TV Doing A Great Job "Symbolically Annihilating" Women Over 40


A sharp, rather troubling essay by New York Times contributor Carina Chocano is running today about women, age and the media; it recalls, of course, all of the obvious anecdotes about the supposed “expiration dates” of models and actresses (“A friend knows an actress whose burglar alarm code – 2828 – serves as a reminder to her of the age she must never surpass”) and mentions an episode of The Mindy Project in which Mindy Kaling (33, playing 31)’s blind date with Ed Helms (playing 38, and “who cares,” asks Chocano) is interrupted by a phone call. She snaps at the caller, “Do you know how difficult it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?”

“The point is,” writes Chocano, “that we’re meant to identify with Mindy’s desperation and buy into it, to perform whatever mental contortions are necessary to look upon her with pity, and despise her just a little for reaching 31 with nothing to show for it, except, of course, a medical degree.” She adds that it’s these touches, “constantly reinforcing the idea that a 33-year-old woman like Kaling is somehow “older” than a man who is seven years older than she,” leads to “cognitive dissonance on a mass scale.”

In this way, even a show that has busted more than a few primetime boundaries (Kaling being of average weight and a woman of color) is carrying on the same kind of hysterically ageist crap you see on any bullshit half-hour CBS sitcom. I mean, yes, duh, The Mindy Project has never claimed to be any kind of feminist polemic (“Dear Lord, Please make this date be good. May he have the wealth of Mayor Bloomberg, the personality of Jon Stewart, the face of Michael Fassbender… the penis of Michael Fassbender”), and it’s unfair to expect this from a female-run show the same way it’d be unfair to expect any kind of similar representation from a male showrunner. But it does indicate a larger problem with the wide gap between the 47% of the population of women 40 or above versus the 27% of these women portrayed on television. (Compare this with the 20-30 female age group, which makes up 39% total and 71% of the women on TV.) Says Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University:

“When any group is not featured in the media, they have to wonder, ‘Well, what part do I play in this culture?’ There’s actually an academic term for that. It’s called ‘symbolic annihilation.'”

Chocano says that she’s looked and sounded younger than her age for most of her life, but it’s hasn’t necessarily been beneficial: it mostly results in patronizing encounters with potential employers and landlords. She also points to the annual “Fabulous At Every Age” issue in Harper’s Bazaar, which, although obviously age-inclusive—since that’s the damn POINT—has its own problems:

“By the time we arrived at 70-plus, a small photo of Barbara Walters was dwarfed by a picture of a 16-year-old girl who could have been her great-granddaughter, looking sad in her dowager costume.”


‘Girls Love Math. We Never Stop Doing It.’ [NYT]

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