Thanks to the rise of streaming and changing demographics, the likes of Gina Torres, Christine Baranski and Famke Janssen are getting the moment they deserve
In television’s current golden age, 50 is the new 20.
Or so it appears for mid-career actresses who are newly achieving prominence as the leads of TV spinoff programs. Cable network USA recently announced a spinoff from “Suits” centered on the character of Gina Torres, 48, who plays an African-American power attorney in the legal drama. The 52-year-old “X-Men” actress Famke Janssen, who has previously attributed sexism and ageism to her inability to get coveted jobs, got the leading role on “The Blacklist: Redemption” while Broadway star Christine Baranski, 65, fronts “The Good Fight,” a sequel to “The Good Wife.”
The breakthrough moment may be traceable to “Grace and Frankie,” a 2015 Netflix show starring septuagenarians Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin that has found success, says Elana Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studies gender and the media. It was recently renewed for a fourth season. “Just as we’re seeing more racial diversity, we’re gradually seeing more age diversity too,” she says. “More women are getting roles that aren’t mother or grandmother.”
That’s not to say ageism, which in Hollywood affects women significantly more than their male counterparts, has disappeared. Just this past May, “Orange Is the New Black” actress Jamie Denbo complained on Twitter that she was turned down for a role playing the wife of an almost-sexagenarian, though she’s just in her early 40s.
I was just informed that at the age of 43, I am TOO OLD to play the wife of a 57 year old.
— Jamie Denbo (@jamiedenbo) May 4, 2017
There’s even a study to that very effect. The University of Southern California this year published a report after analyzing older characters in 25 films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that were released between 2014 and 2016. It found that only 148 of the 1,256 speaking characters (or 11.8%) were above the age of 60 and of those, almost 80% were men.
But a mini-renaissance is also taking place thanks to the entrance of deep-pocketed tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Netflix to the scripted television sphere. An expected 500 scripted TV shows are expected to air for the first time in 2017, about double that in 2011. Netflix has said it will release 1,000 hours of original programming this year. That exponential need for fresh content hasn’t been met by an equally large increase of actors and actresses with proven ability to carry a show. This means already established names are getting the second look they might not have a decade ago. While Silicon Valley has ageism issues of its own, it doesn’t seem to have brought them over to Tinseltown.
The phenomenon has also been helped along by the popularity of TV spinoffs and sequels on these new platforms. Amazon has resurrected British crime drama “Ripper Street” while Netflix brought back Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel in its 2016 revival of “Gilmore Girls.” Producers like spinoffs because they’re seen as safer” in terms of profitability, says Levine. “When they’re doing something risky, which in Hollywood terms means using a lead in her 50s instead of her 20s, having a familiar format makes it safer.” Indeed, CBS’ first streaming-only show is none other than “The Good Fight.”
Producers often want a narrative “reference point” in such shows, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. In turn, actresses who previously played supporting roles that the audience liked may find themselves re-enlisted even if they’ve aged.
And changing demographics in America also mean that getting older carries less of a stigma than it once did. Just this month, beauty magazine Allure said it would no longer use the term “anti-aging” in its pages because of the phrases’ negative association. A petition calling on L’Oréal and the Estée Lauder Cos. to dump the term from marketing material has collected almost 12,000 signatures. As the number of Americans above the age of 65 is set to double between 2016 and 2060, that’s a trend likely to continue.
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