Women fighting ageism in the entertainment industry
- Published: 12 June 2010
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A group of actresses over 40 are refusing to let their careers slide because of ageism in the film and TV industries. Liz Bowie talks to Debbie Zipp, founding member of In the Trenches Productions.
Being a woman and over 40 can be challenging enough in a society obsessed with youth and beauty but if you happen to make your living as an actress it can be even harder.
However a group of women in America are redefining the role of the over-40 actress. No longer prepared to be sidelined or watch their careers and creativity fade, they have established their own website and film company.
In the Trenches Productions was born out of a non profit organisation ACTRESSES@WORK, which was made up of a group of successful, professional actresses committed to changing the way the entertainment industry views and utilizes women over 40.
“As women and members of the Baby Boomer generation and beyond we felt women over 40 needed to be represented in a stronger, more positive way to the media,” says Debbie Zipp, one of In the Trenches’ founding members.
In a culture obsessed with staying forever young and wrinkle free, the film industry is not isolated in dismissing these women, “We realized that what older actresses go through is a reflection of what every woman over 40 experiences – the feeling of being invisible and the loss of self esteem,” says Zipp, who has been an actress for over 35 years and is best known for her role as Donna on Murder She Wrote.
“We were especially sensitive to the profound effect the media has in shaping the views of society as a whole. We knew the power of the media and how important it was for us to focus our efforts there.”
Although optioning many powerful scripts with lead female characters, the studios dragged their feet when it came to green lighting them. “We found it extremely frustrating constantly trying to get past the ageism factor,” says Zipp.
In the Trenches has provided a forum for women who are committed to producing as many movies as possible with women over 40 as central and strong characters. The site features short films, blogs and advocacy work.
And it seems they have hit a chord with the community at large. Although not investing in marketing campaigns to promote their site, it has nonetheless become an important element in the movement against ageism.
Representatives from In the Trenches are often asked to speak at events and have formed a partnership with Cheryl Benton who runs the website The Three Tomatoes, which also targets women over 40. The collaboration has produced a blog talk radio show called Tomatoes in the Trenches.
There are glimpses of hope for the older woman. Betty White, now in her 80s, was one of the most recent hosts of Saturday Night Live, proving women can be smart, funny and over 40. Zipp hopes this small step will help create more roles for older actresses.
However even those who are over 40 often portray characters much younger than themselves. “In terms of feature films I am not seeing much of a change even though there is a movie now and then starring Meryl Streep,” she says.
“And I’m not sure that Sandra Bullock is playing 40 yet though she is over 40. I believe America wants to go to movies where mature women are the stars. The fact is that there are 76 million boomers and they will spend their hard earned money to see mature films with themes that appeal to them.”
So why does the industry turn its back on the baby boomer market when there is obviously a huge earning potential there?
Zipp suggests that it may be because most studios are dominated by men who cast subjective eyes over possible projects.
“Why film companies ignore the statistics and fail to target the over 40 female market is beyond me. Possibly it has something to do with mostly men being in the top positions and their wanting to re-live their youth or imagine themselves as super heroes. But this is totally antiquated thinking.
“While some women hold executive positions, they are in the minority. The job of a film executive is to produce films that make huge profits. If women’s films are seen as too much of a risk, well they simply are not going to get the green light. But there are a million speculations.
“It is truly becoming more and more a mystery to me. I feel it is just plain ageist and sexiest and financially irresponsible to ignore such a huge market. In the meantime, older actresses are finding a home on television.”
Pressure to look young
Unlike other cultures where people are respected and revered for their knowledge and wisdom as they age, Western women face enormous pressure to change their faces, and to redesign their bodies to conform to a Westernised prescription for attractiveness.
“All forms of the western media are obsessed with youth: lifted faces without wrinkles, tight abs and butts, perky big boobs, full lips and wide opened eyes,” says Zipp,
“The media tells us what to value over and over again. Society buys into the superficial views of the media. None of us can live up to those images but how on earth can our ageing population gain the respect and admiration they deserve under these circumstances? This is a disposable society. What doesn’t fit our ideals of beauty simply isn’t valued. With that said I do believe that this image problem is starting to rear its ugly head in other countries.”
