Women and Aging: What the Media Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

I chose to pursue a doctorate in gerontology because I wanted to learn and expand upon my understanding of what it means to age. I knew getting older was synonymous with chronological age and physical appearance. The questions I had were rooted in how does someone with X, Y and Z characteristics experience the aging process? What factors and barriers can impact one’s aging journey? My research interests focus on the older adult SGM (sexual and gender minority) population and their aging journey.

Within the aging sector, I focus on how SGM older adults plan for end-of-life (EOL) and long-term care. Although most of my time in the program involves research and writing, I have had the opportunity to help educate graduate and undergraduate students in the field of aging.

This past spring, I taught an undergraduate course called “Women and Aging: Psychological, Social, and Political Implications,” which covered “problems and resources of the middle-aged and older woman in a changing society; including discrimination, stereotypes, employment, social interaction, etc.” In planning the course, one of the topics I prepared to discuss was women in the media, particularly looking at the history of women in the media and how we currently view and are shown older women.

Interestingly, some students requested this topic and others (e.g., fashion and beauty standards) as concepts they wanted to learn about. In exploring these issues, we discussed how older women are presented in the media, the lack of stories being told about older women and how there remain boundaries and barriers that prevent the holistic view of what it means to be an older woman in today’s society from being shown.

‘I’m tired of trying to be young. I don’t want to be young. I’ve been young.’

In the media, older women are most often presented as “aging gracefully,” which is required to remain relevant, or you will not be seen. This message essentially says, that if society is to celebrate women getting older, those women need to look a certain way. The framing connects to the idea that “men have a body; women are a body” (The Devil’s Dictionary; Ambrose Bierce, 1935) and that the greatest value a woman holds is her looks.

This creates a double standard of aging for women, which leads to internalized ageism. Women are expected to age flawlessly and/or conceal all signs of aging. But this expectation then leads to a “double bind” where women are expected to conceal signs of aging but must have work done so well that it’s impossible to tell what work was done.

What is the consequence? It erases the experiences older women have had and what it means to age. How can our society expect women to embrace all that comes with aging if it is not shown that aging looks different for everyone and how you choose to embrace your aging journey is up to you?

Earlier this year, actor Andie MacDowell, in an interview about embracing her gray hair, discusses letting go of the expectation of having to continue to be young; “I’m tired of trying to be young. I don’t want to be young. I’ve been young.” Later she mentions that she initially wanted to go gray at a younger age but was “talked out of it” and how empowered and more herself she now feels with gray hair.

Storytelling (i.e., movies and TV shows) also perpetuates a certain image of what older women should be. The ability to tell stories of older women is lacking due to opportunities not being given to women storytellers of older ages. In Hollywood, the number of women filmmakers and screenwriters is markedly less than men and when you break this down by age the numbers reduce further.

One organization combating the lack of representation of older women’s stories is The Writer’s Lab. The Writer’s Lab mission is to “elevate women screenwriters over 40” and “working toward a new landscape where the female narrative is in equal proportion to the male narrative.” To see a shift in how women, older women in particular, are portrayed in the media, it is imperative that stories are written and directed by women of all ages.

In front of the camera, we see a similar issue presented with how restrictive the roles women and older women are allowed to play in film. Women typically play the role of mother or grandmother or someone experiencing a “midlife crisis.” It is less likely to see older women portrayed as the lead character or the romantically desirable character.

Research done by the University of Southern California’s Inclusion Initiative has shown that in 2022, only 10 films featured a woman ages 45 or older as the lead or co-lead. Looking at the representation of older adults in popular films in 2016, it was also found that only 11% of speaking or named characters were ages 60 or older and fewer than 30% were female. Additionally, many of the stories or films that highlight the lives of older women lack inclusivity, featuring mainly white, straight, cisgender women (e.g., “80 for Brady,” “Book Club”). Not only is society perpetuating the idea that aging women have to look and act a certain way, but it is also making invisible the aging journeys of women who are Black and/or POC, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

We are starting to see more and more older women reclaiming their power and being their authentic selves.

To see a shift in how society views older adults, particularly women, the effort to make the stories and lives of older women known must continue. “Beyond Sixty,” directed and written by Melissa Davey, does a great job. In this documentary, “the myth that older women are invisible is shattered in this inspirational, revealing look at remarkable women thriving, leading lives rich in experience and accomplishments that defy perceptions and reveal what is possible beyond sixty.” The documentary introduces nine women with vastly different life experiences—the voice of the original Siri, the great-great-granddaughter of entrepreneur/philanthropist/political/social activist Madame C.J. Walker, and a veterinarian who in 2016 became the oldest woman to swim the English Channel at age 62.

The women talk about all they have accomplished and how the end is still nowhere in sight. At the start and close of the documentary the director speaks to young women, and one of them says she resents that “women’s value is so perceived by their age,” and the director agrees. As women get older, they are viewed as being less important, less worthy, and less beautiful. However, the reality is that there is beauty and value in getting older.

Being a 31-year-old Black woman, it is clear the expectations of me are to behave a certain way, present myself to the world in a certain way, and to be more concerned with others’ thoughts and views about me than I am with my own. It’s a battle that women are constantly up against, being told what they should and should not do.

There have always been women who have bucked this status quo, but I think we are just now starting to see more and more older women reclaiming their power and being their authentic selves. This gives me hope that future generations will grow up being shown the multitude of ways and complexities of what getting older looks like for women. For that to happen, we must continue to share and show the stories of older women.

Women who have experiences. Women who have persevered. Women who are living.

Meki Singleton is a doctoral candidate in the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at USC and was a mentored teaching fellow for spring 2023 through USC Center for Excellence in Teaching.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Bricolage

Oct. 7 is Ageism Awareness Day, find out how to engage with ASA here: https://asaging.org/ageism-awareness.