Sunday, May 24, 2015

Commentary — Politically Correctness In Popular Culture

I just finished reading a thread of responses that followed a story on Hollywood and its propensity for casting young actresses as the love interest of characters played by much older actors.  Apparently Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is 37, was told she was too old to play the love interest of a character who was 55. No one, I suspect, is surprised.  This has been going on since they’ve been making movies. The point of the article was to compare women’s acting careers and their pay against their male counterparts. It is fact and easily observable: Leading men have longer, more lucrative careers than leading women. This is another variation on equal pay for equal work for women with age thrown in for good measure.
Hepburn and Cooper in Love In The Afternoon

I remember puzzling over Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon.  He was 56 when the film was made.  She was 28.  Clark Gable was 60 and Marilyn Monroe, 35, when The Misfits was released. When Dark Passage was made in 1947, Humphrey Bogart was 48 and Lauren Bacall was 23. Certainly, Cary Grant, and more recently Harrison Ford have had a fountain of youth careers, while most leading actresses, once they reach a certain age, no longer lead – Harold and Maude being a notable exception.

I can’t imagine Hollywood executives getting together premeditatively barring older actresses from certain roles based on anything other than their desire to maximize box office revenues, which means, if that is correct, the problem of inequity is in the marketplace and Hollywood is only exploiting it as they do everything else.  It is what the market wants.  Or is it?

My guess is that this kind of casting is based on groundless  speculation that has become conventional wisdom.  

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to be politically correct these days.  But in my writing I’ve tried to make sure that my work fairly reflects the world it encompasses, while staying engaged in reality. For example, I avoid stereotypes. To me this is not only right morally but also leads to better characterization. Though it is not necessarily my job or Hollywood’s to take on social injustice, in my books there is usually some sort of social issue lurking about in the story, illuminating the plot, which is primarily dedicated the simpler process of finding a murderer.  It doesn’t hurt to be socially aware while we’re at it.

Monroe and Gable in The Misfits
Nonetheless, the Gyllenhaal story had me questioning my role in the seeming perception that a younger woman with an older man is condoned, while the reverse is somehow unacceptable. None of my books have made it to the big screen. However, my little Shanahan series contributes to the overall landscape as is everything that is portrayed in the entertainment arts. And in that series, the main characters are private eye Shanahan and realtor Maureen.  Shanahan is 30 years older than Maureen. The thing is: the age difference is an important part of their relationship. If they were ever portrayed in a film or on TV, I hope the casting director doesn’t try to make it age “appropriate” as some sort of outreach effort to make life fair.

Bacall and Bogart in Dark Passage
On the other hand, it seems to me that automatically insisting that women have an expiration date and men don’t is foolish.  It is a denial of reality for one thing.  And depending on the story, it is much like Hollywood did with Charlie Chan, casting caucasions in the role when there were no doubt many fine Chinese actors who could have played the part without the artificiality.  Who could forget — though we’d like to — John Wayne as Ghengis Khan? Or the grotesque performance of Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany’s?  The same thing applies to the age of the actors. Unless a vast age difference is part of the story or defines the characters, why wouldn’t a 55 year-old man find a woman who is 37 attractive?  Or a 55-year-old woman?

I think Hollywood learned from the John Wayne and Mickey Rooney debacles, but Hollywood producers should also take a look at the way it stereotypes its actors and the presumption that the public won’t accept 37 as sexy. That being said, my concern isn’t that significant age differences in relationships are inherently wrong or that they shouldn’t be portrayed, but that denying work to qualified applicants based on a woman’s age is sexist and ageist.

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