The Middle Years:
In 1998, almost a quarter of a century ago, a show called Sex And The City hit TV screens in the US. An adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s novel of the same name, it was groundbreaking in the way women and their friendships were portrayed in popular culture. The four female protagonists were not what society considers young—they were in their thirties and forties– had fulfilling careers and were not terribly keen on getting married. They were also dressed in the trendiest outfits for women viewers to aspire to and sigh over, but that was just an added attraction for a series that brought up issues that affect women—health, baby blues, fertility troubles, job glitches, ageing — not just love, sex and men.
There were dozens of me-too shows all over the world, aping the friendship-and-fashion formula. Not many got the mix right. The friendship part maybe, but the women characters were often off putting. On The Verge (Netflix), created by a woman, Julie Delpy, about four middle-aged female friends, was supposed to be warm and witty, but it made one wonder if this is the way people view older women—shrill, hysterical, clueless, desperate?
Nobody can argue the point, that in a youth-obsessed culture, women over forty find themselves suddenly invisible, unemployable, and possibly desexed. That is the age when all but the strongest marriages break up (men over forty are considered ‘distinguished’ and still attractive to other women), kids are grown up and leading lives of their own, parents are old and need attention, and careers if not at a peak and in danger of burnout, are sliding down under the onslaught of a younger workforce.
Look at the women in On The Verge (of what?) set in Los Angeles—Justine (Delpy herself) is a chef in a popular restaurant, trying to write a ‘wise’ book about life and cooking. Her husband Martin is a French architect who cannot find work in the US, which leads him to be either whiny or mean to his wife. She has a precocious piano-playing son she dotes on and an incontinent cat Martin hates. Her life is stable, if a bit boring, and she is willing to change that in an instant when she runs into a handsome Argentinian chef, who talks in Mills & Boon clichés about magic in a marriage.
Yasmin (Sarah Jones) is a black, Muslim academic, who is turned down for jobs because she is “overqualified” – read overage. She is prone to panic attacks (the menopause word is not heard), married to a white man and has a son she almost smothers with motherly adoration.
Anne (Elizabeth Shue) is a trust-fund overgrown ‘kid’ at 55, whose lifestyle and fashion designing business is financed by her controlling mother. She and her decade-younger husband are stoned all the time; their son is left to a cranky German au pair, who would have been sacked immediately by any sober woman.
The last of the foursome, Ell (Alexia Landeau) is the most deplorable of the lot. She is broke, has three racially diverse kids by three men, cannot hold down a job and cannot manage even the simplest tasks given to her by supportive friends, claiming she suffers from ADD (attention deficit disorder). Living in LA, she tries to push her kids into showbiz (“pimping your kids” as one of her friends comments) and when all else fails, records her own antics and those of her hybrid family for a YouTube channel.
The women are loyal to each other, dropping everything to immediately materialize by the side of the one who may be having a crisis. There is no guarantee that age bestows wisdom or a sense of responsibility—Justine’s male partner, Jerry, flits from one casual relationship to the next, under the excuse of sex addiction—but not one of the four women seems to have much sense or even a shred of dignity. Did the years gone by teach them nothing??
So many male writers and filmmakers easily diminish older women if they see them at all (Meryl Streep is a glorious exception), but it feels like a punch in the gut when women do it. Julie Delpy co-wrote and starred in Richard Linklater’s cult movies Before Sunset and Before Midnight and has directed some fine movies in the past. If the series was about the problems and insecurities of growing older, On The Verge would have been somewhat meaningful. But it just portrays women in their forties and fifties as juvenile, aiming perhaps at cute, landing at demented. Which woman in her late forties, for instance, would come unhinged by a common cold and behave as if she never had one before! By the third episode, the shenanigans of these women get tiresome.
(This is an abbreviated version of the piece that appeared in The Free Press Journal dated September 24, 2021_