I have an unofficial rule when it comes to choosing my next show: I will not watch a series about high-schoolers.
While that may seem like a strict edit to live by, it has saved me from hours wondering why my high school memories didn’t measure up to unrealistic expectations. I’m 27 — I can’t go back and relive my formative years.
When I watch TV now, it’s with the intention of looking forward. I want to see my future as it could be and not my past as it might have been. Rather than watch yet another version of “early 20s women take their dream job and dream city with seemingly no obstacles,” I want something more tempered. I want to experience the nuanced emotions of real-life women navigating relationships, friendships, careers and motherhood with tension. I want my TV shows to serve as a cool aunt, pulling back the curtain on the mystery of adulthood and cautioning that life is more than simply racking up milestones.
That’s the hole Julie Delpy’s “On the Verge” filled when I began watching in September. I was so taken with the Netflix show that I immediately texted multiple friends and asked whether they had seen it. You have to, I told them. That’s how validating and earth-shattering it felt.
The show opens with Delpy’s character, on the verge of turning 50, balancing quite a lot — she’s running a restaurant kitchen, writing a cookbook, raising a child and, arguably, raising a husband. The format is that of the standard four-person friend group, but this time, each woman character is approaching midlife and feels fully realized, with motivations and fears of their own. I appreciated that each woman struggled in their romantic relationships. I enjoyed that they had deep bonds with their children but also craved the stimulation and control of their careers.
While I don’t have children and I’m not married, these are still themes I relate to. It’s the constant struggle between wanting to fulfill the roles society has told us we should — nurturing and building a home — and wanting to live by the call from deep within us — our dreams.
I longed for these characters to erase years of stigma I had internalized about what it means to be a mother and a woman past a certain age. My unrealistic idea of motherhood and marital life was one of endless domestic bliss, of loving your child and never regretting it, of losing yourself in your new role, and forgetting about the rest of your life. It wasn’t so much that I genuinely believed this was reality, but it was a message fed to me so often through years of entertainment that it was hard to let go.
But as soon as that sense of understanding began, the show was over. The gaping hole had been filled momentarily, and now it was back. There’s a reason I devour these shows so quickly — they only come up once or twice a year. And that’s mostly because of a lie Hollywood has managed to proliferate for decades. As women enter midlife, they become less and less interesting.
Women made up roughly a quarter of all characters 50 and older in 2019, according to a report analyzing that year’s top-grossing films by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. None of the leads in these films were 50-plus women. Worse still, women over the age of 50 were far more likely than older men to be portrayed as senile, homebound, feeble and frumpy.
As female actresses age, they get fewer and fewer words of dialogue, according to a 2016 Polygraph study. About 38 percent of all woman-spoken dialogue was delivered by actresses from ages 22 to 31, based on a review of 2,000 screenplays. Only 20 percent of female dialogue was performed by women between 42 and 65. A male actor’s career charts the opposite progression, according to the study — they get more and more dialogue as they get older, at least until they reach 65.
It’s obvious where Hollywood assigns value. The salt-and-pepper hair and aging bodies of men only bring distinction and gravitas. The physical maturity of women is just another sign of their impending demise.
But things are starting to change, largely led by a movement of female writers, directors and actors who want better roles. TV Land’s “Younger” skewers ageism in our professional lives. Catherine Reitman’s “Workin’ Moms” highlights the joys and challenges of motherhood and building a career. The women of “Big Little Lies” brought middle-aged mothers to the forefront. At 50, Sandra Oh is hitting a career peak with leading roles in “Killing Eve” and “The Chair.” Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” features two leads in their seventies.
For the actresses and writers who make up these shows, the significance is not lost. Lisa Edelstein was 48 when she was cast in Bravo’s “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.” One plot line dealt with Edelstein’s character going through menopause. And sadly, that was revolutionary.
“A woman can act until that point in her life where she is teetering into menopause and then you can’t see her again until she is a crone,” Edelstein said in an interview with Bravo. “There was something about the transition time from youth and fertility to being an old woman that was missing in our storytelling. That’s the most powerful time in a woman’s life.”
While female-centered entertainment still has many strides to make, particularly in emphasizing performances by women of color, it’s heartening to see more and more middle-aged women living their best lives and, more importantly, living them on-screen.
And for those of us in our twenties, I hope Hollywood realizes that we just want a realistic taste of what the future holds. What’s more invigorating than feeling that life doesn’t end after you turn 40? There’s so much more to come.