There seem to be three accepted roles for women over 40 on TV: mother, wise sage, or ass-kicking crime-solver.
Yes, as soon as we put older women in central roles, we put them in, of all places, the police station. From the first major show starring two not-so-young women, Cagney & Lacey, to Murder, She Wrote, to the more recent Closer and Body of Proof, we apparently love ladies who love to solve crimes.
Why is this such a standard profession for older women on TV, given that the real police precincts of America are still skewed heavily toward the male and the young?
Part of the answer is: Characters who defy expectations are fun, and few groups have more expectations to defy than older women.
The American tradition of older-lady detectives goes back to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, an unassuming "spinster" and amateur detective who first appeared in a 1926 short story, "The Tuesday Night Club." Marple uses our prejudices to her advantage—her schtick is that no criminal sees her coming. If you watched Murder, She Wrote in the '80s, you know the drill: seeing Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher tool around on her bicycle putting bad guys away was both funny and satisfying.The Closer dabbled in a version of this, too. Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson drawled, wore pink, enjoyed candy, and seemed flighty—which was exactly why she could get suspects to confess.
Whenever I see a woman over 40—never mind 50 or 60 or 70—on my television screen, I relax a little. Without thinking too deeply about it, I'm processing a lot of welcome information: Oh, look, women do live past 40! They can often be funny, smart, successful, and wise!
Then, of course, my brain does all those other calculations it has been trained to do: How does she look? Does she look way younger than her age? Does she have wrinkles? What does that mean about my face?Do I look better or worse than she does? Is that good or bad? Am I shriveling away to my death?!
This second round of thoughts might explain part of why television continues to avoid what could be a lucrative and loyal audience to target: older women. They may be affluent and primed for high-priced wrinkle cream ads, but, gosh, they scare the other audience segments an awful lot.
In this two-month-long guest blog, Women of a Certain Age, I'll be exploring the ways that women outside the target age demographic are a usually neglected on television.
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