Older Women & Friends

Older Women In The Media w/ Susan Douglas, professor of Communication Studies, University of Michigan

February 01, 2024 Jane Leder Episode 34
Older Women & Friends
Older Women In The Media w/ Susan Douglas, professor of Communication Studies, University of Michigan
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

It's become a cliche: older women in the media are portrayed as mothers, grandmothers, washed-up lovers, mother-in-laws.  Think of the invasive mother-in-law in "Everyone Loves Raymond." And the same goes for "Steinfeld." And then think of how men in their 60s, particularly in movies, are paired with women in their late 20s or early 30s. James Bond gets older every year, and the Bond girls get younger. And then there's the Going Gray bru-ha-ha when women stopped coloring their hair during the Pandemic and, when they returned to work as, say TV anchors, they were given an ultimatum: Get rid of the gray or leave.

But all is not lost, says Susan Douglas, award-winning author and professor of Communication Studies, at the University of Michigan. "Things have started to change in large part because there are more women 50+ than at any time in our history," says Douglas. "Older women want to see reflections of themselves in the media, and A-listers want to keep on working, fighting for better roles. Older women are a market, and for better or worse, our buying power puts pressure on film studios, broadcast media, and advertisers.

"We are at a turnstile moment," says Douglas. "There are those who want to push forward, while others want to push back. There is progress but not as much as older women want.

Do you see more accurate reflections of older women in the media? Do you agree or disagree with Susan's research?

https://susanjdouglas.com/

If you want to record a question about the portrayal of women in the media or anything else related to "Older Women & Friends," go to:
https://www.speakpipe.com/olderwomenandfriends
SPEAK TO ME

Speaker 1:

Hi, I'm Jane Leder, host of Older Women and Friends. You know, when it comes right down to it, I find aging to be a complex affair Highs, lows and everything in between. But as I see it, the one constant is change, and the key is how we adjust, how we transition. Do we start a new career, write that book we've had rolling around in our heads for years, move to warmer climbs, to be near our grandchildren, continue teaching or researching or coaching other women, or do we just hang out, travel and have a good time? The guests on Older Women and Friends have many stories to tell, to share, about what they've been up to and what they've learned along the way. So turn up the volume and join me on Older Women and Friends. Have you seen that new hot flash commercial on TV? I did a double take. And since when does Big Pharma care about women and menopause? Oh, I know when it has a new drug and wants to make a big old profit. But is there any sincere concern about how menopause of women are portrayed Now? Menopause has been in my rear view mirror for well more than two decades, but what is front and center for my peers and me who are at least 60, is the way we're seeing in the media, on TV, in commercials and in film. Older women we know typically play the role of mother or grandmother or someone experiencing a midlife crisis ie hysteria, as it used to be called and it's less likely to see women portrayed as the lead characters or the romantically desirable one. Now there's been a lot of progress, but the wheels are not turning as fast as we'd like. So to explain the headwind still blowing and the steps made in the right direction, today's guest is Susan Douglas, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, which, by the way, happens to be my alma mater. So go blue. Susan is the author of many books, including In Our Prime, how Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead to when the Girls Are Cute Little Play on when the Boys Are. So growing up female with the mass media. Susan, welcome to Older Women and Friends. Hey, jing, thanks for having me. My pleasure. So quick question what inspired you to follow the route that you are currently on?

Speaker 2:

Well, I've been writing about women in the media for a long time, and it's always had autobiographical elements. Where the girls are was about growing up as a baby boomer in a very changing media landscape over time, and I wrote a book much later called Enlightened Sexism, in which I was watching my daughter grow up in a particular media environment that was very different than the one that was surrounding me as an older woman, and so when I reached what we call a certain age, I was interested in how older women were being portrayed or not in the media, the extent to which older women were stereotyped, invisible but also kind of breaking out. So that's what got me to this topic.

Speaker 1:

So what are some of those negative stereotypes you mentioned invisibility what are some of the other ones that are perpetuated in the media when it comes to older women?

Speaker 2:

That we're sick decrepit worthless unattractive, bitchy grumpy. I have no idea how to use technology inclusive in our children's lives, all of that.

Speaker 1:

Funny, what an extensive list, and I'm sure we could go on and on. So we have that negative, all those stereotypes, and can you give me any examples that you can think of right off the bat in terms of a treatment of a woman in a film or a TV show that exemplifies some of those characteristics I've been focusing recently so much more on the positive images of women.

