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.