Women of a certain age are still largely invisible and left out of our narratives—or else, she’s a very particular type of middle-aged woman.
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These shows have not only increased the visibility of women over a certain age in Hollywood but also provided a range of female characters with more depth than the one-dimensional, stereotypical women I saw on television growing up. A 2021 New York Timespiece argued that Hollywood’s ageism problem might finally be dead. That year’s Emmys—which saw older women like Mare of Easttown’s Winslet (forty-five), The Crown’s Gillian Anderson (fifty-three), and Jean Smart of Hacks (seventy) take home awards—was just one promising sign. Previously, Hollywood’s dire gender bias had been perfectly spoofed by comedian Amy Schumer in her 2016 sketch “Last Fuckable Day,” which featured Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette mocking the limited opportunities for women over fifty. The data also bears this out: In a 2016analysis of IMDb data from 1920 to 2011, economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen found that women in their twenties have a significant advantage over men their age when it comes to leading roles in film, getting 80 percent of leading roles. But, as women age, this number decreases, and the gender distribution even reverses among actors over forty.
It would seem, then, that things are changing. But ageism operates in more insidious ways.Though representation has improved, pop culture still has a problem with middle-aged women—something I discovered when, in an attempt to avoid my midlife crisis, I decided to look more closely at this fraught relationship. They are still largely invisible and left out of the narrative or are depicted as wives and moms who are not worthy of their own story lines. Sometimes they are career women, but that also becomes their only identity, and their story line is focused on how they can’t have it all—whatever that all is. When middle-aged women are well represented, it also tends to be a particular type of woman: She is married or divorced and has kids. She is also typically white, straight, cisgender, and thin. All of these trends suggest there is a certain set of expectations of what women must have achieved by the time they reach middle age, and those who don’t conform are largely left out of our stories.
And maybe that’s part of where my anxiety about turning fifty came from. I just wanted the women I saw to move beyond outdated representations of where women “should” be in their lives once they reach middle age.
When the birthday I had been dreading for months finally arrived, I actually enjoyed it. I got to catch up with family and eat nachos and drink wine with my two closest friends. My dread took the day off, and there was cake! But I was reminded of my anxiety two months after my birthday, when Carrie Bradshaw and her Manolos strutted back into my life. HBO Max’s And Just Like That . . . , the much-anticipated reboot/sequel to Sex and the City, picked up seventeen years after the original show ended. Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda were now middle-aged women dealing with husbands, children, career transitions, life changes, and Che Diaz’s comedy.
And Just Like That . . . was supposed to resonate with me—a fan of the original series who was now the same age as the girls—but instead it was an unpleasant reminder of the assumptions our culture has when it comes to middle-aged women’s life trajectories. They should be married or divorced. They should have kids. They should have a career. All things that Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte have, for the most part, achieved. The show was ramming societal expectations down my throat faster than the girls used to down cosmos. I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I a failure because I hadn’t achieved the things middle-aged women on the show had?
Viewers could tell from the first episode that the girls were older because their reading glasses were thicker (and required) and their lunchtime conversation topics had shifted from modelizers and funky spunk to a discussion about whether Miranda should dye her gray hair to look younger and fit in better with her Columbia classmates. (Her hair was the least of her problems, as she managed to alienate most of them with a first class that included misgendering a classmate and racism on par with that of the second SATC movie.) Instead of hitting NYC’s hottest clubs, the women now hit children’s piano recitals. The show talked about menopause, but only in passing and mostly as a punchline. It also attempted to be more diverse and inclusive than the original series but failed by awkwardly inserting racialized characters who were one-dimensional and only existed to prop up the white ladies.
Despite being a show that was largely centered around four unmarried thirtysomethings, Sex and the City never had a particularly positive attitude toward single women, often treating them like pathetic pariahs who were just using the Barneys sales as a distraction while they waited to couple up. The new series wasn’t much better: It was a painful reminder that older women who have never been married, never had children, or aren’t constantly searching for a mate still make pop culture very uncomfortable. As a single woman who has never been married and doesn’t have kids, I felt like And Just Like That . . . was like that friend who leaves you behind when their life and priorities change. I made it to the end of the season, but more than once I wanted to turn my television off, write “I’m sorry I can’t, don’t hate me” on a Post-it Note, slap it on the screen, and head to bed (Jack Berger will always be a legend).
As I kept searching for faithful depictions of Gen X womanhood, I was surprised to find it in Yellowjackets, a show that’s—at least on the face of it—about cannibalism and teenagers. In 1996 the Yellowjackets, a women’s high school soccer team from New Jersey, are traveling to Seattle for a tournament when their plane crashes somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. The show tells the story of how the girls survived for nineteen months—and, in parallel, it tells the stories of those who escaped from the wild in the present.
The characters on Yellowjackets exist in two worlds, as 1996 teenage versions of themselves and as present-day adults. I found this split-narrative structure relatable. I, too, felt stuck between two worlds. I wanted to cling to the younger version of myself, which Yellowjackets reminded me of every week, one Gen X cultural reference and Liz Phair song at a time. But I also had to, painfully, acknowledge the adult version of myself who was getting older and who felt like more than half her life was over. I saw the adult versions of the show’s characters, like Melanie Lynskey’s Shauna Sadecki, struggling with similar realities.
