We live in the age of the right to reply, and recently, when I posted about how inspiring it was to see older, 60-plus women such as Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Jennifer Coolidge winning awards, a woman dismissed it because they were celebrities. Awards season may be a bubble far removed from the realities of day-to-day living, but even the ivory tower of Hollywood isn’t resistant to the stranglehold of ageism. And while money and privilege can temporarily buy a reprieve from ageing, no one is immune to it. Therefore any discourse that overturns the narrative that youth has the monopoly on success is one that is relevant to all.
While the discussion around women and ageism in Hollywood isn’t anything new, it feels different this time. In part, because it’s not just one older woman achieving success at a particular point in time, but several—all of whom have used parts of their acceptance speeches or red carpet interviews so far to reference age. Bassett, 64 (who has just been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, along with Jamie Lee Curtis, also 64) spoke of having “patience” after her history-making win at the Golden Globes, while Yeoh talked about turning 60 and noticing the opportunities getting smaller when she accepted her first Golden Globe. And Coolidge, 61, at the Critics Choice Awards said: “For anyone who has given up hope… it’s not over until you’re dead.”
This for me is the key difference. Previously, conversations around ageism have focused on simply getting other people to acknowledge it exists. A necessary endeavour, but it has also distracted from the real work: how to dismantle it and reshape the future. It also provides the missing piece of information that pithy “you can achieve anything at any age” Instagram posts fail to address. Namely: if we live in a society that spins a narrative that the bulk of your successes will be in your 20s and 30s, and we are not road-mapping career success in every decade, there are many of us who may simply give up, or not even know there is an option to keep going. As a 42-year-old wondering if I’ve already peaked in my career and worrying about relevance, seeing success thrive among older women is vital to stop me from voluntarily snuffing out my own spark.
While people may be surprised to hear me say that, given that I likely come across as a confident know-it-all, we live in an ageist society that tells us repeatedly that older people are bad with technology, and diminish cognitively and physically. We praise people when they “don’t look their age” rather than simply saying they look good. While age-related workplace discrimination is a very real thing—which disproportionately affects women in their early 40s, at a younger age than it does for men—many of us absorb all of this messaging until we believe that we can’t do it.
Anything that confronts this self-limiting belief, therefore, is vital. What we are seeing play out in Hollywood taps into a zeitgeist that is gathering pace, which is relevant whatever your age. Across the board, I’ve seen a growing movement among mid-life women (who are in their 40s and 50s), as well as older women in their 60s, 70s and beyond, who are making their voices heard, and making themselves visible. These women are role modelling what is possible at any age and most importantly redefining it—whether that’s being more vocal on social media, writing books about mid-life and beyond, and talking about everything from health to success on podcasts.
Threading across different industries—particularly tech, fashion and the creative arts—as well as social media, podcasts and literature, we are in the midst of a redefinition of what it means to be older. Even TikTok, a platform that ages out 25-year-olds, is home to many people 40, 50 and 60-plus, overturning narratives around life choices, fashion sub-cultures, and fitness capabilities. Crucially, it isn’t about fitting in or conforming, it’s about creating a new path by a demographic who are fed up with being told what they can and cannot do.
The message from older women in Hollywood isn’t just that you can experience success at any decade. It is a reminder to fight back, to keep going, to keep taking chances, and don’t write yourself off even if everyone else does, because a time will come when the world can no longer justify not looking your way.