Streep is still starring in films at 67, which makes her a unicorn in Hollywood. The film industry is youth-obsessed in general, but age is of particular consequence for female actors, who tend to burn brightest in their 20s. As they approach middle age, their careers dim, the number of available roles diminish, and they start to see themselves replaced by younger starlets.
“What films have you seen lately with serious roles for 50-year-old women in the lead?” Streep said at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, the same year she played a venomous magazine editor in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
“These are the roles they write for women my age,” she said. “Usually they are sort of gorgons or dragons or in some way grotesque.”
The film industry doesn’t seem to know what to do with women in their 30s or 40s, the actor Liv Tyler complained. “When you’re in your teens or 20s, there is an abundance of ingenue parts which are exciting to play,” she told More magazine last year. “But at [my age], you’re usually the wife or the girlfriend — a sort of second-class citizen.”
Such grievances have been tossed around since the dawn of Hollywood: While male actors can enjoy rich careers that last well into their 40s and 50s, female actors are often treated like they have an expiration date.
The data backs up this story. In a new analysis, Clemson economists Robert Fleck and Andrew Hanssen traced Hollywood’s long and enduring problem with ageism. “We were struck by how consistent this pattern seemed to be,” Hanssen said. “What Meryl Streep says is correct that there are fewer roles for women than for men — but this is nothing new.”
Fleck and Hanssen looked at IMDB data on domestically produced films from 1920 to 2011. The data revealed, first of all, that there has never been gender equality in Hollywood. Men have always gotten more roles than women. For much of history, men took upwards of three-quarters of film roles. Women have made slight gains recently — but men still claim over 66 percent of film acting jobs.
The gender imbalance remains when the focus is narrowed to to leading roles. If anything, it has gotten worse for women. In the silent film era, men claimed 55 percent of leading roles. These days, men get between 60 to 70 percent of leading roles.
The analysis also revealed significant gender imbalances according to actors’ ages. As this chart shows, women in their early 20s have a tremendous edge over men the same age. That advantage diminishes for every year that a female actor ages, though. Among 20-year-old actors, women got 80 percent of the leading roles. By age 30, women only got 40 percent of the leading roles. And past age 40, men claim 80 percent of the leading roles, while women only get 20 percent.
“This is a key thing — women have shorter careers that start earlier,” Fleck said.
This chart shows the same information in a different way. Instead of comparing the percentage of roles that go to women, these histograms show the total number of roles that go to men or women at a given age.
Two facts become clear here. First, female actors tend to hit their peak in their 20s. The researchers counted nearly 16,000 lead roles for women in their 20s between 1920 and 2011. There were more lead roles available for women in their 20s than there were in total for women over 30.
Second: Men get more acting opportunities, period. When male actors reach their 30s, there are more lead roles available to them than were ever available to women in their 20s.
These patterns have also held steady, more or less, over the decades. The median age for leading female film roles has been about the same — around 32 or 33 — since the 1950s. That means that half of leading ladies are older than 33 and half are younger. The rest of the distribution hasn’t changed much either. For the past 50 years, about a quarter of lead female roles have gone to women under the age of 27, and a quarter have gone to women older than 40.
The median age for leading male film roles has fluctuated between 37 and 45 over the past century, reaching its peak in the '70s. Nowadays, the median is around 40. To break it down further, a quarter of leading male roles go to actors over 50, and a quarter go to actors under 30.
So for both male and female actors, 40 is a critical age. Among male actors, 40 represents the midpoint of their careers — about half of the leading film roles for men go to actors over 40. For women, 40 is a sunset year. When a female actor reaches 40, she loses access to about three-quarters of the leading film roles for women.
What’s particularly surprising about Fleck and Hanssen’s analysis is that they don't find much evidence that the film industry is changing. Even as women have become vastly more visible in the workplace, the hiring patterns in Hollywood seem to be stuck in the 1960s.
“In the past, everyone expected that scientists and police officers would all be male — and now we're accustomed to regularly engaging with female officers and scientists,” Fleck said. “And as time goes on, more of those supporting roles and characters should be played by women. And this may be happening — but the data don’t show much of a difference.”
Fleck and Hanssen don’t believe these gender imbalances are the product of overt discrimination. Instead, they say, the disparities likely reflect what audiences want to see. “Motion pictures are in many ways reflecting the world back to us,” Hanssen said.
This is, more or less, the classic defense offered by Hollywood producers: The industry isn’t sexist — society is. If viewers celebrate wrinkles on men but detest them on women, is it any surprise that George Clooney still has a career, or that Bradley Cooper (who is in his 40s now) gets paired with Jennifer Lawrence (who barely passes the half-your-age-plus-seven test)?
“We’re not arguing that it’s fair or right or anything else,” Hanssen said. “But [directors and producers] cast actors based on who they think will make money. If Meryl Streep thinks there’s big demand for roles for older women, she’s welcome to test that theory by casting her own films.”
Fleck and Hanssen raise an important point. They ask: If films could make more money by casting more women, wouldn’t everyone be doing it? In a free economy, shouldn’t the films being produced match up with what people are willing to pay for?
But perhaps the way that Hollywood is structured makes it hard for women’s voices and women’s stories to get a fair shot on the market.
Even if audiences are sexist, that doesn’t explain why there’s also also such a gender imbalance behind the camera. Of the 500 top-grossing films in 2015, only 12 percent had female directors, only 10 percent had female cinematographers, and only 15 percent had female writers, according to a report from Martha Lauzen, the director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
"Filmmaking is a relationship business," Lauzen notes. “People choose to work with others they have worked with before and/or who remind them of themselves.” So as female directors like Ana DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow encounter more and more commercial success, and as the cost of making an independent film continues to fall, we may start to see more and more attempts to prove that moviegoers really do want to see more women on the silver screen — and behind the scenes.