Why acting our age matters

Nicky Clark’s “Acting Your Age” campaign aims to highlight the lack of roles on screen that reflect the richness of older women’s lives – something that affects us all.

the word "discrimination" behind a pair of glasses

 

When Nicky Clark turned 50 and her caring responsibilities eased considerably, she decided to return to the career she had trained for decades before at Mountview Theatre School. It was then that she realised that gendered ageism was still a huge issue in the drama industry and that that also had a ripple affect on all other aspects of our lives.

She realised too that she rarely saw herself reflected on screen and that those older women she did see tended to be pigeonholed into certain roles. There were lots of younger women and lots of men her age or older – Hugh Grant, Daniel Craig, Steve Coogan….who were often partnered with women decades younger than them. But there was no-one similar to her with an on-screen partner their own age. “Men have a whole life on screen; women have a shelf life,” she says simply. 

The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns had already highlighted the problem of sexism in the media and entertainment industry and, although women had been talking for decades about gendered ageism and a few more older women were now on screen, many were prolonging their career through cosmetic surgery. “They were 55, but they looked 35. What message was that sending?” asked Nicky. 

It was 2018 and she felt it was time to do something about it.  “I want our generation of excluded women to be the last to face such limitations,” she says. 

Acting Your Age

Nicky [pictured right] had already launched three national campaigns on disability issues – her two daughters have autism – and she had campaigned locally against austerity measures so she knew how to get to work on her “Acting Your Age” campaign.

She did her background research and found things might even be getting worse. A look at Bafta nominations over recent decades showed the average age of nominated women had fallen from 52 to 32, compared to a fall from 48 to 45 for men. She points to the recent decision to replace former tennis star and presenter Sue Barker, aged 64, with Paddy McGuinness. “There’s an assumption that middle aged women don’t sell,” she says.

This is despite the fact that middle aged women often have such rich stories to tell and despite the interest in soap operas and productions where middle aged women get meaty lead roles as well as widespread popular affection for women such as council official Jackie Weaver. 

Nicky says there is a general belief that ageing is an admission of failure for women. Hence reports of young women getting Botox due to fears about facial lines. “We need to be able to accept ageing as a natural process for women. Men can be themselves with no impact, but women can’t,” she says.

Tweakments

For her campaign she has spoken to many middle aged actresses. All of them say the same thing, she explains. Many have been advised to have plastic surgery of “tweakments”. The roles dry up and there is little choice if they want to get cast. Even if they do get the surgery, there are often very few quality parts to be had. Nicky doesn’t believe it is because of a lack of women writing about their lives. It’s more to do with those commissioning the work, she says. They just won’t believe that viewers, particularly younger viewers, want to see older women in lead roles. 

Nicky has spoken to the BBC, Channel 4, Bafta, Equity and Bectu about her campaign. “It is a known known,” she says. “It’s something they hear a lot, something that has been raised many times by different generations of women, but nothing much changes.”

She says she has found it difficult to get coverage for her campaign. She gets commissioned every now and again to write about it and a major newspaper was going to do a feature a few years ago and then spiked it. “It’s rare that the media take it seriously. It has to dovetail with other issues,” says Nicky, who adds that gendered ageism messages are often internalised.

For her, it is important for all of us that older women are fairly represented on screen. Gendered ageism affects us all. It affects younger actresses who are aware they have a short period in the limelight before they are sidelined. Too often, says Nicky, women are pitted against each other, even though this is an issue that affects all women. “We need to change the narrative. I see far more solidarity between women on this than antagonism,” she says.

Gendered ageism also affects men –  actors Nicky has spoken to and who have taken part in a film she put together, including Martin Sheen and Sanjeev Bhaskar, are angry about it too. Their partners are often women who are the same age as them and yet they are forced to co-star with women of their daughters’ age. “They are sick of being paired with younger women and being portrayed as lecherous men who are only interested in younger women.  They tell me that the women we love are worth much more than being relegated to the sidelines. Everyone has a stake in it. We need to stand together,” says Nicky. 

Otherwise, she states, individual women who protest about this issue get picked off on social media – Nicky has received abuse and been told to ‘get a life’ or worse – or live in fear that speaking out will damage their career. Davina McCall, for instance, has been very open about the fact that she was advised that fronting a programme on the menopause might damage her brand and impact her work.  

Changing the narrative

“No one needs feminism and equality more than middle aged women,” states Nicky, citing statistics on the impact of caring responsibilities, the menopause and mental health issues on older women. “It’s hard to hear it is a non-issue. I can deal with Twitter attacks, but I cannot deal with the media reinforcing that the only news affecting women is news that affects young women,” she says.  “But nothing will change without the media. There is a code of silence on this issue that prevents progress and tells us that we have no value.”

*Picture credit: Daniel Craig and Olga Kurylenko in Quantum of Solace, courtesy of Wikipedia.



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