In my next novel, The Golden Girls’ Getaway, I focused briefly on the dilemma of Vivienne, an actor in her early seventies. She is a strong, feisty and glamorous person who refuses to let age define her. However, professionally she plays an ageing character in a popular soap opera, a nagging wife with a heart of gold, morally upright, caring, but not afraid to show her feelings or tell her ne’er-do-well husband Joe what she thinks of him. You’ll recognise the archetype.
But one thing bothers Vivienne about her career: as popular as her character is, she is expected to wear a grey wig to cover her own stylish look: she is made to appear old, dowdy, downtrodden and dull. It irks her that older men are still perceived as attractive; in fact, her ex, who plays a window cleaner in the same soap, is often lauded as ‘the older women’s crumpet,’ despite being the same age as she is. Vivienne is unhappy about the unfairness of the situation, and longs for a role which will allow her to shine. Then, when she loses her job and tries to find work, she realises that her options are diminishing.
Of course, the world is full of young, aspiring, attractive female actors and for Vivienne, all the challenging and exciting roles have dried up. As she says, all she can play now is a grandmother, a witch or a corpse, and she finds it all very frustrating.
This leads me to consider whether this dilemma really exists in the world of film, TV and theatre. We know that Helen Mirren, at 76, still finds herself cast in a few glamorous roles, but she has also played the Queen, who is several years her senior. Judi Dench, who is 86 years old, played the wonderful M in the James Bond films, a role which allowed her as a woman to have a high status, and more recently she was fabulous as Madam Arcati in Blythe Spirit. But it has to be said, the opportunity to play Juliet and Sally Bowles will never come again, which is not a problem as long as interesting other roles appear.
And think of the hugely talented Maureen Lipman, 75, who plays Evelyn in Coronation Street, complete with her headscarf, her dog and her pithy one-liners. She is brilliant in that role, and the writers have occasionally thrown her some interesting opportunities her way for romance. Although she is often dressed dowdily, Evelyn has been allowed to look stunning on several occasions. An opportunity, just like Evelyn’s, to appear as someone more complex and not just a frumpy stereotype is all that Vivienne is asking for.
Hollywood actor Geena Davis, who is 64 and played the feisty and glamorous Thelma in Thelma and Louise, commented on her realisation that as a woman over 50, roles for her were diminishing. ‘ I knew it was bad, but this really drove home how very dismal it is.’ Apparently, one in three female characters aged 50-plus are depicted as stubborn or cranky, and are given 16.9% of screen time and 21.8 % of speaking time. They are much less likely to be given romantic scenes than younger actors: it seems that movie producers dislike the visual image of older grown-ups with sex lives. Furthermore, female characters over fifty years of age are more likely to be shown as senile than male characters of a similar age, and are more likely to be shown as inactive and unattractive. For example, older female characters are frequently shown as housebound, physically inactive and frumpy compared to the more dapper and physically-active male. And of course, these statistics worsen when factors such as diversity of race are considered.
Vivienne is aware of her character’s position: frumpy, undesirable, passive and comic. She longs for a change, for a new and more exciting role that will challenge her. More than that, she longs for equality with the male actors of her own age who are still allowed to be sexy, interesting, attractive and active. So, as she embarks on her journey across the country with her fellow Golden Girls, Gwen and Mary, Vivienne has to come to terms with the reality of her situation: she has changed and the roles she wants have dried up. In life, love and acting, some things are unfair.
But by the end of the novel, Vivienne comes to a realisation, accepts her lot and makes peace with the world. I’ll leave you to read about how she manages to achieve a sense of equilibrium.
I hope you’ll enjoy The Golden Girls’ Getaway, which came out on December 7th.