Gender equality and a woman’s right to age

The Local’s columnist Jessica Alexander argues that Denmark is ahead of Hollywood when it comes to realistic approaches to women’s ageing.

Recently there was an uproar in the news about actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (37) being turned down for a movie role to play the love interest of a man 18 years older than her.  They wanted someone younger.  “It was astonishing to me,” she is reported as saying. “At first it made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then I laughed.”

In an article in the Guardian, Helen Mirren, one of the older working actresses in Hollywood, spoke out about Gyllenhaal’s snub and how she found today’s casting choices “ridiculous”. The age discrepancy between men and women is nothing short of outrageous. We all watched as James Bond became more geriatric and yet his girlfriends continued to get younger and younger. It does make one ask: do men and women have equal rights to age?

See also: Let’s talk about sex… the Danish way

I remember the first time I started watching Danish films and TV programmes and distinctly noticing how odd it seemed that there were “older” women cast in many roles, even sexy ones. When I think about my reaction now, it’s laughable. These were not older women, but rather “normally” aged women for the parts they were playing. I had gotten so used to watching females with scarcely a wrinkle of experience playing the parts of older women that I had never even thought to question it.  It seemed completely reasonable that someone with a high flying career, three kids and a much older husband could also pass for a college sorority sister. That was just what success looked like, right?

And so I started doing some research into the question of equality of the sexes across countries. In the world Economic Forum’s gender inequality index from 2014, Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries take the top spots worldwide for having the least gender inequality. The US lands at number 20 and the UK at 26. Italy, a country that has notoriously been run by Silvio Berlusconi, an old man who slept with numerous under-aged women, lands not surprisingly, in position 69.

What I wonder is this: does gender equality also extend to a woman’s right to age? Is Denmark better at promoting equal ageing rights through media, film and societal messages than other countries? And if so, could this be another reason why they are consistently near the top of the charts in happiness?

“I think in Denmark we use ‘older’ women in film because otherwise it wouldn’t be realistic. For us it’s important to identify with something as real rather than a ‘dream’. We can’t teach our children to value authenticity and find beauty in reality if we show them unreal things,” Iben Sandahl, a Danish psychotherapist and my co-author on ‘The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World,’ said.

“We all get old, men and women, and that’s ok!” she added.

Worldwide plastic surgery statistics over the last years shows the top 25 countries for number of procedures annually. Denmark never even makes the list.  Plastic surgery may be making us look younger, but is it really making people happier? And are women more motivated to go under the knife than men because getting old is seen as unsuccessful?  How many images are we seeing of middle-aged women that would make us think otherwise?

So the next time you see a film where the age of the woman and the age of the man are wildly different (and that isn’t the plot line) please make a note of it. Talk about it with your kids. Talk about it with your partner. This is gender inequality and it has insidious effects. Maybe if we start being more aware of it ourselves, we can better teach our kids to “keep it real” and see more beauty in reality. They might just grow up to be happier for it.


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