Women and Aging


By Joyce Wayne

Some of the highest-paid actors in North America are Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Zoe Saldana. By February 2023, the highest-grossing leading actor of all time, Jackson, made $5.72-billion while Matt Damon, number 20 on the list, had earned $3.22 billion during his acting career. My first reaction to their paycheques is why is anyone making this much money? My second reaction is, how can there be only two women on this long list? My third question is how differently does aging affect women and men on screen and in real life?

Where are the great actresses of our time and earlier: Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet? I’m puzzled, questioning the value of the artistic work of the highest-earning actors and the few women who made this list.

Do women age faster than men?

Is it that women age faster than men? Or is it that women aren’t accepted as great actors as they look older? Moreover, does the value we place on a woman’s youthful face in the movies also influence society where the importance of women’s work or her contribution to her community or family diminishes as she grows older? Ultimately, is it increasingly difficult for a woman to be financially secure as she ages? Rather than soliciting respect or admiration for her accomplishments, does an older woman’s aging face engender pity or dismissal or low pay?

A recent article in the U.K.’s The Guardian reported that Meg Ryan of the 1989 hit film “When Harry Met Sally” fame was declared “unrecognizable as headlined after she attended a movie screening —even though the tabloids clearly recognized her.”

The Guardian continues, “Oh no, it’s happened again. Every now and again, a famous woman over the age of 45 has the temerity to go out in public without following The Rules of Ageing While Female and all hell breaks loose. This time the offender is Meg Ryan.”

The Rules of Ageing include:

  1. You must age gracefully and naturally.
  2. But not too naturally so wrinkles and grey hair can’t be disguised.
  3. You must age in a way that, even if you were to conceal your grey hair and wrinkles, it gives the illusion of not having aged at all
  4. You must look youthful enough for Bradley Cooper, who earned $ 4.3 million this year, to consider dating you.
  5. Or you must look young enough for the 79-year-old Robert DeNiro to consider fathering his seventh child with you, as he did with his third wife.

Or, on another note, you need to look like Martha Stewart, who at 81 posed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Cover Star where The New York Times headlined, “The domestic diva talks about shedding her inhibitions, and (most of) her clothes, for the cover shoot.” In a phone interview, she talked about various topics such as flirting, Madonna, how she came by her sexual confidence and more. Well, we’re not all Martha Stewart, are we? All joking aside, I’m certainly not comparing ourselves to Martha Stewart. As the summer draws near, I’ll be pleased that my bathing suit still fits and that all my friends look more or less the same way I do. 

What is subjective age?

On a more serious note, in The Atlantic magazine, Jennifer Senior wrote about the puzzling gap between how old you are and how old you think you are. According to Senior, it’s called subjective age. “Adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average, roughly 20 percent younger than their actual age.” 

I know I did. When I was 50, I thought of myself as being 40 years old. I believed I looked about 40, acted about 40, and had the energy of a 40-year-old. At 40, I gave birth to my daughter, my first child, and six months later, I was back at work. 

Now that I’m 72, I think of myself as 60. Okay, the gap between my real and my imagined self is widening. Sixty was a good year for me. I met my husband at 60. We moved in together and eventually married. My daughter was doing well at university and about to attend graduate school. I enjoyed my job and colleagues at work and began writing. 

In addition, feeling younger might have something to do with how older adults are perceived in our society. Senior writes:

“A 2021 meta-­analysis of 294 papers examining subjective-­age data from across the globe found that the discrepancy between chronological age and internal age was greatest in the United States, Western Europe, and Australia/Oceania. Asia had a smaller gap. Africa had the smallest, which could be read as an economic sign (poverty might play a role) but also a cultural one: Elders in collectivist societies are accorded more respect and have more extended-family support.”

In the West, on the screen, almost everyone looks young. The younger the better, you could say. So much so that many of us hold an idealized picture of ourselves, one that fits with the view from our seats gazing at the screen. Rather than revelling in our hard-won experience, the good we’ve accomplished, the children we’ve raised, and the friendships we’ve nurtured, it comes down to how young we imagine we look. The facial lines and grey hair we’ve earned don’t count for much.

It’s important to remember that aging is a natural process that should be celebrated rather than stigmatized. We need to shift our focus from youth-centric ideals to embracing the wisdom, experience, and accomplishments that come with age. Let us refine beauty and recognize that the lines on our faces and the stories that we tell are badges of honour.  

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