was supposed to be something along the lines of: Ha! I am 32 (there, I said it), and I've been carded TWICE in the last week (true story)! Shame on you, Ignorant Colleague (who was later fired but I digress) for trying to put limitations on me! I have all the time in the world!!! This of course was to be followed by a series of articles on fantastic skincare products that help to keep me getting carded, one day at a time.
But in case it isn't readily apparent, bringing up what was just a brief interaction several years ago opened up something of a can of worms, and slimiest of all is that by his standard I should have given up two years ago. What frustrates me even more is that this colleague had no experience pursuing acting and by extension no comprehension of the doubts I had already managed to instill in myself without the help of this non-artist who doesn't know anything about the industry but will insist that he does because he binge watches Two and a Half Men and has seen every installment of The Fast and the Furious.
In retrospect I realize that he was just trying to push my buttons, but he might not have been so successful had it not been a sore spot already. I am, after all, trying to be A Woman in the Entertainment Industry, so capitalized because I don't think the inherent challenges need explanation. Suffice it to say that there was truth in Tina Fey's joke at last year's Golden Globes about a lack of representation of older women in film when she quipped, "there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60." Come to that, there are also great parts for Julianne Moores over 50, Cate Blanchettes over 40, and Jessica Chastains over 35, and that's about it.
The problem with his line of thinking is that it's not unique to insensitive co-workers. I feel the same pang of insecurity every time a well-meaning relative asks me how much longer I'm going to give it before I decide to do something else, the subtext here being that as I get older the window of time when actresses usually enter the industry is slowly closing. Now add to the mix another issue that my male counterparts don't have to reckon with: I eventually want to have children. To have them now would mean that I'm effectively giving up what I believe is supposed to be my life's work, but putting it off means possibly wasting my child-bearing years pursuing an industry with no guarantees. These are the things that keep me up at night.
This all leads me to an embarrassing admission: whenever I've finished watching a movie, my immediate compulsion is to go to the IMDb and look up how old all cast members were when it was filmed. This has led me to many great realizations, including but not limited to the following:
- Laura Dern was only 26 when she made Jurassic Park! [I'm so old I should just quit now! (Sam Neill was 46 but who is counting?)]
- What? Felicity Jones is my age? (I'm a baby!)
- The other dad (not Rick Moranis, but the other dad) was only 31 in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! (I AM OLDER THAN THE OTHER DAD FROM HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS!)
- Well, Geena Davis was 36 in A League of their Own.
- But she was 26 in Tootsie.
- Whatever, Maggie Smith is the best thing about Downton Abbey anyway.
It's as if looking up how old some actor was in 1987, no matter how dissimilar they are to me, will either convince me that I'm past my prime or reassure me that I still have time. (Don't get me started on the IMDb bender I went on when Friends debuted on Netflix. Chandler Bing was a BABY.)
This may sound obsessive and I'll fully admit that it's certainly not productive, but this compulsion doesn't come from nowhere; it is the result of being part of a culture that is obsessed with age. If you have any doubt you need look no further than any entertainment or fashion publication where it has become the norm to mention the age of performers who are featured. On a whim I just grabbed my nearest copy of Vogue and quickly found the following:
- "As Canon Sidney Chambers, Norton, 29, embodies an earlier style of English hero..."
- "Now the 26-year-old is returning to the National..."
- "...that situation, it can safely be assumed, will soon change dramatically once Dakota, 25, embodies Anastasia Steele..."
Worst of all is a 2002 New York Times interview with Josefina Gabrielle, whose age is pointedly omitted because the actress had been "advised to remain ambiguous" about it.
This raises some pressing questions: outside the scope of casting, why is an actor's age so significant that it must constantly be mentioned? Why do we then make women so ashamed of their age that they feel the need to hide it? Should I be walking around with a scarlet 32 emblazoned on my chest, or is it enough that just last week I felt the need to delete the year I finished grad school off of my resume? (It was 2008, by the way. #ownthatshit)
My point in all of this is not just to give you a window into my my neuroses (although by now I've certainly succeeded on that front. You're welcome!). My point is that, at only 32, I am made to feel as though my point of view will only get progressively less important; and that is because, at only 32, my point of view is already becoming less represented.
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University recently released their annual reports on the representation of women in film and television, and the results are unsurprising. Let's look first at data about women in television:
- Viewers were less likely to know the occupational status of female characters than male characters. 35% of female characters but only 21% of male characters had an unknown occupational status.
- Viewers were less likely to know the marital status of male characters than female characters. 49% of male characters but only 36% of female characters had an unknown marital status.
I suspect this is a direct result of the following:
- Female characters were more likely than male characters to play personal life-related roles (such as wife, mother, girlfriend (43% vs. 24%).
And now let's add age into the mix.
- Female characters continue to be portrayed as younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s (59%), whereas the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s (58%).
- Female characters experience a precipitous decline from their 30s to their 40s. 32% of female characters were in their 30s but only 17% were in their 40s. Male characters also experience a decline but it is not as dramatic (from 33% to 25%).
As for women in the top 100 films of 2014 where the stats are even worse:
- Females comprised 12% of protagonists featured in the top 100 grossing films of 2014. This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2013 and a decline of 4 percentage points from 2002.
- Last year, females accounted for 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters.
- Gender stereotypes remained abundant in the top grossing films of 2014. Female characters were younger than their male counterparts. Males were more likely to be identified solely by work-related roles and females were more likely than males to be identified solely by personal life-related roles.
- Overall, 13% of characters were leaders. For the purposes of this study, leaders were those individuals occupying a formal leadership position in an organization, government or group and whose instructions and/or behaviors were followed by two or more other characters. Of those characters, a larger proportion of male characters (16%) than female characters (5%) were portrayed as leaders.
- Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (28%).
- Males 40 and over accounted for 53% of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 30% of all female characters.
- Whereas the percentage of female characters declined dramatically from their 30s to their 40s (30% to 17%), the percentage of male characters increased from 27% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s.
- The percentage of male characters in their 50s (18%) is twice that of female characters in their 50s (9%).
Now think about this for a second: 9% may not seem far off from 18%, but it is a very different story when you remember that this is 9% of female characters and not all characters. So that means that women in their 50s comprise only 2.7% of all characters, whereas men in their 50s comprise 12.6%. That makes a hell of a difference.
So maybe I'm not so crazy after all.
I'm obviously not the first person to point any of this out (as evidenced by the fact that there is a whole department at a university dedicated to the study of gender disparity in film and television), but as I continue on this path I feel more and more of a need to continue this conversation. It's less about whether or not I will be employable over the next twenty years, and more about the fact that this underrepresentation of women - women as protagonists, women of age, women who function as autonomous people and not just someone's mother or wife - is resulting in a tragic loss of potentially fascinating stories and seasoned performances.
It took me until about 30 to finally feel as though I know who I am as an actor - my essence is in line with the material that I choose which is in line with my exterior image. I have a lot to say as both an actress and a writer and I finally feel comfortable calling myself an "artist," a term that I've always felt unworthy of in the past. The best part is that I have so much more to discover and so much more work in me - and what a loss it would have been if I had let some ignorant guy at my day-job shame me into quitting.