“We need to talk about Emma Thompson and Hollywood’s ‘unf**kable’ women”

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Kayleigh Dray
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Emma Thompson with short silver pixie cut

Emma Thompson may have reached her ‘Last F**kable Day’ a long time ago – but she refuses to sidle quietly into the shadows. Here, editor Kayleigh Dray explores Hollywood’s toxic double standards when it comes to ageing in the spotlight…

Emma Thompson is sick and tired of Hollywood sexism – and no wonder: she’s been dealing with it for over three decades.

Now, in a new interview, the actress has spoken out about the moment she was told Hugh Grant was too young to play her love interest in Sense And Sensibility. Despite the fact that, y’know, she was just one year older than the actor.

“It’s extraordinary,” she told Yahoo Movies. “I remember listening to people say Hugh Grant was too young for me in Sense and Sensibility, when I was 35 and he was 34. You just go, ‘OK, this is really endemic, really deep, deep, deep in our culture’, so it has to change.”

Thompson continued: “I’ve been doing gags about this for centuries. I’ve literally been doing stand-up about this for 30 years. They’re going to have to exhume someone to play opposite me. That’s the gag. I just played a late night talk show host talking about that: ‘What are you going to do, I’m nearly 60, I’m in Hollywood, so next time someone’s going to play opposite me, who’s it going to be? They’re going to have to dig them up’.”

“And then, interestingly, I just was working with somebody who was casting a film and they cast an actress who was about 30, and they offered the role to a guy who’s a wee bit younger than her, maybe six years, and he said, ‘No, she’s too old for me’. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s unbelievable…’ 

“The more we can show actual relationships, women with younger men, the better. Absolutely. Let’s get on with it!”

It is no small thing, then, that 2018 marks the release of Thompson’s her new movie, The Children Act – and, at 57, Stanley Tucci, her character’s husband in the film, is two years younger than the Oscar winner.

Of course, this is not the first major coup for Hollywood women over the age of 40: earlier this year, Nicole Kidman had tears in her eyes as she accepted her first ever Screen Actors Guild Award for her role in HBO’s Big Little Lies.

“How wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40 years old,” she said, before turning her attention to her fellow nominees – Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern – as well as the other women who have inspired her over the years.

“Twenty years ago we were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives.

“That’s not the case anymore. We’ve proven… that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us as our stories are finally being told.”

She added: “It’s only the beginning.”

How right Kidman was. However, while it may only be the beginning, it’s been a long time coming.

Famously, it was Amy Schumer who coined the all-important concept of the Last F**kable Day, during the 2015 season premiere of her Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer.

In the sketch, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Patricia Arquette gathered to give the middle finger to the Hollywood patriarchy by celebrating Louis-Dreyfus’s so-called last f**kable day. As she explains, “In every actress’ life, the media decides when you finally reach the point when you’re not believably f**kable anymore.”

According to the sketch, the signs that an actress has reached this milestone include: movie posters forgoing images of you for just a photo of the kitchen, wardrobes that consist mostly of frumpy sweaters, and all of your films being remade with younger actresses.

Or, in the case of most Hollywood actresses, being told that you’re too old to play the love interest of your male co-star. That same male co-star who is either a) the same age as you, or b) several, or more than several, years your senior.

A US study released in 2015 analysed the age difference between on-screen couples in films from the past 30 years, and found that some leading men are up to 15 years older than their female love interests or co-stars. The most depressing part of this statistic is that so little has changed in three decades.

We see it time and time again on the big screen: in the film Alexander, we saw Angelina Jolie play Colin Farrell’s mother, despite the fact she’s only one year older than him. Winona Ryder played a mother to Zachary Quinto, an actor just under six years her junior, in Star Trek. In Riding In Cars With Boys, Adam Garcia played Drew Barrymore’s on-screen son – even though he’s actually two years older than her.

The list goes on and on: Rachel Griffith, a whole five years younger than Johnny Depp, was cast as his mother in 2001’s Blow; Rebecca Toolan played Fox Mulder’s mum in The X Files – she’s one year older than David Duchovny; Sally Field played Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline and just six years later, was his “mom” in Forrest Gump. In Oblivion, Tom Cruise is a full 17 years older than his female lead, Olga Kurylenko – and, throughout his career, Depp has only had two notable love interests in their mid-30s (the rest were all 25 and under).

