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Age and Beauty on the Big Screen

Age and Beauty on the Big Screen

In a 2012 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, director and actor Sarah Polley spoke about her film, Take This Waltz. She discussed how we need more female directors and the unique perspective they can bestow on female characters. She also spoke eloquently on the sexist portrayal of women’s bodies on-screen:

"I feel like with young women, their bodies are constantly objectified and used in a sexual context. With older women, [their bodies are] constantly the butt of a joke. For me, the seminal scene that illustrates that is, in About Schmidt, when Kathy Bates gets into the hot tub and Jack Nicholson is horrified and the audience is supposed to scream." 

"I remember being so deeply offended by that scene. One of the first times you’re dealing with an older woman being naked in a movie—it doesn’t happen very often—and it’s the butt of a joke, or it’s supposed to [be] horrifying. [In a shower scene in Take This Waltz], I wanted to show women’s bodies of all ages, kind of without comment, and the only conversation around it is about time passing and what it means, and about sexuality and relationships. That it not be something contrived to produce an effect, necessarily."

Yes, yes, YES! I’m delighted to see an actor and director speak openly about ageism and the objectification of women’s bodies. 

Hollywood often portrays only young, thin, white women’s bodies. Women of color, older women and large women—if portrayed at all—are often depicted as hypersexual or asexual, often for humor or derision. Besides Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and reruns of The Golden Girls (which I cannot get enough of!), we rarely see female actors over the age of 50 portraying characters who embrace their sexuality. 

In films and TV, we see schlubby, overweight or older men with beautiful, young (or younger), thin women. Couples Retreat, Hitch, King of Queens (pretty much anything with Kevin James), Still Standing, As Good as It Gets, Manhattan, The Wackness, The Honeymooners … I could go on and on. The message is that it doesn’t matter if men age. Ultimately, their looks don’t matter. But women must perpetually look young and fit, our beauty deemed our only commodity. 

That’s why the shower scene in Take This Waltz is revelatory. It features women’s nude bodies from a spectrum of ages and body types. Older women’s bodies are usually exploited as a punch line or intended to evoke fear or shame. But Take This Waltz shows us that older women’s bodies should be celebrated and embraced.

Photoshopped faces and bodies saturate the media, bombarding us with unrealistic beauty standards. We rarely see imperfections on-screen from female leads, who are under greater scrutiny to look flawless. No wrinkles, spots, saggy breasts, plump bellies or cellulite in sight. While diversity exists for women in supporting roles, women are still expected not to veer from this paragon of perfection. It’s no wonder so many girls and women struggle with eating disorders and negative body-image issues. The media constantly tell us we must be slimmer, curvier, smoother, younger—always different than what we are. 

Bodies come in all shapes, races, ethnicities, ages and sizes. And that’s OK. No, it’s better than OK. It’s great. It’s time Hollywood stopped featuring ageist depictions of women. More films should mirror Take This Waltz’s depiction of older women, revealing aging as a normal—and beautiful—part of life.

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Tags:   age and gender    media    myths and stereotypes 

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Our Mission

The Silver Century Foundation promotes a positive view of aging. The Foundation challenges entrenched and harmful stereotypes, encourages dialogue between generations, advocates planning for the second half of life, and raises awareness to educate and inspire everyone to live long, healthy, empowered lives.

Notable Quote

"It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment; in these qualities old age is usually not poorer, but is even richer."

Cicero (106-43 BC)

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