What All Those ‘Girls’ on TV Teach Us About Aging
If you want to know why we see so few fully realized female characters over 50 on TV, look no further than the shows about women under 35.
It’s hard to imagine that any human with a reasonably comfortable life has ever loved aging but we seem to have arrived at a particularly fraught crossroads when it comes to our attitudes about getting older. Nowhere is this fear more apparent than in the current crop of shows about young women—or, as many of them emphasize via their titles, girls.
The Mindy Project addresses this topic more than any other—possibly because creator/star Mindy Kaling is softly satirizing every anxiety forced upon modern young single women (similar to the way Tina Fey did on 30 Rock). The Mindy pilot episode really went after the main character’s angst about aging. In it, Mindy’s dream guy leaves her for a younger, dumber woman. When she’s later interrupted by a call from work on a hard-won date, she snaps, “Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?” In a particularly telling detail, Kaling’s character is on a date with a guy played by Ed Helms, who is 38 in real life while Kaling is 33. Bereft, she ends up falling into bed with her coworker, who shoots down her proposal that they hold off on sex, saying, “I’m not going to want to sleep with you in your 40s and 50s.”
More recently, The Mindy Project has added its sole older-woman character, an elderly medical office receptionist who doesn’t understand computers and otherwise barely seems to comprehend anything going on around her. Maybe this is just one more way Kaling, who was a writer and cast member on The Office by age 24, is working out her fears about whether her own relevance can last another several decades.
On the other hand, 2 Broke Girls, which is otherwise not half as clever as Mindy Project, has the late-20s main characters starting their own cupcake business under the odd mentorship of a fabulous, if often incomprehensible, Eastern European immigrant named Sophie, played by 51-year-old Jennifer Coolidge. While Sophie’s is in some ways the butt of the joke, so is everyone on this show—and Sophie gives as good as she gets. She also has a rollicking sex life with the girls’ diner coworker, Oleg. All of these shows could use more Sophies: older women who offer the younger ones guidance, support, and a vision of life beyond 40.
New Girl doesn’t have that, but it has offered perhaps the most balanced perspective on aging among the 30-ish-girl shows. One episode had Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess, and her male roommates freaked out by a group of 20-somethings who move in down the hall and baffle them with their hipster clothes and names and lingo. The new kids mention they’ll be having a party, but Jess and company probably won’t want to come because, “It’s just going to be a bunch of young people.” The key difference here from the other shows: Jess and her three male roommates deal with aging on equal footing. While a later episode addressed Jess considering freezing her eggs, it did so with an appropriate level of alarm. It’s a legitimate issue for any woman in her thirties who wants kids but doesn’t want them now, but nothing Jess, in her early 30s, needs to panic about.
HBO’s phenomenon Girls takes us one step further down the aging anxiety spectrum, perhaps because its titular ladies are so very young. Fresh from college, the four women at the center of the show have (thankfully) yet to fret about their sell-by date. They’re too worried about figuring their current lives out. They are literally still “girls,” a fact underscored beautifully during the first season with Shoshanna making very adolescent “dream boards” and fretted over losing her virginity. They may make us feel old by comparison, but they also have an important message for any of us over 25: Getting older kind-of rules if it gets you out of the nightmare that is your early twenties. As 51-year-old blogger Sharon Greenthal wrote, “I don’t care if I’m decades away from the audience the show is trying to reach — it’s reached me anyway. I have high hopes for Hannah and her friends — that after they feel it all, they’ll be happy.”
I don’t know if I’m as optimistic, but here’s to hoping—and thanking creator and star Lena Dunham for making us all feel better about ourselves, whatever our age.
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