Speaker 2:

But over the years, older women have been patients in hospital beds, grandmothers, evil stepmothers or mothers-in-law. Think about everyone loves Raymond and the mother-in-law. There was very invasive and intrusive same with Seinfeld. So these stereotypes have been kind of passed in amber, in which we have the same tropes over and over again. So those are some of the major ones. Oh, also victims of crime, and this has been especially true of older women of color. This was like documented in the 1970s and 1980s If you had an older woman in a drama or whatever, she was going to be dead before the first commercial came out. It's just been pretty terrible until recently.

Speaker 1:

Before we get to the good stuff, can you talk a little bit? How, conversely, older men are portrayed. Where does that difference come in?

Speaker 2:

Well, this is so obvious it's become kind of a cliche, but there have been great studies done about this. Men are allowed to be seen as dignified when their temples gray, women not so much. You have Harrison Ford, of whom I am a fan, still working in his early 80s, and the classic pairing in movies, especially when there's a romantic interest, is some guy in his 60s is paired with a woman in her late 20s or early 30s. You think about Jack Nicholson as good as he gets was paired with a woman 30 years younger than he. With Helen Hunt in the Phantom Thread, daniel Day-Lewis paired with a woman 30 years younger than he. When you think about Jeff Bridges, paired with Maggie Gyllenhaal, she was 30 years younger than he. This is just standard, I mean. Think about the James Bond movies. Every year James Bond got older and older and older, the women got younger and younger. So it's just been so cliched that it's almost a joke.

Speaker 1:

And sad nonetheless, and I was reading or I had heard about this case before and I don't remember her name, but she was a anchor person on the news in Canada and I think it was in Toronto, and she had let her hair go gray during the pandemic. There was just no way to get it colored and then she decided she liked it and she got back to work and the powers that be, the men, asked her to re-dye her hair and she refused and she was summarily dismissed. And there was this. I remember the headline in the New York Times went something like after going gray, a news anchor found herself the focus of the story. And I was stuttering. I'm stuttering now when I think about this and I guess the only silver lining is that, according to her, the response that she got, particularly on social media, was like 99% supportive. So at least in terms of how her watching what he called not her listenership, but the people who are watching the news show they supported her. So but I was furious when I heard that, absolutely furious, and I'm sure it happens all over.

Speaker 2:

There was enormous outrage over that, especially among women, and there were women who, during the pandemic, you know, because none of us could go get our haircut or colored or anything decided to go gray. And some of those women were stunned at the response that they got from coworkers, others who all of a sudden saw them and treated them as much more older and kind of out of it and more fragile and affirmed than they had been treated just a year and a half ago. So it is an issue for women about whether they decide to go gray or not and how that affects how they're treated professionally, which does not happen to men, by the way. If you look at some of the Sunday talk shows and who gets to go on there and bloviate about politics, these are men with eye bags and jowls and gray hair or none at all, and this does not affect their credibility, the respect that they get at all. So it is still very much an infuriating double standard.

Speaker 1:

I was trying to think of some of those men that you were just referring to, and I know so many of them, but the names weren't coming. I was remembering Bill O'Reilly or George Witt, or even Dan Rather, whom I adore, but as an older person, you were keeping your fingers crossed that he was going to survive the show, and yet they would just never, ever, as you say, have women on those shows. And before we get to the good stuff because I know you've been concentrating on that and we always like good news you did cite some very discouraging statistics in one of the papers that you wrote, which said that older women, 50 plus, are 60% less likely to see themselves in the media. Has that percentage improved?

Speaker 2:

I don't have statistics, but things have definitely started to change, and part of it, jane, is that there are more women over 50 in our society than any other time in our history. They're living longer, they're healthier, they're working. 83% of women between 65 and 70 are still working. 18% of women 70 to 75 are still working. What does that mean? We're a market, and when you're a market in our country, you matter. So that's what's beginning to make a difference. We are being recognized as a market, for better and for worse, and so you're starting to see more media however slim it is addressed to us, and more media not necessarily just addressed to us featuring older women.

Speaker 1:

But the rationale, the motivation, is a little suspect. Because once again, just like the new medication to stop hot flashes during menopause, you see these changes in the way women are portrayed and accepted. But again it's honing in on a market, as you say, the percentage of women who are older. And sure, we're out there and we're paying to see movies and reading books and we're looking at TV ads. So I was curious to know your take on these shows. Keep now saying, well, see, things have changed. Things have changed. Look at the Golden Bachelor. Or look at the film 80 for Brady, which I did not see it, but I have to admit I'm sorry, I did watch some of the Golden Bachelor. I was intrigued. And what's your take on shows like that?

