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Oscar Winner Takes Hollywood to Task for Sexism and Ageism

Oscar Winner Takes Hollywood to Task for Sexism and Ageism

On February 22, 2015, Patricia Arquette used the Oscar stage to advocate for gender wage equality and women’s rights during her acceptance speech for best supporting actress (Boyhood, 2014):

To every woman who gave birth to every citizen and taxpayer of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.

Arquette’s speech was a searing condemnation of the gender pay gap and the need for wage equality. In a backstage interview immediately following her acceptance speech, she elaborated on the need to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She’s absolutely right. Women earn 78 percent of what white men earn for the same job, and it’s much worse for women of color: black women are paid 64 percent of men’s earnings, indigenous women, 59 percent, and Latina women, 54 percent. (Percentages also based on white men’s earnings.)

I was disappointed—as were many—by some of Arquette’s comments, which failed to include women of color and LGBT women. Intersectional feminism recognizes that there’s no universal “woman” because race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity—and more—make such a difference. Arquette’s comments seem to have set off a hot debate about the importance of recognizing the diversity of women’s lives and experiences.

But one statement, which hasn’t received as much media attention, was spot on:

The truth of it is, the older an actress gets, the less money she makes.

The gender pay gap grows as women age and Hollywood is no exception. Male actors earn more than women. Actresses earn far less than their male colleagues do, especially after the age of 34. Male actors also earn their highest incomes at the age of 51, while women peak in their 20s. Also as leading male actors age, their onscreen female love interests tend to remain the same age, typically under 40.

Looking at Oscar winners by age and gender, as of 2011, 62 percent of best actress winners and 47 percent of best supporting actress winners are 35 years old or younger. Compare this with the 14 percent in both best actor and best supporting actor winners who are 35 years old or younger. Beyond their stellar performances in Boyhood and Still Alice, this is why it was great to see Patricia Arquette and Julianne Moore—in their 40s and 50s, respectively—win awards in the same year.

As the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University reports, in the 250 top-grossing films of 2014, women had only 30 percent of speaking roles and 12 percent of lead roles. Only 30 percent of female characters were 40 and older, whereas 53 percent of male characters were 40 and up.

Television is slightly better at showcasing diverse and complex roles for women of myriad ages as well as races and sexualities. But still, only 18 percent of women in lead roles on TV are in their 40s, and few female characters are older than 60.

This past year, older women captivated us in film (Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Meryl Streep in Into the Woods, Helen Mirren in The Hundred Foot Journey) and on TV (Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder, Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, Betty White in Hot in Cleveland, Jessica Lange in American Horror Story). But those roles, as riveting and complex as they are, are sadly the exceptions, not the rule. They do not contradict the truth that actresses, particularly older women, have an uphill struggle to get work in Hollywood—and in this, Hollywood actually reflects real life.

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Tags:   age and gender    media    myths and stereotypes    workplace age discrimination 

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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.

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"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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