A while back, I wrote a blog about the television series, American Horror Story. At the time, it was in its first season. I noticed a strong presence of women on the show. Not just women, but female characters actually talking to and about each other. Women of all ages were depicted, not just young girls. The ladies were funny, scary, sexy, backstabbing, caring, special needs, motherly and kind. Being an ensemble show, AHS had way more developed female characters than most. While the second season, Asylum, went off the rails a bit, season 3 promises to be very female-centric as it is about witches. Coven brings back a lot of familiar faces, but also some new ones to the series like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Emma Roberts. Words cannot describe how excited I was to see Bates return to horror. She’s playing one of the nation’s first female serial killers, New Orleans’ own Madame Delphine LaLaurie. Picture a female H.H. Holmes. Angela Bassett is tough and sexy as the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. I can’t wait to see her go head to head with Bates. Emma Roberts made a huge impression on me in Scream 4 when the rest of that movie was just meh. She is rounding up the modern cast, while Bates and Bassett capture the historical back story of the show. While these powerhouses are all new to the series, the one constant unflinching force has been Jessica Lange. In all three seasons, she has pushed the envelope, and made audiences question whether women over 50 are still sexy? I say yes! She has done it in a way that doesn’t compromise her strength, wit and intelligence.
It boggles my mind that it has taken this long to put ladies of all ages in leading roles, but beyond that, why we haven’t seen women harness their sexuality in such a way before? Sure, women have been sexual on tv. But, it’s almost always in a joking way. Shows like Cougar Town aren’t helping. Characters like Kelly Bundy, who epitomized the dumb blonde archetype, come to mind as an example. And when the woman isn’t a bimbo, she’s some kind of freaky femme fatale. Take Lila, from Dexter for instance. Plus, these women were well within what society thinks is still sexy age-wise. So, why is there such ageism when it comes to being sexual alluring? Why is youth so coveted? Are women really at their sexual prime at the age Hollywood implies? Absolutely not, yet we are obsessed with the ingenue-look when the leading men cast against them are almost twice their age and still considered handsome. So, how come it takes a horror series to break these notions?
Just like Star Trek The Original Series, no one is looking at a horror series too critically. They can easily cast it off as niche market stuff and therefore, get away with more. Genre fans are generally way more open-minded than general audiences. In the guise of a horror series, the shows creators can put ladies in roles they wouldn’t ever get a chance to play. They can also discuss ideas that plague women. They can show women being vindictive, murderous, jealous, sexually manipulative and intelligent. Why? Because people just think of it as a way to get to the scare. The rest of us are seeing it as a way to sneak ideas into the public water. Granted AHS, isn’t always the classiest material, but I will defend it because it’s doing more for women than most big network shows.
Gene Roddenberry did it with Trek through aliens and AHS Coven is doing it again with witches. Because these aren’t real women, they actually have the freedom to be more real. In fact, Jessica Lange’s character throws the obsession with youth in the audiences’ faces. She is searching for a fountain of youth drug, but in the meantime is equally alluring as any 20-year-old, if not more so.
Distant places and genre characters allow us to explore many women’s issues (or in the case of Star Trek, civil rights issues). But, what about on the home front? As an actor, I witness all kinds of ageism on a daily basis. Yet, it’s concerning when the public perpetuates the youth myth. When we continue to drink the Kool-aid and pass it on, we do more damage than good. The same thing goes for unrealistic body types.
I recently had the privilege to act in a sexy sci-fi short. When I saw the finished product I was proud to be a part of a project that treats female characters as witty, sexy and strong, but all with a sense of fun. Often in modern sci-fi, if you’re tough, you’re also super serious. Now, there are exceptions, Joss Whedon, I’m looking at your characters! Movies like Barbarella and shows like The Avengers proved women could be all of the above. Recently, an article was written about our short. It was very positive, but let’s just say, many of the comments were not. Generally, I try not to get worked up over the mindless Internet trolls who hide in the shadows of anonymity. But, this time it was personal. No one said anything about me, but they did pick apart our leading lady quite a bit. It all came back to the age game. While many praised her looks and performance, there were a few who said she should “hang up the bikini” and that she’s “a bit old to be acting like she’s 22.” They also said, “She’s nothing more than a B actor” who is “milking it.” These hateful comments are exactly the kinds of things that drive Hollywood to push out performers over a certain age. But, how many of your wives and girlfriends at home are 22 and a size 0? I commend the commenter, Sebastien who said this about my friend, “I’ve known plenty of 22 year olds who aren’t nearly as vivacious as she is. Sexuality and charisma don’t evaporate when you turn 40.” Amen to that!
Mind you, many of the people who judge aren’t a part of this industry. They don’t understand how long it takes to build a career out here. You might start at 22, but not really break in until 10 years later. Besides most 22 year olds, would probably run home to “Ma and Pa” in the midwest at the first sign of rejection. It takes a lot of perseverance and thick skin to survive out here. Someone will always tell you you are too fat, too old and too “whatever” to play this role. It’s what we sign up for because this is what we were born to do. It comes with the territory, but it doesn’t mean it feels good.
Jessica Lange proves there is a huge audience that is ready to see women of a certain age throw down with the 22 year olds. Many of my female (and male) friends have been outspoken in social media about this. When are we going to get over this ridiculous notion that you might as well be dead once you’re over 40? How many people lust after Sofia Vergara? Guess what? She’s over 40! How many times have you heard people say, “Helen Mirren is so hot for her age?” No, folks. She’s just hot. End of story.
Also, being hot and intelligent are not two mutually exclusive ideas. Many of my colleagues in filmmaking fear they won’t be taken seriously if they wear feminine clothes and have blonde hair. They might be right, but they are also missing the opportunity to prove some of these stereotypes wrong. They are missing out on the opportunity to disarm someone with their intelligence. That’s why I won’t change. I will always rock the high heels and the dresses. I won’t cover up my hair for fear that some guy will think I’m dumb. It’s his loss. I may lose opportunities because of the way I look, but I also gain many for the same reason. However, it’s what’s going on upstairs that will keep people interested anyway. Like my friend Kim Jordan tweeted, “I want to be Jessica Lange when I grow up.” Kim, you can be Jessica, if I can be Helen Mirren.