Growing Old, Hollywood, Culture and Loss

Leading roles are in decline for actors over 40 & other thoughts on aging

Posted May 16, 2014

Is the correct phrasing that as we age, beauty fades or ripens?  Depends who you ask. 

Hollywood aficionados have been telling us for a long time that there are fewer and fewer leading roles for women over 40.  This rule did not seem to apply to men, until fairly recently.  I Googled, “current Hollywood leading men,” and discovered the following list: Matthew Mcconaughey, Michael Fassbender, Anthony Mackie, Channing Tatum, Leonardo Dicaprio are all in the their early 40’s or younger.  Not one was a man over 50.   

There are lists too for “sexy female and male actors over the age of 40,” but when you think about the current Hollywood supersize movies, actors under 40 play most of the male and female leads.   

In a culture that is increasingly dominated by baby boomers and the recent pronouncement that, “60 is the new 40,” we sure seem to spend an awful lot of time glorifying youth, and only youth. Will we ever really believe that beauty is more than youthful skin or body size and shape deep?   

Several of my previous blogs address how culture affects and influences our self worth, what role it plays in the development of eating disorders and whether or not we are inexorably tied to its dictates.   

In some cultures, fat is beautiful.  Some cultures glorified large women in the past i.e. Fiji.  However, the advent of satellite TV introduced western shows like, “90210.”  Suddenly, the incidences of eating disorders went up in Fiji and large women were no longer as desirable as thinner ones.   

Yes, culture, driven mostly by media dictates, determines what we want, should want, or are supposed to want.   Remember, there was a time when Marilyn Monroe was many men’s and I trust some women’s fantasy.  She was a size 8.  Remember, there was a time during the 1920’s when very small-breasted women were desired. However, youth was and has remained the variable that has not changed in terms of the priority our culture places on it.   Women and men are increasingly more at risk of facing social stigma, marginalization and decrease in desirability status the older we get. 

Why does youth remain so glorified? 

• We want what we cannot have. 

• We tend to hold up youth as an answer to all that ails, stresses or saddens us – if only I were younger. 

• We have regrets and remorse about the decisions and choices we have made along the road and so longing to turn back the clock seems like the only, although impossible, solution. 

• We cannot accept and deal with loss – loss of youth, loss of dreams unfulfilled, loss of time.

 • We don’t like to share the podium.  Older people, i.e. Baby Boomers versus young people or young people versus older people.  If we can find a way to exclude others rather than include when we feel something for us is at stake, then it is probable, or at least possible, that we will.   

• Older people, perhaps well deserving, want to be appreciated and remembered because of their contributions made in the past or for their current wisdom and time-tested perspective.  Often, this gets expressed through criticizing younger people rather than through mentorship, encouragement and sharing.   Older people sometimes are vociferous about the particular “youth of the day,” for not behaving in a way that they, the elders, find acceptable.  I.e.  The youth of today are not smart or clever enough to figure life out, are irresponsible and of course are only self centered and do not make meaningful contributions.  These reactions seem more like envy to me.  What better way (not really) to deal with envy than to denounce someone else for having something you want and cannot have?   

I am the last one to say that it is easy, or perhaps even possible, to rise above “youth envy.”  We have the luxury of products, skin treatments and of course plastic surgery to repair, replace, strengthen and tighten.  How great that we have these options.  My philosophy – Since we live in a culture that does not seem to be shifting any time soon away from glorifying youth, then finding ways that are appropriate and not consuming to make us feel better or enhance our looks can help extend the inevitable outcome.  We cannot prevent growing older, but we can do lots to not look older for a while longer.   Of course, there is no way around eating well, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep, pursuing our goals, being happy in our life and getting good health care as the way to extend, preserve, and support a long life.

 It is difficult to accept that we will not live forever.  Theorists from Freud to Erikson to Kubler-Ross have written about death and loss.  Religious and spiritual paths seek to guide us in coming to terms with death.  My experience has shown me that a life truly lived is a life with fewer regrets.  Learning how to accept and process loss are precursors to moving on, making changes and truly living.   Holding on usually is never helpful.  Fortunately, perhaps, beauty fades as a way to help us let go.

Finally, as I hopefully continue in my own life to practice what I preach….social networking makes sure of that anyway, I am continuing in my day job as a therapist, however,  a screenplay I just finished writing is being made in to a film!  This is an exciting time and process.  One significant note regarding this new project - the female and male leads are over 40.  Yes! 


Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW