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Malcolm & Marie: Why We Keep Having This Conversation About Actresses & Age Gaps


John David Washington and Zendaya in Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Casting age gaps between men and women have been coming up a lot lately, especially as Oscar buzz looms over the horizon, and it once again highlights how older actresses keep getting pushed out of chances to be included in these conversations.

At times, the conversation about actresses and age gaps can come across as if we are attempting to infantilize these young starlets or put them in boxes and keep them from serious roles, but I think that is an oversimplification. For me, this isn’t about talent or about problematic age gaps in general; it is about the opportunities given to actresses as they get older.

For actresses, the roles they are given are limited as they get older. Actresses like Meryl Streep have a monopoly on a certain chunk of those roles, and older Black actresses like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer have to deal with being typecast and not even considered for the same roles as their white peers. When stories about women, who should be older than just their mid-twenties, are taken by actresses in their mid-twenties, it blocks out scores of actresses who should be allowed the opportunity to play opposite men who are allowed to age.

Back when Jennifer Lawrence was up for (and eventually won) an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, the role she was playing was written for a person who was originally older than Bradley Cooper’s character. Originally, Anne Hathaway was cast in it—still an age difference in Cooper’s favor, but closer. Despite how I may feel about the film, it was a huge box office success, won Lawrence an Oscar, and led to several roles where she was playing women older than herself.

With the example of the upcoming Malcolm & Marie—which was written and directed by Sam Levinson but produced by Zendaya and John David Washington, among others—many have pointed out that Washington is over a decade older than Zendaya and frankly looks it. Actresses Nichole Beharie has been floated as someone who would have been a compelling foil for Washington due to her own acting chops, but also as someone who is the same age and has not been granted the same opportunities to be in a production like this.

None of that is a commentary on Zendaya’s skills as an actress, nor saying she should be kept from playing roles like this. In fact, her even being in Malcolm & Marie is because of her own prowess and smarts as a businesswoman.
The film is part of an idea she came up with Levinson, due to being tired of getting roles where “they’d usually serve the purpose of helping the male character get to where they need to go, do what they need to do. They don’t really have an arc of their own.”

She picked Malcolm & Marie because it was a project where she could grow, and now she’s being touted as a major Oscar contender for Best Actress. That is amazing for someone who just became the youngest winner of the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress, but it is also a commentary on how limited the opportunities are for actresses, in general, to get good parts consistently, at any age.

Mank recently got called out for having 62-year-old Gary Oldman playing Mank, who was 43 years old in the time period portrayed, while 33-year-old Tuppence Middleton played Mank’s 43-year-old wife.

While I don’t believe the fault should lie with young actresses who are trying to make a name for themselves while the iron is hot—I mean, that’s the way to go—we should keep calling out these casting directors who are comfortable effectively erasing women in their late 30s and 40s onward from good cinematic roles. We have been given the opportunity to watch Brad Pitt age and still be a figure of lust and desire. Where is that opportunity for his female counterparts beyond three or four out of dozens? That is the problem.

(image: Netflix)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.