Speaker 2:

Well, the Golden Bachelor I actually found kind of interesting because there you had 25 older women and unlike the regular Bachelor where the women are pitted against each other and get into constant catfights, what was interesting about this show and I don't know whether it was produced that way or because of the older women involved they were supportive of each other. They did not attack each other. There was some dignity there that. Whether those women insisted upon it, given their age and didn't want to look like a bunch of teenagers in a cat fight, or whether the producers supported that, I don't know. But I found that quite interesting about that show. And again, I am not a fan of the Bachelor franchise. But to see 25 older women, very different backgrounds, different races, different kinds of appearances, to be on television I thought was pretty interesting. But I am more interested, I guess, in shows like Grace and Frankie, which became such a hit, or Gene Smart in Hex, who was fabulous in the show Kate Winslet in the Mayor of Easttown Even Girls, which was produced in the 1980s it's still in its indication that is one of the longest indicated shows ever why People love it and they love this found family that these four older women create. I did see 80 for Brady not the finest hour in cinema. You've got these four fabulous women Sally Field, lily Tomlin, jane Fonda, Rita Marino Getting to Act Together. A very recent interesting offering is now Jody Foster in HBO's True Detective and it's another one of these very courageous performances. Jody Foster has been acting since what she was 13 years old and now Jody Foster has lines on her face and she doesn't care. She's acting in this tough role as this tough detective and it's just, I think, kind of really empowering and affirming to see these A-list celebrities putting themselves out there and affirming that older women can be strong and active and empowered and the boss and using their bodies and their minds to affect social justice. So I would say, jane, that we are really at a turnstile moment here. As you rightly point out, there's a lot of negative stereotypes still out there. Negative stereotypes last a long time. They've been embedded in our media for decades and decades. They are the sedimented layer that doesn't go away. But, on the other hand, because various A-list celebrities you think Lily Tomlin, meryl Streep, sally Field, et cetera they are not interested in being put out to pasture. They want to fight for and they get juicy roles, but there are also everyday women who don't wanna put up with this either, and so we're really again at this turnstile moment where one handle is pushing one way retrograde and the other is pushing forward to have a new, more enlightened and progressive understanding of older women as still a really productive, interesting force in our culture and our society.

Speaker 1:

And I was thinking about the four women that you mentioned, and I could be wrong, but I think all of those women have chosen to age gracefully, naturally, boldly, whatever adverb you want to add but instead of trying to look like they did 20 years ago, they're saying hey, this is me, I look my age, I feel good. Oh, hey, I've got a few things going on, but that's not what's important. And I find myself cheering almost every time that I see or hear about one of these very visible media stars who's out there saying you don't have to go and get your face lifted, you don't have to do liposuction, you don't have to use that new pill, whatever it is, or shot that's gonna let you lose 15% of your body weight without skipping a meal. Or when I go, oh wow, I think that would be really interesting. Then I go no, jane, no, and just well. I wanted to go back to the comment you made about the women in the Golden Bachelor. Not only were they supportive of one another, but I understand that the bride, whose name I don't remember, asked one of the other women to stand up for her at the wedding.

Speaker 2:

Yes, that was Teresa and she did do that. Hey, I'm a media studies person. It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it. The other thing I would say, jane, is we're seeing more older women in public affairs too. Zoe Lofgren, who was on the January 6th committee she is at least in her 70s and she has definitely not had work done and she is very smart and very assertive about her political views. She's on television quite frequently. Claire McCaskill is an ongoing contributor and a fabulous, smart one in MSNBC. You have Barbara McQuade, who is a colleague here at the University of Michigan, who's a fabulous lawyer and teacher at the law school, doing terrific commentary on television. Of course we have Nancy Pelosi, probably one of the best speakers of the house ever in her early 80s still in politics. So we're beginning to see more older women in public policy and public affairs as well, which is also really important, because issues that affect women affect everybody, whether it's social security, medicare, medicaid, unemployment, the environment you mentioned. It affects everybody and it's important to have women's voices heard about public affairs issues. So I have also found that pretty heartening. Now, again, television is a visual medium. Most of the women on TV who are reporters, et cetera. They're young women, they're in their 30s and often when women get to be a certain age as a reporter in television, they're forced to go into radio or forced to get out of the business altogether. But not all of them. Andrea Mitchell is still on there. So it's again this push and pull between the exigencies of the media, thinking only younger women should be on TV, but also a viewership that on television skews old. The viewership of television skews old and older women wanna see older women.

Speaker 1:

Is that percentage more significant in television versus film in terms of the number of women that are watching?

