A woman removes a theatrical mask

As an actress I trained for my profession believing I would portray my sisters, even when old, so long as my ability to remember my lines was unimpaired.  Then I hit fifty and everything changed. My story is not unusual.

Dame Harriet Walter, an accomplished and celebrated actress, wrote recently, “It’s not about us”, referring to the invisibility of the older woman, not just about our image but also our lives, because the media in general is about telling a story, and the stories told are rarely about us.

Look through any newspaper, magazine or cast list. Look at billboards, posters or advertising pamphlets. Start counting and you may be surprised to see firstly, that the images of men far outnumber those of women, and the images of women are generally young, attractive and often semi-naked, whereas the images of men are young, middle-aged and old.

I first became aware of the issue in 2004 when elected as Equity Vice President. Around the same time I was invited by Women in Film and Television (WFTV) to co-produce a BAFTA panel discussion with the showing of Rosanna Arquette’s series of filmed conversations with female Hollywood stars – Searching for Debra Winger.

The film explores how at forty, just as these famous actresses started to mature, hone their craft and began to know what acting was about, their opportunities to get work in Hollywood faded away in preference to new, young female talent, around whom scripts were written. This was not happening to their male colleagues. Their careers continued to flourish.

Looking at Equity, clearly the same was happening over here. Equity membership (approximately 38,000 now) has a more or less equal gender split, yet actresses find their careers winding down after forty whilst most actors they worked with, trained with, continue to perform.

Research was needed if employers were to be convinced of this reality and rectify it. They had to believe this was not a figment of our imagination or just women complaining.

We formed a steering group through the International Federation of Actors (FIA) and, funded by the European Commission, we researched the facts and compiled a handbook of best practices.  The resultant 2009 report on performers’ employment in Europe showed that the majority of women see age and gender as an impediment to employment whilst men believe age and gender are an advantage.

At our campaign’s core is a group of feisty women from the Women’s Committee, the Equity Council and other parts of the membership and a slowly growing band of supportive men. This is not just about work opportunities for actresses – for the young in the future, for the older actress now – it is also about society and the value we should place on a truthful representation of women’s lives.

We believe our campaign has begun to inform some broadcasters’ choices. Series such as Vera, Scott and Bailey, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife certainly have put females of all ages centre stage and we like to think Equity’s Viewers’ petition, signed by over ten thousand, has helped move this along – do please sign it if you have not done so already and pass the details on.

So the fight for gender equality continues and many young women are speaking out. But let’s be clear, until the invisibility of women over 40 is addressed, until older women are empowered, the same old cycle of young, talented, feisty women being eventually sidelined, ignored and silenced, will continue. As the saying goes, “You cannot be what you cannot see”. Older women should be role models, not invisible bystanders.


Posted on November 13th, 2013 by Jean Rogers filed under: Work