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November 4, 2022

Is There a “Place for Us”?: The Role of Aging Women in Hollywood

The Importance of Stories

The night is cold and dark. The wind, like a lion’s roar, echoes through the cracked brick of the monastery. She makes leaps and bounds toward the dim source of light at the end of the dirt path. She tries to maintain her speed, with her brand new black Mary Janes, caked from all the rain, until she reaches a fork in the road…

It has been proven that our brains are hard-wired to tell, love, and understand stories 1 We thrive on a good narrative and we soak them up everyday. One method that we use to tell stories is through movies.

The Importance of Movies

What is it about movies, films, and motion pictures that resonate with us? Could it be the way that the movie is written, or the different angles that are used, or maybe we just like the actor/actress that the film features? It can and is all of those things, but it’s also the characters. It may not always be their traits, but that we can see ourselves through them… for the most part. Studies show that the things that we watch influence the actions we make. 2



So because stories have such a great impact on us and the things that we do, shouldn’t the films we watch reflect the world around us and the people in it?



Meryl Streep from “Florence Foster Jenkins” at Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2016

You would think so, but a study of movies released in 2018 found that the percentage of women in leading roles was 36%. The percent for women above the age of 40 make up 16% 3 

As a society, we have grown in terms of inclusivity.  However, one factor that still makes Hollywood directors shudder is age. This is seen more in relation to women. And while we love to see the gems that actresses like Meryl Streep, Sheryl Lee Ralph, or Rita Moreno are in. Streep, known as “Our Greatest Actress”, has astounded audiences for over 30 years with her technique and ability to play diverse characters 4. Sheryl Lee Ralph, long time actress, has only recently been recognized for her talents with her Emmy for show, Abbott Elementary. The story is the same for Rita Moreno, who at 90, still appeared in Steven Spielberg’s version of the classic 1960s film, West Side Story.



But is it enough? One has to wonder if the roles given to these ladies are enough to represent older female actors as a whole.



Geena Davis at the podium, Geena Davis at the podium, advocating for a culture shift in the representation of girls and women in film.

Geena Davis, Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own, says that what has been done so far hasn’t been enough. Davis is an advocate for better representation for women on screen. Her life’s work, other than her films has been to shed light on this long ignored issue. She is aware of the lack and misrepresentation of women of all ages and believes that the “underrepresentation of women can be fixed absolutely overnight on screen” In her Oscar acceptance speech, she discusses how deep this issue hits and says that life for fictional female characters is worse than real life, “where you can make it up, you can be anything you want, and we make it worse…”. Despite how things look now, her goal is to help build a kinder Hollywood where  5

How gracious are we to the aging woman?

You may notice that when we do see older women in motion pictures, they seem to be playing the same types of roles. They maybe a monarch, continuing their rule, or a wise, nurturing grandma with stories to tell, or an angry old woman who simply wants to be left alone, or even a sad retired mother, who’s children place her in a nursing home.  You are not just imagining things. Writers make the same types of characters for mature women. Research from the Geena Davis Institute backs it up and says that the roles that women 50 and older play are more likely shown as frail, frugal, creepy, lonely, or a burden to others 6

While there is nothing inherently wrong with these archetypes, they are not all that mature women can be. There are so many other ways to show aging, that aren’t typically written.

The ‘New’ Older Woman: Are we Making Progress?

There have been films that show older women in a different light. One such example is the consistency of Judi Dench as “M” in the James Bond films, starting with Pierce Brosnan and then Daniel Craig. In her role she is “generally allowed to step outside prescribed gender- and age-roles,”. Through Dench’s portrayal of M, she was able to be seen as a feminist and a defiance of what was originally thought of women in Bond films. When M so bluntly called Brosnan’s Bond a, “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”, audiences listened to this new type of woman being shown beside Brosnan.

Actress Dame Judi Dench arrives at The Orange British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Opera House | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

However, much to Dench’s dismay, she was killed off in 2021’s “Skyfall”, drawing an end of an era in Bond films. With the absence of Dame Judi Dench, a fan favorite, and the longest running “M” and character of the film series, it’s almost a regression. All of the work built up to show a more inclusive, less masculine Bond series, seems to have come to a close by killing one character. What would lead the Author, Eva Krainitzki says, “From a feminist perspective, M can be read as a powerful female figure who is punished for seeking to occupy the patriarchal space in the Bond film”… “her punishment ‘a desperate reassertion of control on the part of the threatened male subject’”. Krainitzki did confirm that age was a factor in writing off Dench’s “M”.  7 

What does the future hold?

It seems like as soon as we make 1 step forward, we end up moving 20 steps back. As a young Texan and Mexican woman, it can be hard to see when a person who is written to be like me, doesn’t or doesn’t share the same experiences. We should know that not all Texans have accents or live on ranches, but not everyone does. I imagine it feels the same for mature actresses. Sheryl Lee Ralph is only the 36th black female recipient of an Emmy 8.

But, not everything is doom-and-gloom. The Geena Davis Institute as well as other organizations are a beacon of hope, showing that there is still a chance for change. In a study conducted by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen found that the percentage of older men who were shown on screen as major characters in 2002 was 73%, while it was 36% in 2018. This is a 37% percent change over 16 years, and it does make quite a difference, comparatively with women. With the recent rise of the “Representation Matters” movement, we remain optimistic, but we know that it isn’t enough. What will our statistics show 10 years from now? As talks of inclusion continue, shouldn’t  factors like age and race change in the way they are depicted in motion pictures?

Film can be the catalyst for a change.  