Speaker 2:

Absolutely. Tv has skewed old for a long time and with each passing year, especially broadcast TV and cable TV. Broadcast TV one of the reasons that they launched the Golden Bachelor is because these executives are looking at their Nielsen ratings and they're looking at their demos, and their demos for 18 to 49 are pathetic, except for the bachelor. Those young people are going to Netflix, they're going to HBO, they're going to Apple Plus, whatever. So on television you've got, they're finally realizing they better meet their audience where their audience is, unlike film, which has for way too long catered to teenage and early 20-something boys and men with the whole superhero franchise. But even now they're beginning to realize that older people go to the movies too, and especially independent films. The bread and butter there it's older viewers.

Speaker 1:

Well, what about? You mentioned streaming, and are the stats with streaming different from those traditional cable television?

Speaker 2:

It's very hard to know because Netflix, for example, they keep their stats in the lockbox. Their data are very proprietary. They're not good at sharing their data. But Netflix produces so many different kinds of programs that they can target every demo, every niche and get a different piece of the different population. So and they're the most successful streaming platform out there, so they can do Grace and Frankie and get a very loyal audience, and then they can do something that's completely geared to young people and get that audience.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So what do the rest of us do? Those of us who don't necessarily have a bully pulpit and are certainly people who watch film and television, were frustrated with the continuation of some of this very negative portrayal of women. What can we do, if anything?

Speaker 2:

I do think that social media has its ills, can be very toxic, but social media is also a pretty amazing platform for all kinds of people, including feminists, to speak out about what they see going on around them. And social media can be a platform to talk back to streaming services, to talk back to broadcasting cable TV. When I mean in the example you talked about the Canadian newscaster, there was an enormous outcry that raised people's awareness about ageism against women, and so I do think that's important. But I also just think in our everyday lives it's important for older women to hold their own, to speak up when they see ageism being directed at somebody else or themselves. To not tolerate being interrupted at a meeting just because you're at an older woman. To not tolerate having your voice dismissed if you think it's just because you're an older woman in a meeting. I heard a great anecdote when I was doing talks promoting the book of a woman who said she was at a dinner with her adult daughter and I think some friends and the waiter came up and started talking to the adult daughter when asking her what they wanted, and the mother turned to him and she said do you know who's paying the bill here and that got his attention. So I just think the other thing I would say that I think is really important and I'm incredibly lucky on this score because I'm a professor at a university and I get to interact with young people all the time we need to do a better job of making friends with younger people. Young people the anti-aging industrial complex is targeting them already. I have students in their 20s who are getting bombarded with Botox ads, are using anti-aging creams and all the rest. They're afraid of getting older and it's our job to meet. Take them out for a glass of wine, take them out for a coffee. Find some young people to get to know. Younger women and older women have a lot in common in terms of the issues facing our country, but they also need to know that getting older is not a disaster. We have friends, we have activities, we enjoy our lives, and there is a lot that is incredibly positive about getting older, including the comfort we have with ourselves, our sense that we don't have to prove ourselves quite so much. Studies show that women in their 60s and older are actually happier than women in their 20s, and so I think what I've been calling these bridge groups not about cards, but about bridging generational divides is really important for us as older women to do to raise awareness among younger women about the wages of ageism, but also the pleasures and joys of getting older.

Speaker 1:

Well said. I mean, the terminology that's used over and over again is intergenerational and it's exactly what you have described and, honestly, for older women like myself, the pool of people in my age group is shrinking and people are moving away or, unfortunately, they are seriously ill or they have passed away. So it's almost either you're going to live in isolation or you're going to reach out, necessarily to younger women, which I find very interesting and lots of fun, and it lets me feel as if I can be a mentor in many ways, although I'm always surprised at how much they know and how much they can actually teach me, and it's like, really, okay, I'll take it. Speaking of taking it, I wonder if you could just let people know how they can find you, if you have a website, what book that you are promoting at this point, or where they can find all of your books and any other pertinent information.

Speaker 2:

Well, I do have a website. It's susanjadouglasscom In Our Prime is the name of the book In Our Prime. How Older Women Are Leading the Road Ahead and Our Inventing the Road Ahead. Sorry, and it's available in the usual places Amazon, etc. It's now out paperback. That's how you can find the book or find me.

Speaker 1:

I am so delighted that you chose to spend some time with me. Thank you so very much, Well thank you, Jane.

Speaker 2:

Thank you for having me. This was fun.

Speaker 1:

Please visit wwwspoorcom. You can send me an audio message or respond to one of mine, because it is your feedback that drives this podcast. Until next time.

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