Women who age under the scrutiny of the public eye are faced with two options: grow old "gracefully" (as in, age like Jennifer Lopez or Cindy Crawford, who've actually barely aged at all) or shuffle off into obscurity. If you deviate from this playbook, you'll be tried in the court of public opinion — because sadly, many of us aren't especially kind when it comes to critiquing female celebrities who've passed the age of, oh, 35.
Just ask Sarah Jessica Parker. Her Met Gala look earlier this year garnered a lot of attention, and not just because of her cathedral-inspired gown or the gilded nativity scene balancing precariously on top of her head. If the comments sections of various news outlets are to be believed, the most daring part of SJP's epic ensemble was the fact that she hadn’t attempted to disguise any evidence of age on her 53-year-old face. Just one of many, many disparaging Facebook comments read, "If she hasn’t had any cosmetic work done before then she certainly needs it now." Another: "When did SJP turn 900?" We wouldn’t freely judge other perceived physical imperfections so cruelly, so why is aging considered fair game?
Growing old in the public eye is an impossible double standard. Unless you’re blessed with J.Lo’s genes (seriously, how?), you can either embrace the inevitable wrinkles and gray hair that come with growing older or attempt to hold back the hands of time through artificial means — à la Meg Ryan and Renée Zellweger — and be ridiculed for it. The day after the 2016 Orlando massacre — in which 49 people were murdered, making it one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history — Ryan's face was the highest trending topic on Facebook, with pleas for her to "age gracefully" echoing from all corners of the internet.
Of course, we can’t talk about women being persecuted in the press on account of their age without mentioning Madonna. At 59, her refusal to adhere to society’s view of how a woman of her age should behave incites anger and repulsion (Piers Morgan pretended to vomit into a bucket following her 2016 appearance on Carpool Karaoke). Through the clothes she wears, the surgery she has (or doesn't have), and the men she dates, Madonna brazenly rejects the behavior deemed appropriate for a woman approaching 60 — and it seems to really piss people off.
"What I am going through now is ageism, with people putting me down or giving me a hard time because I date younger men or do things that are considered to be only the domain of younger women," Madonna told The Cut in April. "I mean, who made those rules? Who says?"
We wouldn’t freely judge other perceived physical imperfections so cruelly, so why is aging considered fair game?
"Madonna’s overt sexuality has always angered some people, but now that she’s close to 60, it alarms people even more," says Carolyn Adams-Price, Ph.D., a Mississippi State University professor with a special interest in the psychology of aging. But what is it about her behavior that people apparently find so unpalatable? "I’ll give you a personal example," Dr. Adams-Price says. "When I told my students that most married couples in their 60s have sex at least once a month, which is true, it shocked them more than about anything else I have ever said."
Perhaps, then, the issue we have with women who commit the cardinal sin of aging in the public eye has to do with sex (Amy Schumer took a swipe at this double standard in her 2015 Inside Amy Schumer skit, "Last F**kable Day"). But — shocker — of course older women and men do like to have sex outside of their fertile years, and last time we checked, no one loses it at the likes of Brad Pitt (54), George Clooney (57), or Liam Neeson (66) playing a romantic lead.
"Some evolutionary psychologists argue that men are wired to find women most attractive during their peak fertility years," explains Dr. Adams-Price. "We do see that the older men get, the more they prefer women younger than they are." Apparently, whether or not women prefer men decades their senior, however, is inconsequential — the glaring age disparity between male and female actors is a time-honored Hollywood tradition. Remember when Maggie Gyllenhaal was told at 37 that she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man?
Actresses are considered to reach their professional peak in their 20s, and statistics show that the roles start drying up for women after they reach 30, while the big 4-0 is when their acting opportunities dramatically drop off by around two-thirds. Meanwhile, their male counterparts still have access to 80% of leading roles — as evidenced by 56-year-old Tom Cruise’s career. Continuing a troubling trend for the actor and his much younger love interests, his onscreen wife in the 2017 film American Made is played by Sarah Wright, an actress more than two decades his junior. Evidently, we’re happy for our leading men to grow older, but their love interests can’t.
Of course, the underlying reason for all of this is that the film industry is still dominated by men (of the 250 top-grossing US films released last year, women made up just 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers). But things are changing; women over the age of 40 are proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have stories to tell. At this year’s Academy Awards, all the Best Supporting Actress nominees were over the age of 40, as well as three of the five given the nod for Best Actress (Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress at age 58 for her role in I, Tonya, while 60-year-old Frances McDormand walked away with the Best Actress credential for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
This subtle shift in the way we view a demographic that is paradoxically ridiculed and rendered invisible mirrors that of the beauty industry, which appears to be taking small steps towards greater age inclusivity, thanks to the emergence of older brand ambassadors — such as Helen Mirren and Charlotte Rampling — and outright rejection of the term "anti-aging." Hopefully this means that, one day in the not too distant future, when we implore women to embrace their age, we'll actually mean it.