“In Riding In Cars With Boys, Adam Garcia played Drew Barrymore’s on-screen son – even though he’s actually two years older than her.”

The small screen has plenty of examples, too. Back in 2009, there was public outcry when 66-year-old Arlene Phillips was axed from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of (then) 30-year-old Alesha Dixon. This from the very same show that saw octogenarian Bruce Forsythe paired up with Tess Daly, a woman who is, quite literally, half his age.

And, from Live! With Regis and Kelly to Good Morning Britain, we continuously see older men being paired up with younger women: in fact, research compiled from figures taken from the main UK broadcasters found that just 18% of presenters over 50 are women (look at this damning list of news anchors who were replaced by younger women, if you don’t believe us).

As The Guardian explains: “BBC television and radio, Sky, ITN and Channel 5 combined have just 26 women over 50 working as regular on-air presenters out of a total of 481 presenters.

“Overall, women over 50 make up just 5% of on-screen presenters of all ages and both sexes and 7% of the workforce, both on and off screen.”

“There was public outcry when 66-year-old Arlene Phillips was axed from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of (then) 30-year-old Alesha Dixon.”     

Not only is this grossly unfair, but it’s also hugely damaging to our society as a whole – as Channel 4’s Gogglesprogs recently proved.

Much like the original show, Gogglebox, this TV series features a number of brilliantly insightful viewers from around England and Wales, who react to British television shows from their own homes. In the spin-off, they’re all children – which makes for plenty of funny moments.

However, when the children were shown an episode of Schofield’s South African Adventure, their innocent comments quickly exposed a big problem.

Reacting to a clip in which Phillip Schofield and his wife, Stephanie, head out on a South African safari together, the children were immediately confused: after all, they already knew Schofield’s ‘wife’ from watching ITV’s This Morning.

“That lady is Holly Willoughby?” asked one little lad, confused.

“No,” replied his sister, with a roll of her eyes. “This is Phillip’s mother,”

“Yes, it’s Phillip’s mother,” echoed their cousin, also perched on the sofa alongside them.

It’s worth pointing out that Schofield is 55 – and that many children believe it’s more plausible for him to be married to 36-year-old Willoughby rather than, y’know, a woman closer to his own age.

More worrying, though, is the fact that they assumed Schofield’s wife – whom he has been married to for over two decades, now – was his mother. But it’s absolutely not their fault: this confusion stems from the fact that so few women over the age of 50 are offered prominent television presenting roles.

“The children assumed Schofield’s wife – whom he has been married to for over two decades, now – was his mother.”

The longer this discrepancy goes on, the more it will begin to be seen as the norm: children will continue to assume that women over the age of 50 are mothers and grandmothers, and that men deserve to be paired up with a far younger model. That Willoughby is better suited to ITV’s This Morning than her predecessor Fern Britton (who, at 59, is just four years older than her former co-host, Schofield). That Olivia Wilde is too old to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife – a man who is nine years her senior.

It’s infuriating, it’s demeaning, and it’s outrageously sexist. And, the longer we allow it to go on, the more it will be considered the norm: we’ll be living in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, where older women have mysteriously and ominously disappeared (or are only seen in terrifying Aunt roles) – and nobody will say a single word about it.

So what do we do?

Well, for starters, we need more shows like Big Little Lies (which has easily proven we crave stories about dynamic women, with a whopping 8.5 million people on average tuning in to watch each episode). Secondly, we need to stop airbrushing women over the age of 50 from our screens – and they most definitely should not be pushed out of the door when they are no longer in their reproductive years.

So what if they’re older? Older means that they’re experienced, and that they have taken their work seriously for years. We have to start applauding the worth of these women, align ourselves with them, learn from them, be inspired by them, and support them.

Until we, the adults of the world, make this step, then children and young people will continue to follow our lead and be dismissive of older women everywhere. And nobody wants to be dubbed “Phillip Schofield’s mother” other than, y’know, his actual bloody mother.

This article was originally published in January 2018.

Images: Rex Features, Snap Stills/ITV/REX/Shutterstock


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.