Let's Talk About Older Women on TV

Whenever I see a woman over 40—never mind 50 or 60 or 70—on my television screen, I relax a little. Without thinking too deeply about it, I'm processing a lot of welcome information: Oh, look, women do live past 40! They can often be funny, smart, successful, and wise!

Then, of course, my brain does all those other calculations it has been trained to do: How does she look? Does she look way younger than her age? Does she have wrinkles? What does that mean about my face? Do I look better or worse than she does? Is that good or bad? Am I shriveling away to my death?!

This second round of thoughts might explain part of why television continues to avoid what could be and lucrative a loyal audience to target: older women. They may be affluent and primed for high-priced wrinkle cream ads, but, gosh, they scare the other audience segments an awful lot.

In this guest blog, Women of a Certain Age, I'll be exploring the ways that women outside the target age demographic are a usually neglected on television. We'll talk about how cable has helped and hurt older women, which portrayals of the past we're still nostalgic for (Cagney, Lacey, Rose, Blanche, and Dorothy, we miss you!), and who our best role models for aging are today. Yeah, Betty White will probably come up.

These portrayals of older women are important to all of us. Showing a world devoid of women over 40 engenders a subconscious fear in younger women: What the hell happens later in life that's so scary we can't even see it? We've learned from countless examples that the more Americans see a certain kind of character on TV, the more they feel comfortable with, and even relate to, a group once viewed as others.

I suspect that my frantic comparison of my own looks to every older woman I see on TV would ease if there were simply more wrinkles and gray hair on screen. I've found my own aging anxiety assuaged by simply being around more women who are older than me. Seeing them on TV as human characters with relatable problems would do us all some good, and get us thinking about something other than our wrinkles. Hell, we might even find ourselves laughing at these ladies' wits without thinking for a second about our own laugh lines.

Hey, we can dream, right?


Photo of the great Betty White via IMDB

by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

I'm looking forward to this.

I'm looking forward to this. Lately I've been re-watching the show Burn Notice, with Sharon Gless kicking ass as Maddy Westen, the protagonist's mother. As the series progresses, she becomes more and more involved in her son's covert operations.

Another kick-ass older woman on TV is the late Elisabeth Sladen, as Sarah Jane Smith on the Doctor Who spin-off Sarah Jane Adventures.

This is amazing!

I think about this stuff all the time. Really looking forward to your posts!

the Good Wife?

I hope you will look at The Good Wife and how the women characters have been treated over the course of the show. I watch this with my teenage daughter and we talk all the time about the women characters (good and bad). This year has been particularly rich; not only did we have series regulars Christine Baranski and Julianna Marguilies, but the mothers of Marguilies's and Chris Noth's characters. And guest appearances by Jane Alexander, Tamara Tunie, and others.

Oh, hell yes!

I love love love Good Wife. And good point about the moms. They've been epically cool and multi-faceted. (And one is Grams from Dawson's Creek, so ...)

Dawson's Creek

I am, alas, too old to have been interested in Dawson's Creek, so I've no idea who you're talking about, lol. Glad to hear that Good Wife is on your radar, thought.

There's also Smash, but I suspect its focus this season will be more on the younger women since Debra Messing's husband was fired . . . .

Older women on tv

I love that you're doing this. Don't forget the amazing Linda Hunt on NCIS:LA.

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