Hollywood is still no country for older women
A new study spanning almost a century of data reveals in detail what everyone already knew - Hollywood is as ageist as it is sexist
Fifty-five-year-old Julia Louis-Dreyfus of HBO comedy Veep accepting her award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy at Sunday night’s Emmy Awards
“Here in Hollywood, the only thing that we value more than diversity is congratulating ourselves on how much we value diversity,” said Emmys host Jimmy Kimmel in his opening monologue at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards, which took place at the Microsoft Theater in Downtown Los Angeles last Sunday night. “I’ll tell you, the Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we’re one of their closest friends.”
The dig is deserved; this week’s awards show felt like a truer reflection of today’s society than their silver screen counterpart, with correctly chosen awards going to the all-but-invisible demographics of women above the age of 40 (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Arabic men (Rami Malek), Asian folk (Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang) and in Jeffery Tambor of Transparent, an actor playing a transgender character.
So if it feels like the movie world has some catching up to do, a timely study of IMDb data released this week confirms exactly that, with an analysis of US film roles between 1920 and 2011 reaching some strong conclusions about ageism and sexism.
In line with other such studies, the report by Clemson University economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen shows that women have been under-represented in movies since the dawn of the industry: historically, men were afforded three quarters of movie roles, though in recent years it’s rebalanced somewhat to 66 per cent.
But its most startling findings come when the age issue is added into the mix. It will shock precisely no one to learn that lead roles for women are largely weighted to the twentysomethings: among 20-year-old actors, 80 per cent of lead roles go to women (that’s 16,000 roles in that time period, they painstakingly discovered). At 30, this decreases to 40 per cent, and after 40, it’s 20 per cent.
The resultant 20-60-80 split for male actors might sound roughly equal to women’s fortunes, but the higher volume means its not: there are significantly more lead roles available for actors in their 30s (think of Orlando Bloom and Ryan Gosling’s ubiquity) than there ever was for female actors in their 20s, like Dakota Johnson or Jennifer Lawrence.
Ultimately, the study means the likes of Meryl Streep (and Julianne Moore, who’ve called out Hollywood for ignoring ladies of a certain age, are proved correct. When a male actor hits 40, they’re at the midpoint of the careers, as half of the leading film roles for men go to actors over 40. Once a female actor reaches 40, she’s lost access to about three-quarters of the leading film roles for women.
Still, if studio bosses are too distracted by pert ladies and rugged men to notice what 2016 looks like, for talents who don’t fit into Hollywood’s cookie cutter, there’s always TV. And with risk-taking in this medium at an all-time high – let’s call this ‘the Netflix Effect’ – we hope there will be more justified smugness come next year’s Emmys.