Have you ever tried to pick out who would be your favorite fictitious family? You create a family tree using characters from books and movies—the character that would be your dad or mom or brother if . . . you know, they were alive and it were possible to design your own family. It’s a fun project to try and can be eye-opening about the story characters that have stayed with you and what they mean to you.
I started the project a few weeks ago, starting with Gandalf and Dumbledore as my grandfathers (you know it’s the most awesome combination ever!). It was pretty easy to pick out tons of characters to whom I’d want to be related. In fact, too easy for the most part. My family tree currently has four grandfathers, two mothers, and more siblings than I’d ever really want in life.
There was only one role that I found particularly difficult to fill.
I’ve been aware of the disparity between male and female characters in books and movies for quite some time, but I’d never noticed the utter lack of representation of older female characters until I was trying to fill out this family tree.
At first I thought I must not be remembering well enough—I started to count:
- Minerva McGonagall: secondary character nowhere near the importance of Gandalf
- Grandmother Willow: a stationary tree whose sole purpose in life is to give advice to Pocahontas
- Violet Crowley: a grumpy and stand-offish old dowager in Downton Abbey. Despite that, she becomes a rather well-developed character, so a huge thumbs up on that one
- Aunt Josephine (and perhaps Rachel) from the Anne of Green Gables series: stereotypically grumpy old rich woman whose heart melts for Anne. Forgivable given the time it was written in, no so forgivable that it’s made the top five of my list.
- Mags from Hunger Games: senile when you meet her, dead within first half of movie
- Daisy from Driving Miss Daisy: Senile and dying
- Mrs. Harris goes to Paris: A movie about a woman whose biggest goal in life is to buy a dress . . . seriously?
There was a chance that I had just missed the books and movies that featured strong, well-developed older women.
But apparently I’m not the only one who’s noticed their absence.
In 2011 Rina Rosselson wrote “Who Cares About Old Women?” for the f word in which she laments the invisibility of old women. Reading her work and the research that she cites was shocking. According to a sixty-six year analysis by Elizabeth Warren Markson and Rosselson’s own effors to analyze another ten years of movies, it’s pretty safe to say that in almost a hundred years there has been little to no development of older female characters in movies.
As far as books go, I can count on two hands the number of older female characters I can remember, and of them, I can think of less than five that I admire on the level of Dumbledore or Gandalf—characters who have changed my life, given me wisdom, inspired my creativity, or visited in my dreams.
Most don’t even live through an entire book, and almost none survive an entire series.
I don’t have a lot of older women in my life that I can look to as inspirations for what happens when I reach old age. That’s not terribly anomalous since I also don’t have too many father figures or mother figures or sisters or brothers to relate to either. My family is living, but I often feel like an orphan since no truly vibrant relationship can happen between someone who left a cult and someone who is still in a cult.
But the one thing that always supplemented that lack of familial connection were the characters that I loved in stories, characters whose lives lived on in my mind long after the stories were over. Whether it was Remus Lupin filling in as a benevolent father figure to a lonely orphan, Lorelai Gilmore imperfectly struggling to raise an independent daughter, Abbé Faria teaching a fellow prisoner how to survive and escape, or Katniss Evergreen doing everything in her power to protect her younger sister, I had characters in my life to fill in those holes and to show me how things could be—how I could be.
But in the absence of crones, elderly women, grandmothers, hags, or spinsters, I’m missing—hell, the whole nation is missing an incredibly important aspect of life! Stories are the way we tell truth to ourselves, but how much truth can there be if we cut out a whole stage of life for women?
Age is neither the enemy nor the end of women, yet it would seem to be their worst curse in stories, rendering them invisible, insignificant, incompetent, evil, or flat.
Rosselson was asked somewhat sarcastically, “Who cares about old women?”
I can answer that question. I care about old women. It’s time to start bringing old women into books as serious characters. It’s time to put them up on screen as well-developed personalities. I need female Gandalfs, female Dumbledores, female Yodas. I need female Hamitches.
It’s time to bring back the crone. Bring her back because she has things to teach, yes. But more than that, bring back the crone because she is an aspect of life, and as such, is vibrantly important to life.