It's become a truism that there are not enough decent parts for older actresses. On screen, most actresses appear to have a sell-by date, and the quality roles that are out there for older women are still exceptional enough to prompt breathless media coverage. Last year, here in the UK, thousands of people signed a petition urging broadcasters to give older women more roles. In real life, older women, particularly older single women, are all too often dismissed, facing a toxic blend of sexism and ageism.
One of the cleverer archetypes of the female detectives capitalize on this. Presenting an unthreatening facade to the world, older women detectives usually conceal razor-sharp investigative skills and intelligence. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is one of the classic examples of these subversive characters. Given the title of this blog series, I couldn't resist the chance to talk about one of the earliest appereances of the Miss Marple character on film, in 'Murder, She Said.' The trailer for the movie is below:
"If you think I'm going to sit back and let everyone regard me as a dotty old maid you are very much mistaken," says Jane Marple (Margaret Rutherford) at one stage, only to go undercover as a maid in a manor house to prove the point and solve the murder. As tigtog at Hoyden About Time put it, she's: "The epitome of hidden depths: superficially a frail old lady with no special qualities, fundamentally a preternaturally observant Nemesis of those with murderous secrets."
To a lesser extent, you could class Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote (surely the title must have been a nod to Miss Marple, too) in the same category, although she is not technically a 'spinster' as she's widowed. TV Tropes has a more extensive list, although I quibble with some of their conclusions (I've only seen the TV show, not read the books, but unless they changed Precious Ramotswe's age dramatically, I don't think she can really be counted in under the "little old lady investigates" category!)
What I love about these characters is that they are quite conscious of the sexism and ageism aimed their way, and they use it to their advantage: even the "benevolent sexism" which stipulates that a "cold-blooded" murderer might hesitate before killing an older, grandmotherly figure. It's satisfying for the viewer - and also helps to undermine (some of) these prejudices.
That's why lots of people were upset about the plan to haul out Miss Marple for another remake, starring the wonderful but far-too-young-for-the-character Jennifer Garner. When the news broke, my Facebook stream brimmed with disgruntled fans.
As my friend the filmmaker and internet geek Campbell X put it: "Agatha Christie wrote Mrs Marple specifically as an ELDERLY spinster because she was miffed that her other characters when adapted for moving image were always made younger. And this just insults her wishes."
Sadie Stein at Jezebel summed up many people's views:
One word: why? Why take one of the few characters in literature who represents a woman of a certain age, who doesn't make sexuality any part of her power, and who gives credit to a generally-overlooked segment of the population, and give it a sexy, youthful, utterly generic "spin?"
Younger women most acutely face the slut/stud double standard; older single women get hoisted with the spinster/bachelor double standard. It's an old-fashioned word you don't hear much these days, but the derogatory sentiment towards older women, particularly those who haven't settled down with a man and had children, remains.
The word originates from late Middle English, when it was used to describe women who spun for a living, incidentally at a time and place when women's options for an independent life were severely limited in Europe. It only came to describe unmarried women in the 17th century. Like those original spinsters, Miss Marple and colleagues can be seen as models that the one option of socially approved heterosexual marriage and procreation isn't the be-all and end-all.