Where are all the middle-aged women?

Susan Sarandon.

Susan Sarandon. Photo: Getty

I recently caught a plane from Denver to Burbank LA.  I usually detest small planes but the flight attendant made the trip riotous fun. She made witty wisecracks about my daughter’s doll, the handbag dog on board and delivered the safety demonstration in riotous one-liners.  But what I found most shocking (and most refreshing) was the fact that she wasn’t a typical hot, young and sexy hostie.  She was older and sexy - about mid fifties and her fellow attendant was in her sixties.

The fact that I even noticed their age says a lot about the visibility of older women in society.

It shouldn’t be weird to see women over fifty as flight attendants.  It shouldn’t be strange to see them on television and observe them in positions of power or prominence in public life.  Yet it can be. And as much as we like to dismiss America as the land of the fantastic plastic botox brigade, it seems older women are far more visible than they are in Australia.  I watched many middle-aged women on TV during my holiday. Women like Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Waters, Christine Amanpour, Katie Couric, Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer.  Admittedly not all had succumbed to natural gravity but all had gravitas, style, wit and a severe case of the smarts.

More Hillary please.

More Hillary please. Photo: Getty

Perhaps it’s because we see ourselves as a young country or that our media is relatively immature but it seems there are far fewer such women in Australia. But I’ll get onto us soon.

First, back to the US where there’s no doubt Hollywood falls down in its portrayal of women big time.  Yet there is at least growing recognition of how much this sucks. The Screen Actors Guild reports 70% of women’s roles go to women under 40 and a recent documentary called Invisible Women featured stars such as Susan Sarandon talking about being pink slipped into early retirement.

Of course there’s always Helen Mirren and Judy Dench who seem to take it in turns to play every role written for a woman over fifty. It seems their homeland is also less allergic to age as we are in Australia.  Many British presenters still have careers until sixty or even seventy (Jennie Bond, Angela Rippon and Gloria Hunniford) but others are getting vocal about their right to still be seen. Labor even set up a Commission on Older Women to consider experience of older women in workplace, carers and in pubic life.  Chaired by Miriam O’Reilly who successfully sued the BBC for ageism, it revealed that only 26 out of 481 TV presenters were women over fifty.  TV executives were called in to work on the problem.  As much as I adore older stalwarts like Richard Attenborough, I have to agree with Anna Ford who, after leaving TV at the age of 63, asked 'why are men considered so full of wisdom when women are put out to pasture despite their ‘beauty, humour, intelligence, empathy, understanding and boundless energy". 

Meanwhile, back in Australia, we seem to blindly accept that TV and public life is mostly for younger women. Yet I do see a few signs of optimism. There’s the wonderful Lisa Wilkinson on ‘Today’ (who in recognition of seniority has been asked to present the respected Andrew Olle lecture this year). Ita Buttrose will soon take part in a new morning show on Channel Ten. In drama I adore Nina’s mother Geraldine in Offspring

The fact that I still find it surprising to see middle-aged plus women in public life is more than unfair. It means that we don’t see or celebrate women in all their glory and all their ages. We absorb this invisibility and become more fearful of our own increasing years and become conditioned to be ageist.  Academics call it symbolic annihilation.  It’s hard to see it working because it’s so subliminal but it’s manifest when we find grey hair sexy on a man and in need of a dye on a woman or when we see wrinkles distinguished on a bloke and sad on a woman.

My generation once used to lament the fact that baby boomers would never let go of power.  Yet as I age I want to see women age in the workforce. Radio butt head Rush Limbaugh once mocked the chances of a Hillary Clinton presidency by asking “Will Americans want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”  Yes Rush, I think they do.  And so do I. 

I want to see more of Hillary and her female contemporaries.  I want to see them in planes, trains, automobiles, parliament, movies, TV and everywhere.  I want them to show that women of all ages have important roles to play in all facets of life. 

Then I may feel that I do too.

41 comments

  • You only have to see how we (mis)handled our first female Prime Minister. There are no surprises that our society still worships everything masculine from sports to politics. It is very hard to even have this dialogue when so much of the population denies the existence of any such inequality. It's an evolutionary thing and Australia is just very slow in its evolution towards gender equality.

    Commenter
    JJ
    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 8:10AM
    • I agree. The whole thing would have gone totally differently if Julia was young and hot.

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      July 30, 2013, 11:16AM
    • Umm... Did you miss the way in which our first female PM "handled" her predecessor?

      Commenter
      Mick
      Date and time
      July 30, 2013, 12:23PM
  • Come on, it's nothing new or surprising. In most western societies women are valued for their beauty/sexiness first and their skills at raising children a far second. Once you transition from the first to the second you lose a lot of your lustre. When you transition from mother to grandmother you lose the rest as far as society at large is concerned. It's sad but true. I guess all you can do is make sure that your personal relationships remain vibrant and healthy and hope that each generation grows up with a less and less restrictive view of women "of a certain age." But don't expect it to happen quickly.

    Commenter
    TK
    Date and time
    July 30, 2013, 9:02AM
    • Amusing you did not mention KAK.

      Commenter
      Red Baron
      Location
      TAREE
      Date and time
      July 30, 2013, 9:03AM
      • Maybe they are invisible because they are all having surgery to try to look younger. Women are all their own worst enemies. They criticize each other & the men in their life to conform to their own standard. Look at swimwear, a woman can wear a barely there string bikini but will berate a man for wearing a pair of speedos.

        Commenter
        maxxdude
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        July 30, 2013, 9:24AM
        • "My generation once used to lament the fact that baby boomers would never let go of power. Yet as I age I want to see women age in the workforce."
          So you're protecting your interests, which develop in accordance with your age. Fine. But whether that requires an opinion column about it is another matter.
          Every job I've ever worked has been alongside women over 50, amongst everybody else. Many of my teachers at school and lecturers at university were women over 50. Many of the people who serve me in shops, etc. are women over 50. Many of the clients I deal with are women over 50. One of my three bosses is a woman over 50. My mother is a woman over 50. I can't remember a single stage of my life in the outside world where women over 50 weren't a presence. If they were invisible, I'd be bumping into things frequently.
          You, of course, were talking about the media. Since when was that an accurate representation of anything?
          Journalists complaining that they don't get a fair shake in their field are like rock bands who complain they can't get a record deal - there are too many of you anyway, and nobody's paying for it.

          Commenter
          Rob McCabe
          Location
          Adelaide
          Date and time
          July 30, 2013, 9:45AM
          • Gretel Kileen (50), Sandra Sully (48), Jackie Woodburne (that's Susan Kennedy from Neighbours, 57), Amanda Keller (51), Sonia Kruger (48), Kris McQuade (most recently in Foxtel's Wentworth 61), Georgie Parker (48)

            Do I need to go on? There are just as many middle aged women in Australian TV if you only care to look a little deeper.

            I think maybe we forget some of them are as old as they are because they look fantastic (Sonia, Georgie, Gretel, Amanda all could pass for 10 years younger).

            Commenter
            Adrian
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            July 30, 2013, 9:51AM
            • I don't usually get drawn into a feminist debate, but this is pathetic.

              Why do we have to praise women for looking younger than their actual age? How has this become a much admired goal for women to aspire to? Men never get praised for looking younger than they are, they get praised for what they actually do and achieve. So if a woman is successful and does good in the community but she "looks her age", we should ignore her achievements until she can also manage to look 10 years younger as well?

              Until women are only judged on their talents and not on anything else (like men), there will never be equality in our soceity.

              Commenter
              Audra Blue
              Location
              Brisbane
              Date and time
              July 30, 2013, 11:47AM
            • There are also a lot of middle aged women on ABC/SBS where the shows are more content based, and the intelligence of the individual contributes to the contents, rather being there for aesthetic reasons

              Commenter
              Mick
              Date and time
              July 30, 2013, 12:27PM

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