“Is this really how you thought your life was going to turn out?” That’s the question a reporter asks the adult Shauna in one of the show’s early episodes, as she unpacks groceries in her suburban kitchen. Prior to the plane crash, Shauna was a star athlete and straight-A student, with early acceptance to Brown University and a bright future ahead of her, but now she’s a bored, neglected housewife who has strained relationships with both her teenage daughter and her distant husband. Unlike Shauna, I wasn’t butchering rabbits in my garden to cope with a midlife crisis, but I was struggling with what gave me purpose and what my life had become. Yellowjackets is very good at depicting this tension as characters try to figure out how much they’ve settled for a life that doesn’t resemble what they imagined when they crashed in the woods as teenagers. These are complicated, messy women—something we usually only see in younger women on shows like Girls to I May Destroy You.
I had spent much of my younger years, like the high school–aged Yellowjackets, wanting my life to speed up. I couldn’t wait to finish high school, to graduate from university, to get my first apartment, my first serious boyfriend, and my first job. Now I wanted the years to take longer to pass. I wasn’t in a rush to get to any of the milestones that awaited me in later life. When you’re fifty, people say “you have your whole life in front of you” a lot less than they did when you were twenty-five. I thought of Patricia Arquette in the movie Boyhood when she says, “You know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral! I just thought there would be more.”
When you’re fifty, people say “you have your whole life in front of you” a lot less than they did when you were twenty-five.
These days, I think about mortality more than I ever have—mine, my aging mom’s, my friends’. Usually, these thoughts occur between the hours of 3 a.m and 6 a.m when, in lieu of sleep, I cycle through my life’s regrets or look up junior high bullies on LinkedIn—the volleyball-mean-girl-to-health-and-wellness-blogger pipeline is very much alive and well in my hometown. I think of what-ifs and “what could have been” and how pixie cuts never worked with my face shape. I’ve always been an introvert who enjoyed a lot of time alone, but now my independence, once a source of pride, resembles something closer to loneliness.
Yellowjackets highlights two groups pop culture has often struggled with when it comes to representation—teenage girls and middle-aged women—and places both at the center of the story. This helped me acknowledge the parts of my younger self that still existed, both the ones I was willing to let go of and those I still wanted to embrace. It also helped middle-age me feel less invisible in a world that I increasingly felt was trying to erase me.
When actor Keanu Reeves went public with his relationship with artist Alexandra Grant, tabloids and celebrity-gossip sites repeatedly commented on Grant’s natural gray hair and her “age appropriateness” (she’s forty-nine, compared to Reeves’s fifty-seven), which is Hollywood code for “old.” The internet also incorrectly identified her as Helen Mirren, because if you have gray hair and are over a certain age in Hollywood, there’sonlyone option for you: Helen Mirren. When tabloids and the internet aren’t mixing up their grays, they’re telling women they look too old and then turning around and shaming them when they have work done that makes them look younger.
I am constantly reminded of how my body has changed. The weight I have gained, the gray in my hair, the lines that have appeared on my face. None of my clothes fit anymore, so for what felt like weeks on end I wore bright-red jogging pants from the Gap and a “Free Winona” (as in Ryder) T-shirt that had always been too big but that now felt uncomfortably snug. On my way to work one day, I ran into a friend who eyed my outfit and then asked if I was coming from the gym. If you know me, you know I am unlikely to ever be coming from the gym, and if I am it will be the first thing I mention because I will expect a parade or commemorative plaque.
I increasingly feel self-conscious about dressing in an age-appropriate way. In an episode of Hacks, aging comedian Deborah Vance describes all the effects menopause and aging have on a woman’s body, from gray hair to cracked nails, before calling it “Mother Nature’s way of telling you to get to the back of the cave.” I know I will eventually have to retire my track pants. Until then, I purchased them in four more colors. Searching for a replacement, I spent far too much time reading online reviews of clothing before putting the items in my cart to make sure the dresses I wanted hit below the knee.
It’s been almost a year since my fiftieth birthday. In that time, I have become more hopeful about representations of aging women in pop culture. I see more Gen X women on television and more opportunities for actresses. Even middle-aged Carrie Bradshaw is a more developed character than Mrs. Roper or Mrs. Cunningham.
I’ve tried to adapt to my ongoing midlife crisis. I didn’t buy a sports car, but I did spend far too much money on vintage 1990s concert tees online. My advances toward younger men have been restricted to defending Pete Davidson in work Zoom meetings. I try to worry less about death and how much time I have left. My friends and I half-heartedly joke about whose parents have accumulated the most clutter in their homes and who will have a bigger mess on their hands when they have to downsize Mom or Dad or both. When I visited my mom’s house in my twenties, I used to try to sneak in after a night out without waking her. Now when I visit, I try to sneak out without her stuffing Lady Diana commemorative thimbles or pieces of her china into my suitcase.
I need all the room I can get for my red track pants.
Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go's, to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Vehicule Press in Fall 2023.