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Fall Preview / Television

Wanted: Women of a Certain Age

Actresses over 40 make up a growing segment of the population on the tube's many ensemble series

September 15, 2002|JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN

Blythe Danner recalls part of a dinner conversation she had with actress Leslie Caron nearly 30 years ago. "She said, 'I have to go back to Europe now because I'm over 35.' " Now, says Danner, "it seems that there are more opportunities for older women, at least in television." As the star of CBS' "Presidio Med," the 59-year-old Danner is one of a growing number of exuberant, strong-willed and complex women over 40 featured in prime-time television.

Back in the days of "The Golden Girls," it was almost a novelty to find active, vibrant older actresses in leading roles on television. During the past several seasons, however, that has begun to change. With an onslaught of ensemble dramas, women over 40 are continually being pushed into the forefront and defying stereotypes of mature women devoid of personality, sexuality and corporate savvy.

Take, for instance, Holland Taylor, the libidinous judge Roberta Kittleson on ABC's "The Practice," or Dyan Cannon, the wily Judge Jennifer "Whipper" Cone of Fox's departed "Ally McBeal." Both actresses played older, successful women who were alluring, provocative and sexy to their younger, powerful male counterparts.

That is certainly the case with 46-year-old Kim Cattrall, who plays lusty vixen Samantha Jones on HBO's "Sex and the City." Moreover, who could doubt the professional prowess of Marg Helgenberger, 43, of CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," or Allison Janney, 41, of NBC's "The West Wing"? As scientist and politico, respectively, they are among the tops in their class. Pick any woman on Lifetime's Sunday-night slate, and the same would be true. This fall's new series will continue to showcase vital, interesting women who are north of their 39th birthdays.

Of its five female characters, "Presidio Med" has three mature leads, including Danner; Dana Delany, 46; and Anna Deavere Smith, 51, as headstrong, dedicated veteran San Francisco doctors who care for patients and battle HMOs at work while juggling relationships and personal crises at home.

Other series with 40-plus women include NBC's "Crossing Jordan" newcomer Lorraine Toussaint, 42, as a rival for the series' younger star, Jill Hennessy. CBS' "CSI: Miami" will see the series return of two veteran television actresses: 40-year-old Kim Delaney ("Philly") and 45-year-old Khandi Alexander ("NewsRadio" and "The Corner").

"When you think about women like Allison Janney, Laura Innes [of NBC's "ER"], Hattie Winston [of CBS' "Becker"], women who bring so much to the table--what would these shows be like with a 22-year-old in their place?" Alexander asks. "Women have lied about their age for so long. But honey, how long can you be 38? Now we're kind of able to be who we are and be wonderful about it."

Mature women face similar challenges in the news business. While Diane Sawyer, 57, and Barbara Walters, 71, have maintained their high-profile careers, news and information programs more typically spotlight younger faces. If, in most cases, that's due to the same preferences exhibited by series TV casting agents, in others it can be chalked up to the choices women in the media must make. Consider Walters' colleague on "The View," Meredith Vieira, who put aside her high-flying news career when she started her family. The time demands of young children and a peripatetic career in broadcast journalism proved to be too much of a conflict. She has managed to maintain her professional life, although by taking a far different direction. (See story, Page 96.)

Although the landscape may be blossoming with opportunities, overall the picture is not as rosy. According to "Boxed In," a study of female characters during the 2000-01 season, women are considerably younger than their male counterparts on television. The report shows that the majority of female characters were in their 20s and 30s, while most men were in their 30s and 40s. Meanwhile, just 4% of women characters on TV are at least 60 years old; that age group accounts for 19% of the actual female population.

"And things don't change much from year to year," says Martha Lauzen, a professor at the School of Communications at San Diego State University, who has conducted the annual study for nearly a decade. "Each and every night of the week there are significantly more women watching prime-time television than men, and older individuals tend to watch more television than younger individuals. You would think that the networks would really want to create programming that would appeal to that older female viewer over 40, because those are the people that are watching."

Nor are advertisers quick to change their focus, Lauzen says, considering that the majority of advertising dollars are aimed at women 18 to 49. And it's been that way for several decades.

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