  1. Carl Alviani, “The Science Behind Storytelling,” Protagonist Studio (blog), June 11, 2021,
  2. Stanisiaw Juszczyk, “Media Influence on Children and Adolescents,” n.d., 19.
  3. Dr Martha M Lauzen, “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing Films of 2018,” 2018, 3-4.
  4. “Our Greatest Actress | The Hudson Review,” accessed November 3, 2022,
  5. Geena Davis Receives the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2019 Governors Awards, 2019,
  6. “Women Over 50: The Right to Be Seen on Screen,” Geena Davis Institute (blog), accessed October 29, 2022,
  7. Eva Krainitzki, “Judi Dench’s Age-Inappropriateness and the Role of M: Challenging Normative Temporality,” Journal of Aging Studies 29 (April 1, 2014): 32-40,
  8. “The (Shockingly Short) List of Black Women Who Have Won Primetime Emmy Awards,” Essence (blog), accessed November 3, 2022,

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Sarah Guerrero

Sarah Guerrero is currently a rising senior at St. Mary's University, majoring in Communication Studies and double minoring in Visual Communication Design and Art. She enjoys talking about film, music, photography, and education and the role that they play in our lives. Sarah is anticipated to graduate in December of 2024.

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Recent Comments


  • Xavier Bohorquez

    This is an amazing topic to discuss on with women in the acting industry. To see the imaginary box in women and see the road they are on, even though there are steps taken to step outside of that box, the movement towards change is a slow and prolonged process. Actors like Meryl Streppe are a perfect example of that change being made by demonstrating no matter how old they get women are still essential and necessary to a great story.

  • Fatima Esparza

    This article is fascinating and shows how race and gender are not the only issues in Hollywood, age is one of them as well. I did not know Hollywood had trouble hiring older women for leading roles. Sadly, it is difficult for these women to get a leading role without having to be one of the more well-known actresses. The number of older women in Hollywood leading roles have changed significantly over the years. Hopefully, this changes over time to create more opportunities for older women in Hollywood.

  • Karly West

    I would like to start by congratulating you on your nomination! I adore that you took the time to understand the impact of women in media, and how with time they slowly become less and less prominent with age. It’s sad to think all that producers see in older actresses is their age. The fewer roles actresses get because of their age, the more I believe that women will push into cosmetic surgery in order to look more “youthful” even though their age shouldn’t define their self-worth. Great job!

  • Carolina Wieman

    In the media women aging is such a taboo with everything telling us to make sure to purchase all the anti-aging products and continuously encouraging us to change how we look instead of aging naturally. Even within movies, those stigmas are shown with unrealistic expectations of an aging woman. Today celebrities are typing to break that stigma by showing there true aging journey on social media and trying to create a better world for women.

  • Rosalyn Ledesma

    This article is defientely worthy of its nomination, congratulations by the way! While I don’t know much about older female actresses and the lack of inclusivity in the acting industry, you mangaged to capture my attention with your first few opening paragrapghs about film and how it can be a “catalyst for change” and our actions can reflect the films we watch and the stories we hear. Perhaps it is because of our society’s view of women and the pressure of maintaining youth and beauty that playwrights and writers forget how talented and emotionally captivating many of older female actresses are. I hope that eventually many of the stereotypes that these actresses are given evolve into something much richer and deeper, allowing its audience to resonate with their charcters even more than before.

  • Danielle Rangel

    This is an amazing and thought provoking article! I think it is interesting how women are constantly put into this box in movies that make them only relatable to a certain extent. And even though there are steps taken to step outside of that box, the movement towards change is a slow and prolonged process. Actors like Meryl Streppe are a perfect example of that change being made by demonstrating no matter how old they get women are still essential and necessary towards a great story.

  • Maggie Trujillo

    Great job on this article! It definitely puts the point out there that “older” actresses are just a vital part of the film industry as any other actresses. I am usually dumbfounded when there is a story or article on how little demand there is for mature actresses – especially when you see them on the screen. Rita Moreno came out recently in the revised West Side Story and is coming out again in another movie. Meryl Streep is always a favorite and is constantly coming out in different performances. I am glad to see that people realize that no matter how “old” we get as a person, we can still be proficient in doing what we love.

  • Lauren Deleon

    I absolutely love the title of this article because Rita Moreno is such an icon and role model. As someone who has studied drama and theater, I can attest that older actresses are extremely limited in the roles that are available to them. Playwrights, screenwriters, and other creatives have failed to tell stories about mature women with the same level of nuance and complexity that they do men. As you mentioned hopefully the work of advocates for the female voice, like Geena Davis, will bring about change soon, and we will see more stories about mature complex women. 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once with Michelle Yeoh is a fantastic example of a well-written female character who isn’t simplified to fit within preconceived notions about her age group, but is instead allowed to represent the true scope of the female experience. Hopefully more movies and performance like this are on the horizon!

  • Nicole Estrada

    Congratulations on your nomination! I loved your article! The writing and formatting was fantastic! The different fonts and images you used in your article truly brought your article to life. The topic you chose to write about is very powerful and interesting. I think they should put women who are a bit older in movies. It’s extremely sad how the media is unfortunately very biased, how women are portrayed in the same way in almost every movie, and how this topic is talked about so little. I’m thrilled you chose this topic and you were able to provide some information on the topic to the audience clearly. I learned some great things by reading your article on a topic I know so little on. Again, Congratulations on your nomination! Fantastic article!

  • Amanda Uribe

    Congrats on the nomination. I love how you spaced out these important topics/questions that are posed. Specifically, when you write about how gracious society is to aging women, I never realized that whenever I see an older woman portrayed in media, she really is always a mother. A dependent mother to add. I truly hope that these roles dramatically change in the future to represent personhood of older women.

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