Famous by Now: One Actress’s Fight with Internalized Ageism
When I was 8 years old, I heard that Beethoven composed his first symphony at 12. I was determined to “beat” him.
As I write this, I hear an informercial in the kitchen bark “Instantly thicker, instantly fuller, instantly YOUNGER.” Externally, I scoff but internally I make a half-noticed mental note to check out this product.
When I was 13 years old, I began applying my anti-wrinkle cream to my face. When I was 16, I started doing “facial exercises” to give me a “natural facelift”. When I was 20, I started doing weird things to eliminate my “double chin”—and then I had a relapse on my eating disorder.
It’s so hard for me not to feel a pang of jealousy every time someone my age or younger becomes “more successful” than me. I went to elementary school with Sabrina Carpenter. Her sister was in my grade. In fifth grade, I watched them steal the talent show and I wondered if I was too old to begin. I was 10.
I’ve spent a good portion of my time stalking every actor that ever was on IMDb and doing complex mental math to figure out just how old they were when they got their first credit. 8 times out of 10, they were my age or younger. At least, these are the only ones I selectively choose to remember. I agonize over my own IMDb and how no one can immediately tell that I was still a “teen” in my first credit because my birthday is in July.
I frequently come to terms with my own mortality, but I struggle to come terms with my aging. And the worst part is, no matter how “successful” I’ve been, as soon as the project is over, I go right back to moping around.
Of course, naturally, all the Crone women in my life find this hilarious. Even the Mothers. “You’re so young,” they coo. “To fret about your age at 22? Ridiculous!”
But is it really so irrational?
The performing arts are heavily imbued with age anxiety
I remember a few years ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal said she was rejected for a role because at 37, she was too old to play the love interest of a 55 year old man. Do a quick Google search and you’ll be no short of stories about ageism in Hollywood, from the Golden Age to now. The studies on representation of women older than 35 in movies and TV shows are frankly appalling.
In fact, I think harder than being an already successful actress and aging into an industry that has no roles for you, is trying to break into an industry that has no roles for you.
Playing my part—for worse
If you read the scripts I wrote in high school or even in college, I would be guilty as charged. I wrote parts for my peers—most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 22. I consistently have to recheck myself that all the roles I write are not some young hotshots.
It seems counterintuitive, that they way I deal with ageism is to exploit it. And why is it so hard to change? Is it a fear of being swept aside? Forgotten? It takes a certain kind of courage to wait. A courage I am only beginning to find.
Playing my part—for better
Part of my struggling against my internalized age anxiety is an effort to support women who are immediately affected by it. If I become despondent over imagined wrinkles, what subconscious message am I sending to women who have wrinkles?
Finding peace with my age is an uphill battle, it seems. Just when I get around to being okay with it, I get a year older and the battle starts again. It comes from a place of ego, for sure. In order to fight for the right to age, I must change my internalized conversation. I must selectively choose to remember older actors instead of glorifying the young ones exclusively.
In defense of waiting and aging
There have been numerous articles on how and why child prodigies generally don’t grow up to be adult prodigies. In fact, Keri Russell, who played in the show Felicity, discusses crying in a movie theatre because she saw a group of friends just hanging out and despite being the teen heartthrob of America, she “just wanted to be a teenager.”
In the visual art world, in 2017, people over the age of 50 were finally eligible to be nominated for the Turner Prize. Apollo Magazine says this of the move:
It can only be healthy, I think, for artists in their twenties and thirties to look to the example of the growing band of ‘emerging’ older artists and realise that their comparative anonymity at this point, though it may dishearten them, is neither a conclusive judgement on their ability nor an impediment to future acclaim.
Even in the youth obsessed realm of acting, some of the most acclaimed actors didn’t get their start until their 30s or later.
Take the late Alan Rickman for example, his first film ever was when he was 32, and he wasn’t cast into the spotlight until age 42. Judy Dench was 31 the first time she saw any recognition. Kathryn Joosten was 48 the first time she ever had a one-off role. She wouldn’t have a reoccurring role until she was 59.
This is not to say it’s not hard out there in Hollywood, this is not to say the industry will change even in my own lifetime. It’s about being at peace with my inevitable aging. It’s about viewing it not as a curse, but as a blessing.
I’ve done some stupid sh*t in my youth, I’ve hurt people, I’ve hurt myself and fallen apart more times than I can count. As Austin Kleon recently wrote, there is a forgiveness and grace in anonymity. My 13 year old self did not need immortalization, she needed a childhood and adolescence. And thank the universe I had pillow fights with friends instead of 16 hour filming days.