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.