In The First Wives Club, Goldie Hawn famously utters one of the best – and truest – lines of the movie: “There are three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.”
Anyone who has seen more than three films can tell you that the Goldie Hawn line, uttered first in 1996, remains true. You can be sexy and young, you can be serious and 40, or you can be sassy and 110 years old. Very few women get to occupy all three roles in the public eye, but Diana Rigg has. She went from Bond girl to playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca to Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. Sexy, to serious, to sassy.
Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones featured another classic scene from Olenna Tyrell, the matriarch of the wealthy Tyrell clan. I won’t spoil the scene for you here, but trust me: it’s a doozy. Olenna has always been a fan favourite and often acts as the comic relief that a show about the dark recesses of the soul so sorely needs. She’s abrupt (“Well, if it isn’t the famous tart Queen Cersei”), surprisingly modern (“It’s a natural thing, two boys having a go at each other beneath the sheets”) and cooly pragmatic (“I know the walls have ears, but apparently the shrubbery does, too”). She embodies everything we want from the Sassy Old Lady, an archetype that is becoming more and more frequent in pop culture. She’s Joan Rivers in flowing teal robes. She’s Judi Dench in Chocolat, without the diabetes. She’s Maggie Smith in a more murderous Downton Abbey. Or indeed, Maggie Smith in virtually anything she does.
And you can see why she’s so popular, because having a sassy-old-lady character in your book, film or TV show solves a number of narrative problems for any creator. She can break the tension of a scene by saying something funny. She can provide a last-minute cash relief for a main character by suddenly announcing her first husband’s gold shares. She can provide wisdom while looking out of a window. And, she can die.
We love the Sassy Old Lady because she delves into decades of learned wisdom in order to deliver the perfect one-liner but culture is broadly uninterested in showing those preceding decades
That might be the most important thing about the sassy-old-lady character: she is born to die. Her death can stir the other, younger characters into action (as in Moana) or humanise people we previously thought to be cold and unfeeling (as with M in Bond). Her funeral is a great place for young, sexy people to put aside their differences; her will is a great thing to fight over; her ex-lovers a treat to speculate over. A Sassy Old Lady is a great addition to your cast, but she is ultimately more valuable dead than alive.
What’s curious is that while the SOL is a reliable stereotype that is easy to slot into any story, she is also one of the only female archetypes that is allowed depth and breadth. When she’s written well – and I have to say, she’s been written well pretty often – she’s given the funniest lines as well as the longest monologues. We hear about her lovers and her failures and her dead friends.
So here’s my question: why is it that we love old women who draw from their experiences, and why is it that we get so few examples of them actually having those experiences? It’s weird, isn’t it? Why is it fun to have an old woman propped up at a bar talking about what she was doing in 1973 – and why can’t we actually show her in 1973? Why do we have so many elderly dowagers on TV talking about “my wretched third husband”, and why do we see so few women dealing with their wretched third husband? We love the Sassy Old Lady because she delves into decades of learned wisdom in order to deliver the perfect one-liner but culture is broadly uninterested in showing those preceding decades. If you’re between the ages of 35 and 60, unless you’re a judge on Law & Order, the camera is not interested in what your inner truth or daily life is.
It reminds me of a particularly offensive line from a recent, widely mocked job advert. Outlining the job description and the organisation’s problem with staff, whoever composed the job ad said: “One old lady used to run the whole of Mountview Academy with an IBM computer, it shouldn’t be this hard.” It’s a small throwaway line, but I think about it every day, because it helps me make sense of how society feels about older women. They are cheap labour, good as a punchline but, ultimately, do not matter. The fact that she is experienced in a vast number of ways as a result of being at work for a long time is unimportant. We are not interested in how she got those skills, because she is just an old lady.
It’s easy to say that it is Hollywood who has the problem. Hollywood diminishes female experience, Hollywood dictates the babe, the district attorney and the Driving Miss Daisy. But we – normal people – and Hollywood are in an endless feedback loop with one another. We tell it what we want with our wallets, and it gives us more of the same. And as long as we view middle-aged women as invisible and older women as punchlines, they’ll stay that way.