Back in 1986 Newsweek made a point of suggesting that for all practical purposes, women are dead at age 40. Women over 40, they wrote, are “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than get married. And Newsweek had statistics to back it up: Women over 40, they claimed “have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.”
What is it about women and age 40?
Well, this month, Meryl Streep is taking a stand against this extraordinary, sweeping discrimination against perhaps America’s most powerful demographic. Streep, who is over 40, fully represents the striking contradiction of female stereotypes. Having worked all her life in Hollywood, she remains always ethereal, always brilliant, always beautiful.
During a panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival last Sunday, it was announced that Streep is funding a screenwriters lab for female writers over 40 to begin this year. The lab will be run by New York Women in Film and Television and a collective of women filmmakers know as IRIS. This screenplay development program will be known as “The Writers Lab,” and will accept submissions May 1-June 1. Eight winners will be named August 1.
This announcement demostrates once again the Streep is a not just a shape-shifting goddess, but a national treasure that keeps on giving—to women, to our country, and to our world. Today, when the issue of female exclusion from U.S. media is hotter than ever, she simultaneously ennobled Hollywood and struck a blow at the industry, famous for ageism and sexism.
While almost 90 percent of Hollywood’s produced screenplays are written by men, when we look back at some of our world’s greatest films, we see that some of the very best were written by women over 40:
Frances Marion was 42 when Anna Christie came out in 1930. Ruth Gordon was 53 for the premiere of Adam’s Rib. Jay Presson Allen wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in her late 40’s. Lina Wertmuller was 44 when she was nominated for the Oscar for The Seduction of Mimi. Alice Arlen was 43 and Nora Ephron was 41 when Silkwood was nominated in 1983.
Other Academy Award-nominated women writers? Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was 66 (The Remains of the Day); Lisa Cholodenko was 46 (The Kids Are All Right); Bridget O’Connor was 50 (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy); Anna Thomas was 52 (Frida); and Nancy Meyers was 57 (The Holiday). It goes on and on…
This list may create the illusion that a lot of women over 40 are writing feature screenplays—don’t be fooled. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ statistics paint a more accurate picture: 77 percent of it’s members are male, and 94 percent are white. While the Academy claims its only criterion for judgment is excellence, with gender disparity like this, what chance is there for other versions of “excellence” to be appreciated?
This concept of excellence sounds a little like fascist art. If you have only one distinct group writing, directing, producing, promoting and judging cinematic works, then there is very little chance of discovering new visions, new perspectives we rarely see—like those of women over 40. America deserves greater democracy in its cinematic arts.
Hollywood, for all its outspoken liberalism, is an industry that has consistently kept women shut out—especially older women. Today, in 2015, fewer women directors are working in American media than two decades ago. On a global basis, this means that nearly 100 percent of U.S. media content—America’s most influential export—reflects a mostly male point of view.
The movies written and produced in Hollywood and glorified at the Oscars are a powerful tool capable of affecting the way people in every part of the world act and treat one another. If women over 40 are excluded it means their voices are censored and silenced. With discrimination like this in America’s media capital, the astounding potential our nation has to share our passion for equality and free speech is lost to people everywhere around the world.
Seen in this light, we understand why Meryl Streep’s new effort to advance women writers over 40 is revolutionary. Every time a female screenwriter over 40 gets a feature film produced, she becomes an American hero because she is trailblazing in a landscape where she is a virtual stranger. Streep’s new writer’s lab arms women writers with something better than road-building bulldozers—she provides them with opportunity and hope.
Let’s not ignore the fact that it is incredible that such a lab has to be set up in the first place, and that this is even a newsworthy event. But for now, let’s be grateful that Streep has made it happen. The new Writers Lab offered to women over 40 shines a light on those who are otherwise denied access to writing cinema—the cultural voice of our whole civilization. Let’s look forward to hearing the voices of women who are otherwise all but excluded, whose gifts are perennially ignored.
I, for one, am standing by with immense excitement to see what may emerge from these exciting new opportunities. Thank you, Meryl!
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