When I discovered the British television series “Happy Valley,” a Netflix television series filmed in bucolic Calder Valley, West Yorkshire in Northern England, it immediately struck me how disparate the heroines of the show are as compared to how American matrons are portrayed on television—if at all. Television and cinema is a virtual desert for women of a certain age.
In “Happy Valley,” we are introduced to character Catherine Cawood, a middle-aged, divorced sergeant raising a grandchild and fighting crime. The producers don’t dress up Catherine when she’s not in uniform to appear younger or hipper any more than they shy away from close-up camera shots of her aging face. Played by actress Sarah Lancashire, you can’t help but be drawn into Catherine’s world—specifically because of the emotions that play across her lined (and beautiful) face. In fact, it is her honest aging that gives her character so much more depth, nuance and interest than would a younger actress playing the same part.
In America, very few older women are cast in strong rolls without some sort of shade being thrown at them by the writers. They are either portrayed as alcoholics, lonely or playing someone’s grandparent. In the movie, “Hello, My name is Doris,” starring Sally Fields, we are introduced to a dowdy, disheveled lonely character who pathetically mistakes a younger man’s kindness as a love interest. I don’t know any women like “Doris.” In fact, most women in their 50s are working out, dress fairly fashionably and continue to work while being the backbone and life of their families and friends.
It isn’t just British films and television series that feature so many more older women than we see in America. Australia-made series “Secret City,” (also on Netflix) introduces us to actress Jacki Weaver, whose brilliant performance as the hardened political hack in the series mesmerized me completely. Even the starring reporter, Harriet Dunkley, played by Anna Torv, is a fortyish-something character.
“I’m baffled that anyone might not think women get more beautiful as they get older. Confidence comes with age, and looking beautiful comes from the confidence someone has in themselves.” —Kate Winslet,Net-a-Porter Magazine
The only television show regularly featuring women in their 40s and beyond in the United States, is Bravo’s Housewife series. And ironically, if you watch the show for any length of time, all of the women are consumed with holding onto their youth by undergoing multiple cosmetic procedures, nips and tucks and skin treatments. More important, they are vapid, selfish and uninteresting. We do have the series “Grace and Frankie,” played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, however, these characters are more senior and less middle-age. And if you can sit through the normalization of divorce, homosexuality, family dysfunction and a basket of other deplorable social ills crammed down your throat (so typical of the baby boomers) you can have a laugh. Ah, welcome to American television, where it is a virtual desert when it comes to showing anyone over 40 on screen. Even anti-aging advertisements feature models in their 20s.
There is no doubt that America is a youth-obsessed culture, which is reflected in our current politics. Kamala Harris, the California prosecutor running for president in 2020 bragged that she smoked pot while studying in college while listening to entertainers Tupac and Snoop, who didn’t release their first albums until the 1990s. Harris graduated college in 1986. It was a pathetic attempt to appear hip and relate with constituents half her age. But why would anyone want to do that? Possibly because Bill Clinton did just that when he played his saxophone on the Aresenio Hall show. It was cringe worthy then and it still is. The media is absolutely obsessed with the young socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, documenting her every word and move and touting her strong youth following on social media.
In her book, The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West observed, “It’s no coincidence that the cultural dive became most vividly noticeable about the same time the popular culture, particularly the new medium of television, settled into its rut of portraying age as ‘square,’ and youth as ‘hip.'” And so here we are, a culture that wants to pretend that aging doesn’t happen to us all and that the only way to be relevant is to be under 40—or at least look like you are. We are inundated with middle-aged men wearing sneakers and black tee shirts (think Ted Talk) who want to appear young and middle-aged women who flash too much flesh and wear too much makeup.
And lest I risk sounding too old and cranky, I can’t understand why movies and television series insist on serving up only young nubile flesh, particularly when statistics show that we are an aging population and that sex doesn’t actually sell, at least according to a study put out by researchers at the University of Illinois, Ball State University, and University of California-Davis and published on Quartz. The research looked at 78 peer-reviewed advertising studies from 1969 to 2017, which collectively involved more than 17,000 consumers. What it found is that, although viewers might find a sexual appeal more memorable, it didn’t translate into remembering the advertiser or into sales. Perhaps most surprising, it found that sexual advertisements actually had a negative impact on consumers.
A culture deprived of seeing viable, wisdom-soaked characters worth emulating is a tragedy to our youth and it’s dishonest. Though I yearn for American television to catch up and serve us some red meat, I am content to dive into all of the latest British and Australian programming Netflix has added to its lineup. I want to fall in love with characters who are flawed, aging and still win the day. In a culture that robs our youth of any middle-aged heroes and heroines, it is refreshing to see dramas played by women who haven’t undergone the knife and who are content to age in complete honesty—in front of a camera. Youth is an unearned blessing from God, just as aging is. We should celebrate life in all of its fullness rather than chasing the fountain of youth. After all, anyone over 30 knows that youth really is wasted on the young. #Reignwell