Sisters doing it for themselves
All the challenges aside these women have a found a very satisfying and empowering home with In the Trenches. “When we produce a film we do it all – from writing, to craft services, to costumes, to holding the boom,” says Zipp. “We are very proud of what we are capable of doing at this age. Perhaps we are the oldest all-female guerilla film-makers on the planet!”
The content on In the Trenches’ website runs the gamut of just about all issues that women over 40 are confronting.
“The only topic we have not really explored is dating,” says Zipp. “There are many, many sites that do that so we’ve decided to avoid that topic – for now. But some of our content is for women under 40. We have a comedic short film on the site called Girl Tox, which is a commercial parody on the rampant popularity of plastic surgery for tweens and teens. The idea for this short film grew out of a conversation we had about 16-year-old girls getting ‘new boobies’ as a birthday present!”
Some of the films tackle the serious side to the challenges of ageing. “In Transitions we again focus on real women over 40 and pivotal events in their lives,” says Zipp. “This series is about the bumps in the road we all face. These women share the way they confronted enormous changes.
“By tackling life’s challenges with extraordinary courage, humour and strength, they discovered skills and talents they didn’t know they had. Filming each episode has been very rewarding for us.
“We have been inspired by these ‘ordinary’ women who have proved to be very much out of the ordinary. Their stories are a perfect complement to our mission – to spread the message that our middle years and beyond can be a most fascinating and exciting chapter in our lives.”
Some of the more light hearted series include Welcome to My Garden and Movie Snacks. “Welcome to My Garden showcases real women who have a true passion for gardening and have created green spaces without the help of a professional landscape designer,” says Zipp.
“The garden series provides splendid visuals, helpful gardening tips and poignant accounts of how each woman’s garden is a positive influence in her life. These episodes are woven with wonderful life lessons and sprinkled with a lot of humour. My own garden was the inspiration for the series and the focus of the inaugural episode.”
In Movie Snack great films and delicious food are combined to inspire viewers. “We all love movies, and I for one, love to eat!” laughs Zipp. “Food shows are very popular. So, we needed to think of a fun new twist for the food show genre.
“Well, again, since we love movies why not promote a movie that stars women over 40 and cook a delicious snack that goes along with the theme of that movie. We are hoping to shoot more Movie Snack episodes, and then pitch the concept as a series for cable TV.”
In the Trenches’ films are not just for online consumption but regularly show at film festivals across the states, “Our films are on featured on other websites including MORE magazine website, Growing Bolder.Com, The Three Tomatoes, Boomer Diva TV, and many more,” says Zipp.
“ Our ITTP Short Films played at several festivals. Believe It Baby played at TUFF, Women’s International Film Festival, South Florida and the Los Angeles Uncensored Film Festival. The Forgotten Grave won the Zoie Film Festival as best documentary short, and was voted number 1 on I-Film for several weeks and is now being distributed by the Cinema Guild. A Host of Trouble played at the USA Film Festival, AFI Dallas Film Festival and placed in the top 5 short films at the Westwood Film Festival.”
Perhaps the way to push for further change is to have more women in corporate roles, more women as studio heads, bosses, or – as the women from In the Trenches have done – do it all yourself.
Supporting other filmmakers is very important to In the Trenches. Budding filmmakers and those interested in showing their support can visit the ‘Films by you showcase’ and submit their own films or simply register to be notified when new films are uploaded.
There are other ways you can be involved or show your support too. “People can get involved by supporting films or TVshows that star women over 40,” says Zipp. “The first two days when a movie opens is considered the most important in terms of money made and the future run of the film.
“So, seeing a film on the first or second day it opens has a huge impact. Global box office receipts are extremely important. For example, Mama Mia was a mild hit in the US but box office gold internationally. So, supporting movies starring women over 40 is crucial.
“And it’s not that difficult to do because, sadly, there are so few in distribution. Letters are taken very seriously. So take the time to write letters of support when there is a TV show featuring older women, and even write letters to the editors of newspapers expressing your views about movies and television shows with older women.”
Visit the In the Trenches website for more information.
Liz Bowie is a freelance journalist, writer and mum with a special interest in animal rights, veganism, women’s rights and the environment. She is currently collecting vegan cookbooks and testing out delicious recipes for her blog Mumaveg.
Images from top: The In the Trenches team; Debbie Zipp.