Culture Vulture

Older women invisible in popular culture

Being on the wrong side of 40 made me realise that older women are under-represented in the media

There is a power in representation that cannot be underestimated, and understood, until one is confronted by it.

I have been mulling over this issue of representation thanks to a couple of TV shows I've been watching. I recently discovered, and binge-watched, the first season of Netflix's marvellous comedy, Grace And Frankie.

Yes, I'm a bit late to the party. The hit series, whose second season has just been released on Netflix, debuted in May last year. This delightful show is reason enough to subscribe to Netflix, which is now available in Singapore.

Created by Marta Kauffman (who co-created Friends) and Howard J. Morris, the show has a rather "hur hur" premise. Grace (Jane Fonda), a retired businesswoman, and art teacher Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are married to divorce lawyers Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston). Their lives are turned upside down when Robert and Sol announce they are in love with each other and plan to divorce the women after 40 years of marriage in order to marry each other.

Another show which I rediscovered recently, and have been watching with fresh eyes, is The Golden Girls, the classic sitcom about a group of retired women sharing a house in Florida that is being shown on Hits (StarHub TV Channel 519).

One of the things that struck me about Grace And Frankie was the ages of its leads. Its female leads are no spring chickens. Fonda is 78 and Tomlin is 76. Their castmates clock in similarly mature ages: Sheen and Waterston are both 75.

When I watch The Golden Girls, I marvel similarly at how naturally mature the actresses look. Bea Arthur, who played the acerbic Dorothy, and Betty White, the ditzy Rose, were both 63 when the show began in 1985. Estelle Getty, who played Dorothy's crusty 80-something mother Sophia, was actually a year younger than Arthur. Rue McClanahan, the man-crazy Southern belle Blanche, was the baby of the bunch at just 51.

What both shows do well, and consistently, is present their characters with respect for their emotional landscapes and their age group.

While the premise for Grace And Frankie could have been played for cheap laughs, the first season explores the emotional and practical fallouts of Robert and Sol's decision with surprising nuance. Grace and Frankie do not get hysterical although they do lose their tempers. And while they do fit broad stereotypes, Grace the ex-corporate type and Frankie the dippy hippy, they are never caricatured. The failure of their marriages has repercussions not just on their lives, but also their sense of self-worth and identity.

The Golden Girls achieves a similar juggling act, smuggling in tough emotional baggage with a light touch. One episode dealt deftly with the women's different approaches to, and fears of, death. Not exactly one's first idea of a fun topic, but the episode managed it with grace and made some parts very funny.

The women all look their ages. Getty had to endure hours in the make-up chair to look like an authentic 80-something. It is nice to see mature women who are well put together instead of overly Botoxed or gym-trained types who strive to look 20 years younger than they really are.

Watching these two sitcoms made me realise that women of a certain age, that is over 50, seem mostly invisible in media, not just in terms of presence, but also as a target demographic.

In advertising, the use of older models in campaigns makes news because of its rarity. Observe the fuss last year when fashion house Celine featured author Joan Didion, then 80; when folk legend Joni Mitchell, then 71, posed for Saint Laurent; and when 93-year-old Iris Apfel shilled for Kate Spade.

Look at Hollywood's current movie slate, which seems to comprise mostly of comic superheroes, macho actioners and kiddie cartoons. The last movie I remember which offered a realistic, contemporary depiction of older people is 2012's Hope Springs, which starred Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a retiree couple trying to reconnect.

Perhaps it is because I am officially on the "wrong" side of 40 that I have recently started looking harder at representation of older women in the media I consume, oftentimes unthinkingly.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, there was no shortage of youthful female images although it was hard to find positive Asian role models in the pop cultural landscape. My positive Asian role models were to be found in real life - in my grandmothers, in my teachers, in the accomplished career women I met in my working life.

But as a lifelong consumer of story and narrative in all forms, be it books, movies or television, I also look to these mediums for inspiration and different points of view. Sadly, when it comes to empathetic depictions of older women, in pop culture especially, the choices are severely limited.

Perhaps this may sound like feminist whingeing to some, but I would not discount the power of seeing oneself, one's anxieties and hopes, explored in a story.

Arguing for equal representation in culture may seem trivial when there are so many more concrete problems in the real world to worry about and resolve. But there is an element of empowerment in seeing someone with your skin colour, your gender, your problem presented in a pop cultural mirror.

The ancient Greeks understood that stories are safe venues in which to work out one's fears and emotions. Hence their demand that good art should offer catharsis.

Grace And Frankie and The Golden Girls, in tackling fears of abandonment, ageing and death while renewing one's faith and hope in love and friendships, achieve this Aristotelian aim for a very underserved demographic.

Here's hoping that the success of Grace And Frankie will pave the way for more pop culture mirrors for older women.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'Older women invisible in popular culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe