When I first decided to write this article I approached a handful of national newspapers and was told flat out that if I wanted to speak out on gender equality then I should find a woman and get her to do it for me. A month previously, when our organisation Act For Change got in touch with several high profile men (some of them gay) and asked if they would lend their voice to our latest campaign Women Of A Certain Age (a new initiative concerning the representation of women in the arts over the age of fifty), all of them declined citing that they just "wouldn't feel comfortable."
These two occurrences have led me to believe that gender equality is still very much viewed as a "female issue". And as a gay black man I have a problem with that. Perhaps it simply isn't fashionable for those born without a uterus to want to speak out upon gender issues but who wrote these rules? Wasn't much of the civil rights movement and Stonewall fought on the shoulders of women? To want to speak out, regardless of my gender, is a no-brainer because women themselves have proven time and time again that real change only happens when we unite; not when we leave those still being persecuted against fighting their own corner while we go off and enjoy our same-sex marriages and other civil liberties. To quote the American actress, Rose McGowan, "I see no help, particularly from the gay community. A community who understands what it feels like to be denied a voice and hated simply for existing." Why shouldn't the male voice be a part of this debate? Women have helped us get most of what we fought for. Isn't it time we extended a hand?
I don't have a womb, nor do I have a daughter. Childcare isn't my issue, though it has increasingly become the case for many of my male colleagues. As an actor I've never been asked to use my body or sex as a bargaining tool to help me secure landing the role (though again, I know many a male gym devotee who has). I don't always immediately realise when I'm in a rehearsal that I have walked into a room full of men, or that on the first day of drama school there were over three times the amount of males as there were females, nor do I fear the lack of great classical parts available for me to play in my years to come. Shakespeare's got that one covered. However, as a man who still lives at home with his Mum I have unwittingly come to understand a thing or two about how the world discriminates and treats a "woman of a certain age." The pitiful looks she receives, usually from younger women. The girl at the beauty parlour who says "God, I bet you were pretty when you were younger." The way you're suddenly represented in TV, film and theatre as a sexless, undervalued, invisible member of society who possesses all the lust and allure of Nora Batty.
As one actress we interviewed points out, perhaps men are still regarded as having an important function in their later years simply because they tend to remain fertile until the bitter end. And this is something we see reflected in much of the art we experience, both high and low brow. Next time you stand waiting for a train I urge you to take a look up and down the platform at the ads on display: Liam Neeson gets to hold a gun, be a badass and shoot people, while Celia Imrie (who is exactly the same age) is consigned to another Best Exotic hotel with a bunch of O.A.Ps. There are some exceptions to the rule, of course, but these are few and far between.
In the film The First Wives Club there is a joke about there only being three available options for a woman in Hollywood. As delivered by Goldie Hawn (an A-Lister who once opened films who last appeared on screen over thirteen years ago), these options are as follows: "Babe. District Attorney. And Driving Miss Daisy." That was 1996! Two decades later, the profession, out of all recognition has become even more of a youth saturated market; a market where ageing, to put in bluntly, will lose you work.
The legend saw Norma Desmond lock herself away from public view. These days she'd be under the knife and deleting her birth date from Wikipedia before you could say "Alzheimer's!". Unless you're Meryl the culture won't allow you to age. The opportunities available suddenly become a role-call of grannies, witches and victims of dementia. And yet here we are in a country where the proportion of citizens aged fifty and over grows infinitely larger each year. Do these women suddenly become less desirable? Less enviable? In a world that still places an unattainable premium upon youth and eternal beauty, a time where the Grazia photo-shopped or cosmetically altered smooth face is seen as something to aspire to, is age even allowed to be a part of the narrative?
When Madonna, arguably the most famous and written about woman in the history of pop music, fell down at the beginning of her performance at last week's Brit Awards, she was immediately mocked. Now, falling over is funny. I have many times laughed as a perfect stranger stacked it in the street but it struck me when reading the countless articles that followed, and scrolling through my own Facebook newsfeed observing the opinions of men and women alike, that she was not being laughed at for falling. She was being laughed at for being "old" and falling. The vicious narrative which quickly ensued focused primarily upon age, and whether a fifty-six year old should really be up past bed-time cavorting with a dozen half naked male dancers closer to her daughter's age. The incident, a fairly unexciting one at that, served to expose an ugly truth about society at large. The culture still has a very distinct and particular idea about what a woman past fifty should and shouldn't be doing. About what is appropriate. What is correct. And what is right. And all of this stuff is passed down to us from generation to generation. It gets lodged in with all that other useless information our brain stores up so that before we know it even the most liberal among us are getting all Katie Hopkins on the matter! We are often led to believe that things are significantly better for a woman than they've ever been but is this actually the case?
Act For Change has set itself a mission to find out. For the next six weeks our campaign #WomenOfACertainAge will mark International Women's Day by showing six individual videos online featuring the actresses Juliet Stevenson, Denise Black, Ann Mitchell, Susan Brown, the writer, producer, comedian and actress Meera Syal, and the director Lucy Kerbel. In these video interviews founding member of The Act For Change Project, actress and writer Stephanie Street has set out to discover whether the representation of our subjects is one which they recognise, identify with or wish to change. The answers have been fortifying and we are delighted to be able to share with you their responses, beginning with our #WomenOfACertainAge campaign trailer.
You can find all of these upcoming videos on our YouTube channel during the coming weeks, and help our work further by sharing this important, overlooked and often trivialised matter.
We believe this debate is one which should concern us all. For that is the only way real change will come.
Women are counting on it.
#actforchange #WomenOfACertainAge #internationalwomensday
The Act For Change Project is a campaigning group for better diversity in the arts supported by
#EquityUK #LibertyHumanRights #TheYoungVicTheatre #TheNationalTheatre #MishconDeReya #SheffieldTheatres and #TheStage