All the Sexy Older Ladies
From “Hacks” to “Queen Sugar,” pop culture begins spotlighting the sexuality of women over 50.
As the editor of a magazine that covers aging, I often receive pitches about the “invisibility” of older women. Invisibility out in the world, where others tend to stop noticing us and start talking over us.
And invisibility in film and television, where most actresses begin to age out at around 30, and women older than 40 tend to be portrayed as dowdy and asexual, if not downright disgusting.
At 57, I find this resonates. Since my mid-40s, I’ve drawn progressively less attention in public—on the street, in stores, and in bars and restaurants. While that might not sound catastrophic, less sexual attention can mean less social power, which is the only power we’re afforded in the first place. We live in a patriarchal, sexist society that values women more for their appearance than other attributes, like skill and intelligence. Add ageism to sexism, and people inhabiting aging female bodies aren’t highly valued.
Women often feel from their 40s on that they’re seen as less relevant, says Gina Frangello, the 53-year-old author of Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason. “The lessened sexual-attention component can be a blessing, a curse, or both. But the blessing part is, in my view, also due to gross ways of conceptualizing women in the patriarchy.”
I keep wondering what happened to the talented actresses who were prominent when I was growing up. Why are most of the older actresses I see on screen cast in marginal roles? Women are given less dialogue in films the older they get, and per “Frail, Frumpy, and Forgotten,” a 2020 report compiled by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “Female characters 50+ are more likely than male characters 50+ to be shown as senile, homebound, feeble, and frumpy.”
Representation matters, says Alana Officer, head of the World Health Organization’s Demographic Change and Healthy Ageing unit. “Representations on television are crucial because they influence our everyday perceptions and interactions, including how we relate to older people, and they shape how we each see ourselves growing old.”
Too often, older women are misrepresented, says Frangello. “Representations of older women are almost always about someone ‘getting her groove back’ because it’s gone, or as some teachable moment to illustrate how out of it the older woman is.” She cites And Just Like That…, last year’s Sex and the City reboot, as showing its 50-something characters as “imbeciles.” For example, “Miranda has been an attorney in Manhattan her entire adult life and spent much of a season in the original series with a Black boyfriend, but now she doesn’t know there are Black college professors who might have braids?”
While this larger observation rings true, in recent years I’ve noticed a slight shift in the other direction, wherein a handful of middle-aged and older actresses portray self-possessed, vibrant characters—powerful, complicated, multifaceted humans who happen to also be sexual beings, both desirous of and desirable to others. And they’re being paired with younger partners, counter to the common trope of older men in relationships with much younger women.
I heard myself shouting “Yes!” at my television recently when, in Season 2 of Hacks, Deborah Vance, played by 71-year-old Jean Smart, has a one-night stand with a much younger man. It’s unsettling when we first see Deborah meet Jason (played by 44-year-old Devon Sawa) at a bar. Is this guy a swindler, like Brad Pitt’s character in Thelma & Louise? Is he a serial killer?
“What, do you have a fetish for older women?” she asks Jason. “I guess I do. I like older women, is that a bad thing?” he replies. She goes back to his place and we witness a perfectly lovely, mutually respectful roll in the hay. No big deal—just an older woman on the road having a good time, getting some needs met from a younger dude, then going home and getting on with her life.
Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar offers another positive portrayal of an older woman. At nearly 60, “Aunt Vi,” played by Tina Lifford, has a younger fiancé, Hollywood Desonier, played by 46-year-old Omar J. Dorsey. Vi and Hollywood are hot for each other. They’re often shown displaying affection and sneaking off into the bedroom whenever the mood strikes. I love this for Vi.
Then there’s 51-year-old Sandra Oh’s character in Killing Eve, security operative Eve Polastri, who becomes mutually obsessed with assassin Villanelle, played by 29-year-old Jodie Comer. Eve—married in a straight relationship and in midlife—is lustful for and desired by a much younger woman, discovering a new facet to her sexuality. Most recently, I’ve been heartened by Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a film featuring 63-year-old Emma Thompson as a recent widow who’s been sexually frustrated all her life, never once achieving orgasm. She hires a young sex worker, played by 29-year-old Daryl McCormack, to help her locate her libido. How empowering to see an older woman who has been so sexually repressed find the courage to ask for that help. It’s a testament to the inherent power of honesty and vulnerability.
Although uplifting examples, such roles are still few and far between. And how important are on-screen changes, anyway? Frangello points out that visibility is just one of many problems facing women in post-Roe America. “We live in a moment when there’s a lot going on that can neutralize women’s efforts to attain so-called equality in every realm because we are too busy trying to put out 900-alarm dumpster fires and trying to convince men in power that we are, you know, actually human,” she says.
But I see these issues as intertwined. As long as we’re marginalized in the media, it’ll be difficult for us to politically command the respect we deserve. So here’s to more portrayals of older women as full—and lusty—human beings, and all the power that brings with it.