On the weekend of May 19, three movies dominated the box office. There was Deadpool 2, taking the top spot; right underneath was Avengers: Infinity War, another superhero movie to which audiences swarmed. And in third place, there was a movie that looked nothing like its peers: Book Club, a relatively low-budget comedy about four female friends in their 60s and 70s. If the movie's success (Forbes reports that since its debut, it's made more than three times its cost) surprises you, it shouldn't. Movies about older women can and do make money — because audiences, especially millennial women, love nothing more than seeing a group of over-60 ladies live their best lives on-screen.
Yet movies like Book Club are actually made pretty rarely. In 2017, a study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism found that of the 25 Best Picture Oscar nominees from 2014, 2015, and 2016, less than 12 percent of 1,256 speaking roles were given to actors 60 years of age or older — and that's only a small sample of the movies Hollywood releases each year. For women, things are especially bad. From the massive age gaps between male and female leads (see: 46-year-old Will Smith opposite 25-year-old Margot Robbie in Focus, or 61-year-old Liam Neeson co-starring alongside 29-year-old Olivia Wilde in Third Person) to the general lack of leading roles available for women over 40 (after that age, men get a whopping 80 percent of leading roles available, according to a 2016 Clemson study) Hollywood has a long history of determining an actor's worth by the number of years she has left before turning 40.
And unfortunately, that apparent ageism has led to a dearth of movies featuring older women. USC Annenberg's 2016 study found that women over 40 made up just 21.4 percent of female roles in film, compared to a whopping 78.6 percent for men. While men like George Clooney (57), Brad Pitt (54), Denzel Washington (63), Tom Hanks (61), Robert De Niro (74), and Colin Firth (57) continue to take over movie screens each year, nearly all their female peers — minus one or two particularly popular ones (see: Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep) — get left behind. As Tina Fey said in her 2014 Oscars monologue, “Meryl Streep is so brilliant in August: Osage County — proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”
With the industry so often hesitating to cast movies with over-40 female actors, it can seem like those women simply don't exist on-screen. So a movie like Book Club is a really freakin' big deal. The film, about longtime friends bonding over their monthly reading group, features not just one, but four older women. Mary Steenburgen is 65; Jane Fonda is 80; Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen are both 72. And what's even better is that these women are interesting. They're smart, and funny, and confident, and sexy. They may have gotten past some earlier, more trivial struggles, but they don't have every aspect of their lives figured out just because they're of a certain age; when they need some advice or a shoulder to lean on, they gather their friends, pour some wine, and share stories about marriage and aging and kids and careers. In other words: they're actual human beings, just like all the over-40 men we get to see on-screen all the time, and that means a lot to female audiences.
"There's something profoundly healing and about seeing women of a certain age living their damn best lives," explains Sage, a 35-year-old Bustle editor. "Most Hollywood movies would like to pretend that they don't even exist, let alone still have firsts and passions and all of that good stuff."
Adds freelance writer Amanda, 32: "I love seeing older women embrace their own worth and potential on-screen because I believe it is (or at least should be) reflective of the reality of now. Aging isn't a curse, as so many other stories might try to tell us. We can embrace our growth and maturity and look forward to the same kind of success and satisfaction in our later years as men do."
Book Club isn't the only recent piece of pop culture to feature women over 60 in complex, multi-faceted starring roles; there's the acclaimed Netflix show Grace & Frankie, starring Fonda and 78-year-old Lily Tomlin, as well as movies like Grandma (with Tomlin), Elle (with 65-year-old Isabelle Huppert), and Philomena (with 83-year-old Judi Dench). But unlike a TV show or an indie film, Book Club is a major studio release, getting seen by millions of people and raking in serious money. And so, its central message — that not only can these women star in a movie, but they can be just as bold and funny and complicated as their male peers — matters enormously, especially to younger viewers looking to these women as inspiration.
"There's a lot of stress these days about getting older — whether it's worrying you're not going to find someone, that you won't be able to have kids, that you aren't saving enough for retirement — so watching women who made it past all those hurdles is a breath of fresh air," says Martha, 26, a Bustle Editor. "It's reassuring and relaxing that one day I'm not going to care about all the minute things that I probably shouldn't even be caring about now. Some day, it's all going to be OK, carefree, fun, and come with a lot of day glasses of wine, and I will 100 percent take that version of my possible future."
Adds Danita, a 28-year-old social media manager: "There’s a lot of power that comes with being an older woman — you have the freedom to be who you are, partly because everyone has stopped paying attention to you, but mostly because you don’t give a damn anymore in the best possible way."
It's not that movies like Book Club portray older adulthood as problem-free. There's a running joke in the movie in which Diane Keaton's 67-year-old character (also named Diane) is constantly told by her two adult children that she's doing things wrong for a woman her age. Living alone and taking care of the house? Too dangerous — she could slip and fall. Going on dates and talking about sex? Not OK — she's a grandmother and widow, for God's sake. In her children's eyes, the time for caring about things like romance and travel and have long passed, and so in that regard, Diane's life isn't easy. But as an older woman who's had decades to figure out her priorities and develop thick skin, Diane approaches challenges with an ease and confidence that many millennial women long to one day share.
It's true that at every point of life, women are told what they should look like, and act like, and even think like, and problems don't just go away at a certain age. But in movies like Book Club, the women get to defy the "norm" for ladies their age, leading lives that are as full and happy — if not more so — than those of their younger selves and men across the globe.