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Why the age of 40 is so important in Hollywood

Imperious fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) dumps her coat on the desk of new assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in "The Devil Wears Prada." “These are the roles they write for women my age,” Streep said in 2006, when the film premiered. “Usually they are sort of gorgons or dragons or in some way grotesque. My job as an actor is to make them multi-dimensional.” (Barry Wetcher)
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Hollywood is a harsh place for women who dare to age. Even Meryl Streep, who has accumulated more Oscar nods in her 60s than most actors can hope for in a lifetime, recently admitted that she believed her career was finished decades ago.

“I remember as I was hovering around 40, I thought each movie would be my last, really,” she told the Wall Street Journal in July. “And all the evidence of other 40-year-old women at that time — this is 27 years ago — would lead you to believe it was over.”

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 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 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.

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.

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.

A study by the data journalism website Polygraph shows that the status of women in Hollywood is bleak. Even 25 years after the trailblazing movie "Thelma & Louise," men still hold the majority of dialogue in most movies. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

Dig deeper: Movies & TV + Gender

Want to explore how the movie and television industry treats women? Check out our curated list of stories below.

Context matters: Understanding how age and gender affect casting

Among 20-year-old actors, women got 80 percent of leading roles. By the time they’re 40, women get only 20 percent of those jobs.

Understanding the Hollywood’s gender imbalance

An analysis of more than 2,000 screenplays provides insight into the role women play in film.

What happens when film criticism is dominated by men

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