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Badass Women Over 40 Are Having A Moment In TV

Claire Underwood in House of Cards
If you’re someone who started their adult TV life on a diet of men running around solving the world’s problems while a woman popped up only occasionally – think 24 and The Wire – then what’s currently happening on our TV screens is pretty shocking. There are women, over 40, with key roles.

These women aren't characterised solely as a male protagonist’s wife or mum, quietly sitting in the background in an M&S blouse, but as multi-faceted people with their own complicated lives. They’ve lived through divorce, or loss, or a stellar career and they have stories to tell. Badass women over 40 are having their moment in television – but what took them so long?

TV, with its male detectives and its male lawyers and its men, men, men, needed this. It needed Happy Valley’s powerful, determined Catherine. It needed Olivia Colman, juxtaposing the exoticism of being a spy with the domesticity of her pregnant belly in The Night Manager. It needed Sophie Okonedo’s performance as the tenacious, moral lawyer Maya Cobbina to secure Undercover a coveted spot on our full-to-burst Sky planner.

Then there's Gillian Anderson's character D.I. Stella Gibson in the The Fall – I Google when that's coming back at least once a week. And I love watching Maxine Peake being given characters that live up to her own – politically-active, smart and feminist. These are the women TV was lacking. And then there's Lindsay Denton in Line Of Duty and, most recently, the brilliant Marcella (and we all tweeted to see if anyone knew where Marcella got that parka).

In the US, the characters may be different (more pencil skirts, fewer occasions when their mascara runs down their face while they eat a cheese and pickle sarnie etc.) but it’s happening over there too in its own way. By far the most discussed episode of The People Vs OJ Simpson was "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia", when the awesome Sarah Paulson took centre stage.

In House of Cards, Claire Underwood is far too well-crafted a character to ever be simply ‘Frank’s wife’ and for me there is no character on TV right now cooler than Empire’s Cookie Lyon. The Good Wife centred around forty-something Alicia Florrick and ran for seven series and the soon-returning Orange Is The New Black is never better than when it delves into a backstory of older characters like Red or Norma.

There is, of course, an argument that as we watch less Dawson’s Creek and more "grown-up TV" we are bound to see more fully-developed adults on our screens but it’s negated by what’s out there. Even in a show that’s 20-something centric like Girls, Lena Dunham brought Hannah’s mum into the heart of things in season five because Loreen Horvath had a story to tell. Her fury and sadness was one of the best things about this season; I’d have traded it for Marnie’s wedding a thousand times over.

Women are doing more things in the world beyond being mothers and wives and that’s being reflected back at us in all of their various roles.

Nicola Shindler, RED
Nicola Shindler, whose production company RED is behind Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, agrees that the shift is definitely happening – and says that it is reflecting a bigger picture:

“Firstly, there are more women high up commissioning and producing so instinctively they’re attracted to those stories because they reflect their lives,” she says. “Plus, the world has changed - there’s a lot more acknowledgement now that women are as interesting and complex characters as men, if not more so. Women are doing more things in the world beyond being mothers and wives and that’s being reflected back at us in all of their various roles.”

These women are slap bag in the centre of things and they’ve given television a new lease of life. The characters couldn’t be background noise if they tried, instead they’ll make you rage at your screens, spend a Sunday evening sobbing into your cheese on toast, or a Friday evening passionately discussing them with your work mates over a 6pm glass of wine.

This can only be a positive thing. Why? Because there’s a niggling fear that comes with being a woman in your twenties or thirties when you suddenly wonder where all the forty-somethings go in the media. In a 2015 study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men over 40 accounted for 53% of characters in the film industry, whereas women over 40 made up just 30%.

Shindler says that the distinction between television and Hollywood comes from their fixation on glamour, while us Brits tend to have a preference for someone… well, a bit more like our mate down the pub.

“There has always been a tendency for perfect-looking people in Hollywood but we know that you don’t just cast 20-something supermodels [in TV]; that’s not a very interesting form of casting,” she says. “Instead, you cast brilliant actresses: what someone looks like is just not as important on British TV as your ability to play a flawed, real human.”

There is a buzz around TV right now which means you’re far more likely to update your Facebook status about it than you are about the latest blockbuster, with big names like Viola Davis, Matthew McConaughey and Maggie Gyllenhaal viewing TV as a respected medium to make the switch to. Eventually this might be noted in cinema too and the cogs will turn to get things changing.

In the meantime, on the small screen these women are busy feeling agony, getting on with their jobs anyway, laughing, ordering another large gin and tonic, crying, caring about fashion, not caring about fashion, falling in and out of love. For younger and older generations, there’s lots to gain from seeing that. Watching them in their various guises is reassuring, mainly because now we do know what will happen to us and our friends when we get a little bit older: We’ll keep going really, in much the same way.

“Seeing these women on TV can only be a good thing,” insists Shindler. “The more you see of real role models, flawed characters and different women, the more confident you are and the more options you know you have. If young women see a woman like Catherine in Happy Valley they know that whatever hits them, however bad things get, that they can be strong enough to overcome it.” And if that isn’t an excuse to watch hours of telly tonight, I don’t know what is.