She’s the nearly invisible woman on television.
Who is she? Someone who’s lived long enough to put things in perspective. Someone who is comfortable with herself, even if she no longer follows the trends. Someone who can handle both mansplaining and youthsplaining.
She is a major TV character who is 60 or older, a demographic that is mostly missing from the small screen.
According to this year’s Boxed In report, which focuses on the how women are doing in front of and behind the cameras, there is a disappointing connection between the ages of female characters and their pervasiveness.
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, yet similarly steep decline occurred with streaming platforms.
And if the age range is old enough to include fabulous actresses like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” Michelle Yeoh of Paramount+’s “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jean Smart of HBO Max’s “Hacks” and Detroit’s own S. Epatha Merkerson of NBC’s “Chicago Med”? That’s where things really nose-dive.
A mere 3% of major female characters were 60 and over, both for broadcast and streaming. As the study concludes, older women “continue to be dramatically underrepresented.”
The annual Boxed In report, done by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University, looked at one randomly selected episode of original prime-times series from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW and Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+ and Peacock.
It tracked more than 3,000 characters and more than 3,800 credits to reach its conclusions, which cover a variety of areas, from historical comparisons to comparisons of race and ethnicity of major female characters to the percentages of women in jobs such as directing and writing.
As a member of the women 60 and older club, I found that 3% figure startling, particularly since, in real life, women of this age make up between about 25% of the overall U.S. female population, according to 2019 census estimates.
Older male characters, not surprisingly (but quite glaringly), are more prevalent on TV: 6% percent of major male characters are 60 and over, or 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 TV at San Diego State University, said via email that it’s “due to the low numbers of women in the age category working in key behind-the-scenes roles, the belief that viewers are not interested in seeing these characters as well as the belief that characters 60 and over lead less interesting lives.”
Summed up Lauzen, “ In other words, their disappearance is due, in large part, to ageism.”
Perhaps that’s one reason why Angela Lansbury’s death earlier this month resonated so deeply with women. The 96-year-old star was a versatile performer known for her Broadway and movie roles, but it was TV that made her a pop-culture figure. As sleuthing Jessica Fletcher on the long-running CBS mystery “Murder, She Wrote,” Lansbury was virtually the only woman in her 60s and 70s who was leading the sort of prime-time drama that older men have helmed since, well, forever.
Just this year, Jeff Bridges, who’s 72, scored a critical success with FX’s “The Old Man.” Now try to imagine a hip action show about a former spy called “The Old Woman” getting a green light from a studio.
Women 60 and older don’t see themselves that much on TV in general, much less find and enjoy depictions of characters who are busy, thriving and sexually active. They may say 60 is the new 40, but it might as well be 80 by the standards of current comedy, drama and reality shows, which too often reduce older women to stereotypes or brief parts as mom and grandmothers.
So how can this picture be changed?
Through the power of the pocketbook, of course. As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out in its coverage of a Nielsen report on women 50 and up that covered January 2020 through January 2021, “usage of internet-connected devices during prime time grew 41% among women 50-64 and 51% among women 65 and older — outpacing the 21% increased usage among all women 18+.”
That adds up to 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 tuning away.
If, like me, you want to see more women 60 and older playing vital roles on TV, you need to watch the ones already beating the odds. The shows below offer a range of characters, some powerful, others immature, some scary, others selfless. None falls prey to old-lady cliches and all are compelling.
If only more TV programmers could understand this.
“The White Lotus.” Season two of the HBO series starts Sunday, with the first season’s standout, Jennifer Coolidge, returning as flighty, wealthy Tanya McQuoid. Coolidge is the exception to the rule that getting older decreases your acting opportunities. She’s landing better roles than ever (and, while accepting her best supporting actress Emmy this year, won over the audience with her impromptu dance when the orchestra tried to play her off with “Hit the Road Jack”).
“Young Sheldon.” Meemaw is not your typical sitcom grandma. On this CBS prequel to “The Big Bang Theory,” Annie Potts plays a matriarch who drinks, dates and runs a small illegal gambling enterprise behind her laundromat. At 70, Potts brings a sexy attitude and tolerant wisdom to her character’s take on life, which is the antithesis of Sheldon’s mom’s uptight religiosity.
“The Crown.” the hugely popular Netflix docudrama returns Nov. 9 with Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II in her mid-60s and new challenges in the form of Charles and Diana’s ugly split. There has been controversy over the fact that the fifth season is arriving so soon after the death of the real monarch in September. But the broader message of Staunton, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman playing Elizabeth at various stages of Elizabeth’s life is that a woman changes over time as she faces a lifetime of joys and sorrows.
“Abbott Elementary.” In this chef’s kiss of an ensemble cast, Sheryl Lee Ralph, 65, makes the biggest impression on the ABC hit sitcom as Barbara Howard, a veteran teacher who has coped with every hurdle that the public education system possibly could throw at her. Ralph (who broke into glorious song while accepting her supporting actress Emmy this year) is the embodiment of real women with professional skills, grace and enough compassion to understand younger 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 highlight the breakout performance of longtime character actress Ann Dowd as leading villain Aunt Lydia. Finally, Dowd’s character is confronting real doubts about Gilead’s godly image, a shift that could leave her devastated.
“Blockbuster.” The new Netflix workplace comedy from creator Vanessa Ramos (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Superstore”) premieres Thursday and is set in suburban Michigan at supposedly the last Blockbuster store in America. Only this ensemble includes Olga Merediz, 66, who played Abuela Claudia of “In The Heights” on Broadway and in the movie and was the singing voice of Abuela Alma in Disney’s “Encanto.” As Connie Serrano, Ramos portrays an older staffer who is true to herself, even while surrounded by co-workers old enough to be her grandkids.
“9-1-1.” Angela Bassett brings strength and class to the Fox first-responder drama as police sergeant Athena Grant. Bassett’s ease at juggling being the star and an executive producer of the series with her stellar film career — she returns as the royal matriarch in the movie sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — is proof that there’s nothing about being 60-plus that automatically requires any slowing down.
“The Good Fight” and “The Gilded Age.” All hail, Christine Baranski, who is fierce attorney Diane Lockhart on Paramount+’s “The Good Fight,” which ends its journey this season, and steely old-school socialite Agnes Van Rhijn on HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” which has been renewed for a second season. If Agnes were pitted against the “Downton Abbey” Dowager Countess played by Dame Maggie Smith, Vegas would give it even odds.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prime-time TV shows mostly ignore women 60 and older – Detroit Free Press
She’s the nearly invisible woman on television.