As Seen on Screen
The other evening I was watching, enjoying and laughing out loud at the BBC TV sitcom ‘Motherland’. Brilliantly written by a team including Graham Linehan (Father Ted), Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and the comedian Holly Walsh, the humour is to be found in the trials and tribulations of middle class, competitive parenting.
Anna Maxwell Martin is very convincing as the distracted and harassed career woman, Julia, whilst Lucy Punch plays the passive aggressive and acerbic divorcee, Amanda. I particularly love Diane Morgan who has all the best one-liners as the working class council estate mum, Liz. There’s also Anne, an Irish ‘earth mother’ who just keeps popping out more and more ‘babbies’. Then I watched an episode about Mother’s Day which allowed the writers to introduce three of the mothers of the mothers in ‘Motherland’. Julia’s mother was demanding, needy and difficult. Amanda’s mother, played with all guns blazing by Joanna Lumley, was emotionally distant, immaculately dressed and entirely self-centred, whilst the Irish granny was both soft-hearted and soft in the head.
‘Just three ridiculous stereotypes of older women played for laughs’ I thought to myself and then I started thinking about how older women are very often ‘seen on screen’ and it took me no time at all to come up with legions of examples of all three stereotypes both on TV and in film.
Stereotype Number One: The Old Bat
Clearly this stereotype has lots of comic potential. The Old Bat is outspoken, indiscreet, irascible and may be extremely rude to those who cross her path. Maggie Smith has lately made a career out of playing such older women which reached its apotheosis in Violet, the Dowager Duchess of Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes kept all his very best and most acerbic and disdainful put-downs for Smith’s character (‘Vulgarity is no substitute for wit”). No wonder that she became a great favourite of the audience.
In ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, Smith played a different kind of old bat. This character (Muriel) was angry, racist and downright unpleasant but indulged because of her age and infirmity. This was also true for Smith’s portrayal of Miss Shepherd, aka ‘The Lady in the Van’, based on the true story of an eccentric and difficult homeless woman who parked her van in Alan Bennet’s driveway in North London and was indulged by the kind-hearted Bennett until she died some sixteen years later. At least this experience inspired his well-received play and subsequent film.
Anne Reid does a fair portrayal of an old bat in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ whilst Brenda Blethyn as the frumpy, dumpy detective in a Paddington Bear hat in ‘Vera’ suffers no fools gladly, yet appears to be surrounded by them.In real life the nearest to a self-acknowledged ‘old bat’ is Anne Robinson, the self-styled ‘Queen of Mean’. It’ll be interesting to see how that schtick works out for the gentle ‘Countdown’ audience.
Maggie Smith as 'Violet' in Downton Abbey
Image from The Mirror. CREDIT - Photo: Harper Collins. See here
Stereotype Number Two: The Ageing Vamp
More comic potential here as the older woman is not supposed to be either sexually available or active. The older vamp is therefore usually portrayed as calculating, scheming, predatory and very glamorous. She’s emotionally distant and cold towards her offspring (especially her daughters) and is uninterested in her grandchildren, so she’s both heartless and selfish.
Joanna Lumley is probably the archetype for the Older Vamp in the same way that Maggie Smith is for the Old Bat, but Celia Imrie and Helen Mirren run her a close second and third. As Madge in ‘Marigold Hotel’ Imrie’s character actually escapes to India to avoid all childcare demands from her family. She then pretends to be Princess Margaret to boost her credentials as a great catch in the local member’s club she joins in order to find a husband. Recently Imrie played an Older Gangster Vamp in ‘Keeping Faith’, a particularly vile interpretation of the stereotype as she was both excessively manipulative and extremely dangerous.
Not so dangerous but equally manipulative was Catherine Deneuve who played the Older Vamp in the French films ‘The Truth’ and ‘The Midwife’ which were two of our Film Club picks. In both stories Deneuve had been loved and idolised by men in her youth, but her allure was fading fast and in both films she was heading towards a lonely old age and (in one of the films) her imminent demise.
Joanna Lumley as 'Felicity' in Motherland
And in real life - who do we have as our very own Older Vamp? Why Joan Collins of course! Still going strong at 88 and still doing her utmost to epitomise the adage ‘Age is just a number’.
Stereotype Number Three: The Extremely Long-Suffering Wife
Much more tragedy than comedy, older women on screen are often cast as the embodiment of sacrifice and self-effacement in the support of a husband who may (for dramatic purposes) utterly betray her. Judi Dench, kind, soft and motherly has been reduced to a penniless widow thanks to her husband’s financial mis-management in ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, whilst Alison Steadman in the recent mini-series ‘Life’ was cast as a woman who discovered her husband’s long term and devastating infidelity just before her 70th birthday party.
In one of our film club films ‘45 Years’, Charlotte Rampling unearthed her husband’s secret past in their loft, devastating her and destroying their 45 year marriage. Glenn Close played ‘The Wife’ in a film about the reward of a Nobel prize for literature going to the husband whose books she has actually written herself. Resentment, anger and frustration at a life sacrificed to a vain and unfaithful spouse finally boils over when Joseph (played by Jonathan Pryce) calls Joan (Close) his ‘support, his muse and his soul’.
And a similar sacrifice was on show in The Artist’s Wife when (you guessed it) the wife paints some pictures for her husband’s final exhibition when Alzheimer’s robs him of his ability to do so.
And in real life? Perhaps poor old Norma Major, an intelligent, well-educated and very private woman who had to bear the ignominy of her politician husband John’s very public affair with Edwina Currie. And then forgave him and they remain together to this day.
The Old Bat, The Ageing Vamp and The Long Suffering Wife may be found in real life but do we always have to be presented with one or other of these stereotypes whenever an older woman takes to the stage? Opportunities for older actresses are few and far between, so I imagine that all the brilliant thesps mentioned here are just happy to be working. But I do wonder whether, now that they’re older, they ever resent invariably being cast either as a harridan, a vamp or a doormat depending on their reputation. This year Frances McDormand (64) won the Best Actress Oscar for her phenomenal portrayal of Fern in Nomadland. Here was an older woman who combined strength of character with a touch of eccentricity laced with kindness, wisdom and wit. Not a one-dimensional stereotype but very much more typical of the vast majority of older women that I know.
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The section about women (usually wives) not being credited for their husband's writings or other achievements reminds me of what used to be the case when anthropologist couples carried out fieldwork together. The husband would mention the wife's contribution in the acknowledgements in HIS book... One example from Greece: researching in the 1950s nomadic shepherds on the Greek-Albanian border John Campbell was getting nowhere. His wife saw village boys bullying a shepherd boy and chased them off and took him with her to tend to his wounds, and off he went. Later that day a shepherd woman same, seized them by the hands, and took them to the nomads' encampment where a feast was prepared for them. And - John's research took off, with his wife getting all sorts of information from the women. (The villagers wouldn't speak to him after that, of course!) Lots of other examples, until "the wives" began to write their own books....