Why we need more midlife women on our screens

The representation of midlife women onscreen is actually declining. To change it, we must work together

Last week after three years of fighting, I closed my Acting Your Age Campaign due to the overwhelming lack of interest from the media and for the good of my mental health which, by the end of the campaign, was being impacted everyday. (Scroll down to see Noon founder Eleanor Mills’s conversation with Nicky Clark, from Instagram.)

There are only so many times that even the most confident of women can be told that an issue which is affecting them, the generations to come and society as a whole doesn’t matter.

A recent survey showed that the fastest rising demographic for female suicide are women aged between 50-54. Yet this is never talked about.

What’s wrong with acting your age?

Middle aged women are hated and ignored, stonewalled and gaslit and trying to fight institutionalised gendered ageism has been really tough.

Then, after announcing the closure, there was a phenomenal reaction. All over social media people began getting in touch to tell me what the campaign had meant to them. How, as women, hearing me talking about it had given them hope and confidence. Crucially, they had found it so reassuring to hear about the lack of onscreen representation for women of their age that they were experiencing as audiences and as actors and presenters, writers, directors and producers.

The response had been incredible. With Sally Phillips talking about my closing the campaign on Woman’s Hour on Thursday and Julie Graham posting this video on Instagram.

Over the years of the campaign many actresses and presenters have got in touch to tell me how much they appreciate my campaign. The worrying thing is that they know they can’t do so publicly because they also know it will impact their careers.

How is this level of oppression still normalised in 2021?

Women matter at all ages. The way women are stamped with a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date means that today’s young in-demand actress and presenter is tomorrow’s unemployed middle-aged actress and presenter.

This is why my campaign research found that only 9% of audiences can name more than 15 actresses over the age of 45.

Compared to 48% able to name more than 15 male actors.

This is well known in the UK TV and film industry and it’s getting worse.
This year the leading TV actress BAFTA nominations didn’t include a single woman over the age of 38.
As part of my campaign I did a deep dive into the last 20 years of BAFTA Leading TV nominees and found the average age for women had trended down since 2000, from age 52 to age 32.
Men’s age only fell from age 48 to age 45.

These amazing women nominated this year will see their careers go the same way as their predecessors, unless we act soon to change it.

But the media, except for a couple of notable exceptions, refuse to cover it. As I’ve often said, onscreen in the UK men can have a whole life and women only a shelf life.

Men don’t have the same pressure

I think because men can smile and talk ruefully about ageing, they assume it’s exactly the same for women of their age. But men don’t have the same pressure to look 35 forever, men don’t have a mandated absence of wrinkles and grey hair as a prerequisite of working, women do. There is also a snide mockery and derision of women trying to prolong their careers by seeking ‘tweakments’ when these procedures go horribly wrong. It’s not ‘vanity’ when your agent or manager advises getting chemical modifications done or it will impact your work. It’s a requirement of employment that we’re supposed to believe is purely free will.

Sick of ageism for women onscreen and onstage

Well, I’m sick of it. Sick of women being valued for perceived sexual currency alone, not talent. Sick of young women being handed the baton of gendered ageism and expected to run with it as though any of us learned that at drama school and I’m sick of being told it will take a long time to change this.

No, society is more than accepting of older women. Look at the reaction to Jackie Weaver. It just takes a long time for men who run the industry to cede any of their privileges.

Women are expected to be young, look young or fuck off.

We all have to fight for middle-aged women onscreen

I was fighting for women my age to see ourselves onscreen and I was fighting to ensure that my generation of excluded women will be the last. I don’t want the next generation of exceptionally talented women to be chucked on the scrapheap just because they age. I don’t want to read another article about 13-year-old so afraid of ageing that they’re seeking botox

No campaign can survive without press coverage. That’s why mine failed. I didn’t want to stop, I was making inroads into the industry and finding a positive response. The response to the closure is making me rethink but I can’t do this by myself anymore.

It needs all of us standing together and fighting together to make anyone listen. To all supporters but especially to women, young and older, I’m saying we are one another’s strength.

Nicky Clark

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