Where Are Real (Older) Women?

Enough already. Not enough already.

Where are all the women heroines of a certain age? The age beyond young thing and even beyond middle age? I know there are millions of us out here, heroines in many ways, but where are we in the movies and on TV?

Some characters cling to the upper middle age category for a few years. They teeter through their roles as hard-driving lawyers or policewomen in high heels and tight dresses, assuring us they are still sex bombs, thank you. And also smart.

But once they retire, it’s as if they plunge off a cliff in those high heels.

If a hot young thing character mentions her older mother or former female boss, she’s usually dead, in a home with dementia, or playing cards in Arizona.

Well Rounded WomanBut watch out if the mother does appear! Most likely she’s one of the following: 1) a Jewish, Italian or Southern bossy busybody who bakes and barks; 2) a devious, resentful neurotic who plots and schemes; 3) a hippie throwback who grows pot in the country somewhere and has visions (aka hallucinations); 4) a gypsy who’s been living in Spain or South America; 5) a self-centered socialite who cruises the world with a 30-year-old boy toy; or 6) a combination of one or more of these.

Her sole purpose in life – and in the story – seems to be to make her family miserable. Unless she’s dying, she doesn’t stay long. She often gets kicked out or runs off to her next family member or adventure.

Why can’t we see more older women in movies and TV shown as we really are: enjoying our lives, taking care of ourselves and others, facing challenges, doing interesting things, or maybe just learning to relax successfully?

Movies like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” portray older women (and men), but despite their spirited natures, they are not part of modern lives and families. In fact, they have banded together as a way of avoiding isolation. James Bond’s boss – M – played by the great Judi Dench in the Bond movies, is a strong character, but she gets killed off in the remote highlands of Scotland. There are exceptions, of course. Helen Mirren successfully and believably transitioned from middle age to older age during the 14 years she played Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison on “Prime Suspect.”

Meryl Streep, like Katherine Hepburn before her, has successfully swooped into the certain age category. In “It’s Complicated,” “Hope Springs,” and “Jules and Julia” she plays real older women – sensual, alive, attractive, intelligent, funny, vulnerable. In her latest movie, “August: Osage County,” she is family matriarch Violet, a hard-to-take harridan. She is heart wrenchingly damaged and takes it out on those around her, including her three daughters. During one scene, she assures them that while men get more appealing with age, women do not.

As Violet, she has been nominated for her 18th Academy Award. Golden Globe hostess Tiny Fay quipped recently, “She is brilliant … It’s good to know there are still roles for Meryl Streeps in their 60s.”

I recently saw the movie and think she deserves the nomination, if not the award. (It would be her 4th.) Violet is a morbidly fascinating character (see Number 6, above).

But I truly hope I don’t see her often on the big or small screen – and that she is not considered a role model or a typical older woman.

When Less is More, More or Less

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am at this woman, Debora Spar, for writing yet another advice book, but I am going to try.

Her book is called “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” She is the president of Barnard College and her message is that women can’t have it all and that feminism has led us down the wrong, harried path by telling us we can. I’ve received a double whammy of her message in the past week, an interview on The News Hour and a review and interview in a women’s magazine called “More.”

She admits she is too young to have been a part of the ’70s wave of feminism from which she benefitted. She seems to equate feminism with having it all and persuing perfection. I wish she had been around then to see what most of us wanted – when we first read “The Feminine Mystique” and pulled together in consciousness-raising groups. Most of the women I knew then, including myself, were trying to figure out our lives and what we wanted. We were trying to cut through illusions that defined us, not erect delusions about perfect lives.

We didn’t know anyone who had it all.

Some of us had wonderful husbands but felt trapped at home. Some of us had great jobs but crappy husbands. Some of us had wonderful children, some had troubled children, and some had no children and wanted them.

We Can Do It!Some of us had ended bad marriages and entered the workforce after a few years away. We took jobs that were beneath our abilities and pushed to learn more. We often met with barriers, with closed doors. Women can’t write about technical stuff. Women can’t work safely past the fifth month of pregnancy. Women can’t wear pants to work. Oh wait, you can wear pants to work, but the tops must cover your butts. Mini-skirts are okay. Seriously! It seems hard to believe now, when girls wear shorts and flip-flops to school.

Those of us with close to perfect lives – content alone or with a mate, with or without children, interesting work and activities – knew we were lucky. In life, we never know what will happen.

What we wanted – and still want – is to be treated with respect, by men and women, and to have equal access to opportunities, including the opportunity to choose. We may decide to work full-time, part time or to devote our time to our children or a worthwhile cause. Not all of us can make this choice if we have to support ourselves or children as single parents. If we are working, it helps to be making the same wages for the same work as men do. This is not the same as “having it all.”

Ironically, Spar is a perfectionist who ignores her own advice! She seems driven and even her own daughter tells her she’s setting a bad example. On one particular day, her husband is having shoulder surgery, she has a meeting with her publisher, an interview about her book, and then three – yes, three – parties to attend in different parts of town. She chooses to do them all and not visit her husband. For all we know, he was okay with that and even encouraged her to do her thing, so I’m not necessarily criticizing her. Me, I know there’s no way I could do all that in one day and still be a pleasant person who could converse. If Spar wants to be a super-achiever, that’s okay with me, but why tell other women not to do it – or confuse it with feminism?

And “More” should have less of this claptrap.