The Amazing Disappearing Women

03/07/2017 17:04
Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

If you hadn't noticed, something happens to women when they get to 40. Sometimes before, especially if you take Hollywood as a social barometer. One by one, they disappear. Even if they manage to still be visible, they shift into the background, taking on the roles of Mum, Woman In Shop, or Secretary To Main Character. No wonder women feel like getting older means you literally drop off the face of the earth.

I don't often watch TV. One of the main reasons for this is the adverts, which continually rile me in their narrow depiction of humanity. Forced to stand (well, technically cross train) in front of one for thirty minutes at the gym the other day, I was treated to a nappy advert (woman changing nappy), a perfume advert (woman as sexual prize/conquest for nice-smelling man), a frozen chicken advert (man coming home at end of busy day to food cooked by woman) and a car advert. This was the only one that attempted any form of subversion. A man in a suit drives a car, then goes and sits at a desk in a big glass-walled office. Suddenly, we realise (who what have thought it?) that the car and job are in fact a woman's, and he is the assistant. Oh how we all laughed at the fun this poked at our inbuilt gender stereotypes. Funnily enough, not one of those women looked over 40.

On some level, especially as a Media Studies teacher, I get it. Marketing is based on targeting particular demographics, and that way you can get your brand out to your audience, more money, everyone happy. But sometimes it just seems downright lazy. Would it really affect sales so much if we saw some male hands wrapping a small bottom in absorbent material? Would we find the food disgusting if it were put into the oven by those same male hands? More and more female actors are speaking out about these issues. Simply seeing women in and men in a range of places breaks down assumptions of who fits in the domestic sphere, and who fits in the working sphere.

Recently, I watched a film that clearly shifts this balance. In Hello, My Name is Doris, Sally Field plays a woman in her sixties as the central role. But she isn't a grandmother, or a kindly aunt. She isn't even Judi Dench! Instead, she's a person coming to terms with the death of her mother and the sudden freedom afforded her from continual care. It's a poignant observation that her brother has a family, a business, while she was assumed to be the best person to take on the caring role.

What's very refreshing about the film is that it shows her as, well, a normal person. She's insecure, she has arguments, she's selfish, she drinks too much wine. The best thing is that (shock horror) she actually has a sexuality. Having missed out on so much to care for her mother, she now finds herself lusting after a younger co-worker, and doing her best to infiltrate his friendship group to get closer to him. All of this could have been handled in some desperate old lady way, but you realise that she is an interesting, intelligent woman, and when she interacts with younger people, they want to talk to her, and have fun spending time with her. It's one of the most refreshing representations of older women I've seen in a long time. Also, her wardrobe is amazing.

Visibility is a start on the long road to actual equality. As Deborah Frances-White captures brilliantly in the stand-up section of the 'It's a Man's World' section of a Guilty Feminist episode, raising identical twins and affording them the different opportunities, responsibilities and pressures that are placed on men and women will make them very different people. This has very little to do with innate difference, and more to do with consistent messages we receive from the world around us. And these messages are everywhere. As Cariad White pointed out in the same episode (yes, I listen to it a lot, and so should you), female speaking roles made up less than 30% of roles in Hollywood films in 2016. Just 45% of women were actually seen in work, doing jobs, as opposed to 61% of male roles. If this is what we're seeing every day, it's not surprising that we see male whitewashing in everything ranging from Brexit negotiations to legislation about abortion. Our reflections of 'reality' end up being true to life.

So what can we do about this? For starters, those women who are visible need to make space for those who are not. BAME women and LGBTQ+ women and men are still woefully represented in every walk of life. If you're not happy about how gender or something else is being represented in an advert or a film, let that company know. Money is power, and as a consumer you are in a perfect position to influence the people making this stuff. Hopefully, by the time the next generation get there, seeing a range of women, at all ages will no longer be the stuff of Indie films and brilliant podcasts, but of mainstream, everyday life.

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