Viola Davis has two Oscar nominations, nearly six dozen acting credits, and the loyal adoration of critics and cinephiles. But there’s one thing the gifted thespian — still best known as a co-star in The Help — still can’t land: a starring role in the movies. Davis played supporting roles in a trio of films last year, and appears in another two (or four, depending on how you count the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby trilogy) this summer and fall. But the lack of roles for women older than Jennifer Lawrence — and darker than Jennifer Lawrence — has led the 49-year-old actress to television, where she’ll star as a Machiavellian law professor in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (debuting September 25).
Davis is the most recent example of the now-familiar journey from the big screen to the small that many aging actresses have taken to find roles that continue to interest them. She’s in great company; among her fellow travelers are Glenn Close (FX’s Damages), Laura Linney (Showtime’s The Big C), and Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates (FX’s American Horror Story).
But it’s important to note that, despite these conspicuous examples and the conventional wisdom, TV isn’t actually that much kinder to mature actresses than film is. To be sure, there are more opportunities for women overall. A study released last week revealed that 42 percent of all speaking characters on primetime programming in 2013-14 were female, compared to just 30 percent of all speaking characters in film last year. Because television has smaller budgets and viewership pressures — and perhaps because women are more loyal to the small screen than men are — TV also offers a greater number of opportunities for actresses who, like Davis, covet “the flashy roles.”
But as our number-crunching shows, the median age of female protagonists on both film and television is exactly the same: 33. While the Golden Age of Television was heralded by a celebration of the former boob tube’s new levels of artistry, including its auteurship opportunities and its unforeseen leaps in inclusive representation, the fact remains that the small screen has imposed its own age-related glass ceilings — and thus limited itself in the kinds of stories it can tell, and about which characters, especially women.
Here’s how we came by these necessary myth-busters about the relative progressiveness of TV: We took the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 and the 100 top-rated television series (minus Netflix, which doesn’t release its streaming numbers) of the 2013-14 season according to Nielsen. The list of the hundred most-watched series was compiled after removing competition shows and news programs like The Voice, Survivor, and 60 Minutes, which are inherently non-gendered, as well as football games.
When available, the ages of each female character were logged. TV characters were pegged at their ages during the 2013-14 season, so that, for example, Mindy Kaling’s chirpy doctor, who was 31 during The Mindy Project‘s inaugural season in 2012-13, is listed as 32 for this data set. In cases where the characters’ ages were unavailable, they were assigned the actress’s age minus one year (so that the data reflects the numbers for 2013).
Looking at the numbers, the first thing to note is that television is kinder to women than film is, simply because there are more leading roles for women. Of the 100 most popular TV shows, nearly a third (30 out of 100) boasted a clear female protagonist. That’s a significant distance away from parity, but it looks downright radical compared to the paltry 18 films out of the top 100 featuring a girl or a woman in the main role.
There’s also something to the stereotype that film is always chasing after youth and celebrity, while TV is content to be your dowdy best friend. Of the 18 films with a female protagonist, more than a third were about girls aged 16-21, thanks to the current YA craze (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, Epic, Evil Dead, Carrie, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Host). Most of these films are in the action-adventure mode, a fact that continues to disappointingly depict heroinedom as the realm of feisty or victimized girls, but not defiant, subversive women.
And the marginalization of women starts early. A decades-long glass ceiling is imposed on film actresses after their early twenties — or at least that was the case last year, when less than a third of roles were written about twenty- and thirtysomething characters. With the exception of Gravity, in which the then-49-year-old Sandra Bullock played the 32-year-old astronaut, studio filmmaking has failed actresses by providing starring roles in only genre and melodramatic dreck like Mama, Texas Chainsaw 3-D, Safe Haven, and Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.
The graying of the A-list — and the rise of silver-haired cinema — has kept the female crème de la crème of the film industry employed well into old age, however. Contrary to expectations, an entire third of the 18 female-led films (The Heat, Saving Mr. Banks, The Call, August: Osage County, Philomena, and Blue Jasmine) rested on over-40 shoulders. Who needs wrinkle cream when you’ve got a fantastic story and some good old-fashioned brand recognition? Tina Fey is right — “there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60” — but the industry has recently been producing great roles for Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Jane Fonda.
It’s film’s long range of stories, especially its increasing forays into the AARP years, that keeps actresses under 25 and over 40 busy. For those other years, there’s television, which imagines the majority of its female protagonists (17 of 30) between precisely that gap, including Kerry Washington in Scandal, Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation, and Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow, not to mention buzzier (but lower-rated) fare like Claire Danes in Homeland and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex.
Another nine (of the 30 female-led shows) feature female protagonists over 40, many in procedurals like Law and Order: SVU (featuring Mariska Hargitay) and The Good Wife (starring Julianna Margulies). For whatever reason, visions of female competence are primarily, but reliably, available on the small screen. It’s the kind of phenomenon that makes you wanna buy as large a flat-screen as you can afford. It’s necessary to note, though, that no female protagonist exceeds 50. Aside from Golden Girls reruns, women of a certain age simply disappear. But that’s not strictly a female phenomenon.
So television is much kinder to actresses in their thirties and forties, but only because the film industry evidently loses interest in female characters after YA age. Neither of which does much to allay fears of female expendability once they’re no longer (conventionally) attractive to men. With the increasing niche-ification of both TV and film, though, actresses should fear not. The Betty White resurgence has found a home in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, geriatric care gets spun into cringe-comedy gold in HBO’s Getting On, and the promising Lily Tomlin-Jane Fonda team-up is under way at Netflix.
The gray-volution can’t be far behind.