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Artillery Row

Disposable women?

Middle-aged women are routinely ignored and dismissed by society — it is time for that to change

There is a lot of awareness-raising being done these days, especially around representation, and for me there is a woefully neglected demographic which is rarely, if ever, mentioned.

In 2018, I launched a campaign which was necessary, popular and widely ignored. It was called the Acting Your Age Campaign and it sought to highlight the lack of middle aged women across the entertainment industry from news to advertising and encompassing documentaries, drama, comedy, films and music.

Cultural neglect is accompanied by neglect of tragic social trends. This is a fact I was reminded of in a recent news cycle which considered a rise in referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Of course, I welcome all reporting on mental health, especially when it comes to children, but I wondered why it is so difficult to imagine comparable reporting on a demographic which comprises 12,000,000 people in the UK alone. 

There is a taboo in discussing mental health and suicide for this demographic in particular. Media reporting still struggles to identify older women’s risk as an issue at all, let alone a pressing one.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, if you need a bigot for your film or sitcom, then middle-aged women are definitely featured. If you need a hair dye advert then Eva Longoria screaming in horror at the sight of her grey roots, is definitely featured. If you’re the New Scientist magazine wanting to ask the seemingly vexing and perplexing question, “Why are women living so long after menopause?”, or the Daily Mail with the headline “How wrinkles make us untrustworthy” and featuring the wrinkled visage, not of older men but of older women, then there we are, front and centre of the thought process. (Wrinkles are a woman’s problem that we are seemingly, selfishly and deliberately inflicting on the world at large by a lifetime of forming expressions.)

But if you want a lead for a sitcom, or a contributor for a piece about impossible beauty standards, or eating disorders, or domestic violence, then more often than not the word which researchers think of is the word young, not woman.

Because, seriously, what is the point of us at all? 

As part of my Acting Your Age Campaign, I’ve been reminded of this sentiment a great deal over the last 6 years. In meetings with broadcasters, and unions, and organisations, and with actresses, presenters, female film directors and writers. The problem of sexist ageism — targeting women no matter how famous, talented or accomplished — is a known known. 

I looked at the data across awards categories and the same fact keeps returning. Older women have over the course of the last few decades been edged out of the nominee lists. Recently, I did a data check on the Oscar Acting nominations. Men aged 40-60 got the highest number of nominations (9) whereas for women the largest number went to women in their 30s (6) with only two women in the 40-60 age range being nominated at all.

On screen men have a whole life and women — deemed to have a perceived sexual currency which is easily spent — have a shelf life.

When it comes to the UK and to women’s mental health in middle age, we do know one fact which we can identify from ONS figures. The highest demographic of female suicides is women aged 50-54. Middle-aged women also feature as the largest demographic of women living with bulimia.

middle-aged women aren’t seeing major research studies looking into our mental health and wellbeing

But middle-aged women aren’t seeing major research studies looking into our mental health and wellbeing whilst living under the oppressive reality of being seen as pointless and disposable. We don’t feature in articles or pieces looking at the mental impact of impossible beauty standards, or at the vanguard of anti age-shaming initiatives which sell us quick fixes for naturally greying hair or wrinkles which we are repeatedly told represent a failure on our part.

The answer to all of these human wrongs is to take control of the narrative. From news to sitcoms, music to chat shows and documentaries to dramas, middle-aged women need to feature. Broadcasters, especially public funded broadcasters, have a duty to represent all audiences, and ageism, particularly targeting women, needs to be seen for the discrimination it is, rather than the “non-problem of complaining old crones” that it’s often portrayed as.

The NHS needs to stop thinking that part-funding HRT prescriptions has sorted out all problems of older women. They should be surveying middle-aged female patients on how their mental health is, and addressing their concerns, at an age when inter-generational caring responsibilities are often greatest and work opportunities are diminishing.

The press needs to look critically and ethically at how they portray women across their pages. Advertisers, whether print or TV, need to stop making grey hair and wrinkles a sin of commission and targeting ads at women which monetises eroding our self-esteem.

Juliet Stevenson is just Jodie Comer, plus time. The “bigot baton” should stop being aggressively passed from one generation of women to the next and used instead to batter down the doors of broadcast commissioners, news outlets and government departments, calling on them to speak to the needs of everyone because the young women of today are the ignored, isolated and ridiculed middle-aged women of tomorrow.

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