Geena Davis, 64, isn't just an Oscar-winning actress (The Accidental Tourist) but also a feminist activist — especially on behalf of her female peers 50-plus. Starring in the 1991 hit film Thelma & Louise "made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel empowered by female characters,” Davis told AARP. Determined to make a difference, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004, which has just released a new study on the state of women in film. And it's not a story with a happy ending.
"Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten: A Report on the Movie Roles of Women of Age” is the first-ever analysis of how women over age 50 are depicted in 2019's 30 top-grossing films from the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany. It uses the institute's unique Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient software, which uses automation to measure screen and speaking time for all actors.
"I knew it was bad, but this really drove home how very dismal it is,” Davis told People magazine. Zero women over age 50 had lead roles, and males age 50-plus outnumbered them 2-to-1 onscreen. Only 1 in 4 films passed the Ageless Test by avoiding ageist stereotypes and featuring at least one female character over 50 who matters and is tied into the plot so that their removal would have significant effect.
The persistence of stereotypes
The stereotypes are ugly. One in 3 characters age 50-plus are depicted as stubborn or cranky, and they get just 16.9 percent of screen time and 21.8 percent of speaking time. Other characters routinely degrade characters 50-plus, with lines like “You're useless,” “He looks 1,000 years old,” and “No wonder you have gray hair.” Characters over 50 are equally likely to have a romantic partner as those younger, but three times less apt to get a sex scene — and if the randy elders get such a scene, it's never as graphic as those of the younger characters. Often, the camera cuts from a kiss to the morning after. Movies can't bear the sight of grownups with sex lives.
Male characters 50-plus are also stereotyped, but female charcters get it worse. They are:
- 4 times likelier than men to be depicted as senile or frumpy.
- Twice as likely to be shown as physically unattractive or large-bodied.
- 69.5 percent likelier to be shown as sickly.
- 7 times likelier to be portrayed as housebound.
- Twice as likely to be depicted as totally unfashionable.
- Almost twice as likely to be insulted by ageist stereotypes of all kinds.