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Ageism and “The Clouds of Sils Maria”

I saw a great film recently called “The Clouds of Sils Maria” that features a superb female cast. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!) The film is rich and complicated, and features multiple parallels between the relationships of the characters, both real and fictional. One theme that really stood out to me was the film’s treatment of older working women in society.

Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a world-famous actor at the pinnacle of her career. That career was launched twenty years prior by her performance in the film “Maloja Snake” as Sigrid, the cruel personal assistant who romantically entices and manipulates a forty-year-old business executive, Helena, eventually driving Helena to suicide.

Now, Maria is asked to reprise her performance on the stage, this time as older Helena. Throughout the film, Maria struggles first with whether to accept the part, and later, how to interpret the role. At the same time, Maria is forced to reflect on her own understanding of herself as an older woman who is still competing in the field of acting.  She sees herself as the youthful, free Sigrid, and can’t come to terms with a self-conception as the aging, downtrodden Helena.  As Binoche’s character explains, “Time goes by and she [Helena] can’t accept it. Me neither I guess.”

During her struggle to interpret her role as Helena, Maria practices the part with her personal assistant, Valentine (played by the ever-fascinating Kristen Stewart) in the remote Alps village of Sils Maria.  Valentine pushes Maria to interpret Helena as an older version of Sigrid.  In one heated exchange between the women, Maria expresses the frustration of being an aging actor, retorting, “I’m allowed to not be old as long as I don’t wanna be young.”

Today, older women’s participation in the labor market is growing and expected to continue to grow as women in the baby boomer generation stay in the workforce longer.  According to the Department of Labor, among 55- to 64-year-olds, women’s rate of labor force participation increased from 41.3 percent in 1980 to 59.4 percent in 2012, and is expected to reach 66.6 percent by 2020.

However, older working women face barriers due to societal ideas about older people, especially older women, as incompetent and out-of-touch with the modern world.  Despite legal protections such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA], which makes it illegal to discriminate against anyone who is 40 years old and older on the basis of their age, discrimination against older workers continues to be a real concern.  This is reflected in statistics, as claims of age discrimination reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have risen rapidly in recent years. Stereotypical ideas about older women also permeate our culture. Even Hillary Clinton has faced questions about her presidential candidacy because she recently became a grandmother. This sort of sexist commentary emphasizes how our attitudes about older women need to change.

Near the end of the movie, Maria meets with a young new director who pitches a role to Maria for a film about mutants. The director describes the character by saying, “she has no age. Or else, she’s every age at once. Like all of us.” Maria, however, thinks that the younger Jo-Ann would be a better fit for the role.  We’re left unsure as to whether Maria has complacently accepted that she is past her prime, like Helena, or whether she will adapt and continue to forge her path as a brilliant actor, in spite of societal expectations.

I think that the young director is right to deemphasize the importance of age.  In the workforce and in life, each individual brings to the table a diversity of life experiences. To stereotype people, to cast them in certain roles, to expect certain competencies—or lack thereof—based on their age is overly simplistic, and often flat-out wrong.

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Dana Ziegler

Dana Ziegler is a former contributor to Shattering the Ceiling.

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