A group of British soap opera actresses appear naked this month in a magazine to raise awareness of age discrimination on television.
According to Jessica Laurence of AOL News, "The stars of Loose Women, Eastenders and Coronation Street have stripped bare for a photo shoot in Best magazine as part of a campaign to fight ageism in TV. Posing completely nude for the magazine's Body Image issue, Gillian Taylforth (EastEnders), Beverley Callard (Coronation Street), Sherrie Hewson and Andrea McLean (Loose Women) protested against the scarcity of roles for older women on television."
This is, of course, not the first time that a group of British women of a certain age (or a bit beyond) have stripped for a cause. The 2003 hit comedy film Calendar Girls, starring Helen Mirren, was based on a real-life story of a dozen women in their sixties and seventies who posed nude as a fundraiser for a women's community organization.
Fair or not, the emphasis on beauty and youth is universal. Ancient Greek myths were overwhelmingly about young, attractive heroes and heroines going on quests and overcoming great obstacles. From Sandro Botticelli's 1484 painting The Birth of Venus to Francisco Goya's 1880 Nude Maja, artists have always focused on beauty and youth. There are, of course, some representations of older men and women in classical art and literature, but youth has always been prized.
Perhaps recognizing this, the women wisely target screenwriters. One of the women noted, "Women my age face a lack of parts because writers don't write about women in their 50s. You used to confront ageism in your 50s, then it was in your 40s now anyone over the age of 35 suffers the stigma of being 'too old.'"
Though addressing issues of ageism through nudity creates awareness among the general public, it's easier to change the screenwriting world than the rest of the world.
The fact is that there are few good TV and film roles written for older people, male or female. Actors undeniably have a longer shelf life than actresses, though even Hollywood's biggest male stars are offered fewer and fewer significant roles as they age.
Once-handsome but aging leading men like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Richard Gere, and others rarely appear in films anymore. Many have taken producing and directing roles to keep a hand in the youth-and-looks focused business.
Pressuring screenwriters may help, but consumers can also vote with their purses and pocketbooks. Studios respond to box office receipts, and when audiences decide that they want to see films about older women (and men), Hollywood will make more films starring older actors. But an audience must create the demand.
Today's Brad Pitts and Johnny Depps will be tomorrow's Kirk Douglases and David Nivens, replaced (maybe) by Nicolas Hoults and Anton Yelchins. The ageism the women are protesting is partly about Hollywood's narrow vision, but it's also about the numbers.
There are only so many TV and film roles to go around, and an ever-growing population of actresses and actors wanting those roles. A casting director for a coming-of-age script (an ever-popular genre) won't call Jessica Lange, Kate Winslet, or probably even Natalie Portman.
There has never been a society that generally values old age over youth, and it seems unlikely that there ever will be. Youth has always represented opportunity and potential, and the promise of future generations. Favoring youth and beauty over old age seems inherent in humanity.
But it's not a zero-sum game; there's no reason a society can't value its older citizens for their abilities and experience as much as it values youth.