TV has an age problem: Older female writers can’t get work, no matter how great they are.
“After 40 nobody will talk to you,” former Mary Tyler Moore Show writer Susan Silver told me. “I did 14 movies of the week, 16 pilots, then nothing. It’s a bad problem.”
Getting fully realized older, female characters on TV faces a multi-front battle: There is, of course, the obvious bias against older actresses that we’ve been talking about for most of these blog posts. But there’s also the near-total lack of older women behind the scenes to push for such characters and make them realistic, multi-faceted people when they do show up.
If there are too few older women in front of the camera, there are almost none on the other side to write more into existence.
You might think that the writing and producing ranks of television would be less prone to the ageism that plagues actresses. But older women and men alike are pushed out of writing jobs well before retirement age, so much so that a few years back, the industry settled an ageism lawsuit with the Writers’ Guild of America. Women are hit particularly hard by this, because fewer of them have a giant pedigree to fall back on. Hollywood has no choice but to let someone like James L. Brooks, now 72, make movies or shows if he wants to—he has his own production company and has won Oscars. Fewer women of that generation had the opportunity to advance to that level, so now a job doing what they do best is unthinkable. And because they’d be the most likely candidates for making a truly realistic show about older women, chances are slim that we’ll see one.
Case in point: the women Brooks and his partner on The Mary Tyler Moore Show hired to work for the series back in the ’70s. As I discovered when I researched my upcoming book about the show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Brooks and Burns did something revolutionary at the time, if common-sensical: They sought out young female writers to help them create the characters of Mary and Rhoda—their logic was that as married men, they didn’t know what it was like to be single women like their leading ladies. Many female TV writers in the ’70s got their big break on The Mary Tyler Moore Show because of this, and went on to win Emmys, run networks, and write bestsellers.
Some dropped out of the business due to its demanding nature: Charlotte Brown, the first solo female showrunner in comedy (on Rhoda), couldn’t stand the hours anymore once she had her daughter. Others just found careers that were easier on aging women: Karyl Miller took up political cartooning. Sybil Sage makes mosaic art. Gail Parent, who did write the screenplay for the Lindsay Lohan comedy Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, now writes parenting books.
Though at least a few of them would jump at the chance to write a show about their own experiences, these women don’t consider writing for television as a viable option in their current lives. And that’s a shame, because these are women who really know their craft: They learned it on one of the most-imitated shows in TV history and have practiced it for decades now. Of course, the same applies to many men over 50 as well, but, as with so many of these things, it hits women disproportionately.