I learned several important facts about Connie Britton in her new Times profile. First, she has a 2-year-old son named Eyob who she adopted from Ethiopia. Second, her hair is as beautiful in real life as it is on TV. (Sigh.) I also learned that Britton is over 40—she’s 45, as a matter of fact. There was no way for me to miss this last fact, because the article could not stop talking about her age.
What’s interesting about the article’s age obsession is that it isn’t actually ageist. Writer Susan Dominus sets out to talk about how popular culture portrays women who are 40-plus, and how Britton is fighting back against those tropes. She writes that as Britton read early reviews of her new show Nashville,
She was particularly concerned about the way her character was being positioned — Connie Britton, playing an “aging country-music star,” a phrase she started seeing in countless blog posts and articles about the show
“I was like, the minute I’ve been referenced in writing as aging, I’m done,” she said. “I was furious about that.” She was also concerned about the plot, which early on had Jaymes on a downhill slide, losing ground to a young, blond crossover star played by Hayden Panettiere. That Britton of all people would be asked to play a character whose life seemed to fall apart at 40 struck her as almost perverse. “That’s not even who I represent as an actor,” she said, sitting back in her seat. “My life started being awesome five years ago.”
This is great stuff, right? Britton is not going to play your pesky little game, sexist culture that scares women into feeling old and unattractive and washed-up just because they get older, like all living things on this planet! (Seriously, the only alternative to getting older is being dead. These are our choices. Which is the cooler option, hmm, so hard to decide.) Anyway, Britton is having none of this ridiculousness. She’s hot and she knows it. She’s got a rocking career, a dedicated fan base, and–as the article takes care to point out–she’s not exactly hurting in the dating department.
And yet, Dominus winds up recreating some of the sexist tropes Britton is battling against in her own article. There’s the way she frames the star’s story in the first place: Britton as the late bloomer, the hard-working actress who lost out on a juicy role in Jerry Maguire and finally rose to fame almost 15 years later. “Connie Britton got over it a long time ago, the part that got away,” the profile begins.
This is a compelling story arc—Britton is the Seabiscuit of celebrities, an underdog whose purity of heart finally helped her climb to the top! But it’s also a narrative that mimics the very Nashville plot that Britton objected to. Dominus writes that Britton lost the Jerry Maguire role to Renee Zellweger, “an actress so tiny and tousled she looked newly hatched.” Though Zellweger and Britton are about the same age, this description makes Zellweger sound like the sweet young thing–and Britton, by implication, the seasoned senior. (She would have been 27 at the time.)
The aging angle doesn’t stop there. Dominus writes about how Britton objected to a particular scene in Nashville‘s pilot: “No, she told the director of the pilot, she would rather not stare at her face in the mirror and pull it back aggressively to see what she would look like with a face-lift.” We also hear that,
In a scene in an early episode, in which Jaymes takes a long walk with an old flame, Britton deliberately resisted some lines in which her character expressed fears about being old. “Just drawing on my own experience, I never — I never — personally reference myself as old. I don’t think of myself as old, but I certainly would not say that to a man,” Britton said… “I might have a conversation with some girlfriends — what are we doing about the lines around our eyes — but to a man? There are certain things — it would just be demystifying and disempowering,” she said.
The way Dominus focuses on Britton and aging, you might think that the Nashville star was the only woman over 40 on television these days. In fact, the contemporary television landscape is dominated by women her age and older: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Glenn Close, Edie Falco, Laura Dern, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Margo Martindale, the Real Housewives of Everywhere, Madeleine Stowe (who is 54 whaaaaaat), Juliana Margulies, Kathy Bates, Dame Freakin’ Maggie Smith. Take a look at the Emmy nominees for best actress over the past five years or so, and it’s easy to see that—thankfully!—there is nothing so unusual about a 45-year-old-woman anchoring her own show on television today. (The movies, unfortunately, are a whole other story. Heeey Bradley Cooper, wanna try a co-star who was born in the same decade as you sometime?)
But here’s what really bugs. Britton clearly doesn’t want her age to be the focus of her show. Dominus, like any good journalist, realized that this made for an interesting hook. But there’s a danger that comes into play anytime the media talks about a celebrity who’s different from the stick-thin, white, straight, youthful, delicate-featured model preferred by modern-day Hollywood. When an article focuses on one particular external quality that sets a celebrity apart the homogeneous masses, it can wind up reducing them to that quality.
I see this all the time in think-pieces about Lena Dunham’s looks. I agree that it’s wonderful that Dunham looks different from your average CW starlet. But even the positive essays celebrating Girls as a major victory for body diversity on television end up making the conversation about Dunham all about her appearance. This does not strike me as particularly progressive. Same goes for supportive profiles of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson that focus mainly on their weight, or profiles of Idris Elba that ask him over and over again about the challenges he’s faced as a black actor. “I’d rather a young black actor read about success as opposed to how tough it was,” he told Vulture last year. “I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better.”
This isn’t to say that the media shouldn’t talk about weight or race or gender or age or sexuality or disability—far from it! But I also think it’s important for journalists to think about how they represent these subjects. When we hone in on a characteristic that sets a celebrity apart from the Hollywood norm, then bedeck that characteristic with ribbons and flashing lights and tinsel and party balloons so that nobody possibly miss it, we may be helping to ensure that just one trait is all anyone can see. In fact, I may being doing it right now. Ah! Let’s talk about something else, like Tami Taylor’s cowboy boots.