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Michelle Yeoh called out sexism in Hollywood. Will it help close the gender gap?

Michelle Yeoh, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress on Sunday, delivered a rallying cry for Hollywood's older actresses during her acceptance speech.
Evan Agostini
Michelle Yeoh, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress on Sunday, delivered a rallying cry for Hollywood's older actresses during her acceptance speech.

Ageism is real in Hollywood. And actresses, no matter how stunning, talented or charismatic, are consistently reminded that there is a silent yet deafening ticking clock on their careers.

Meanwhile, men in Hollywood seem to enjoy a shelf life that's often decades longer than those afforded to women. And as actresses have repeatedly noted, it's not uncommon for men in their 60s to play romantic leads opposite costars who are decades younger.

On Sunday, Michelle Yeoh made it clear she has had it with the double standard. In her history-making acceptance speech for best actress at the 95th Academy Awards, she called out the sexism that often disposes of female veteran powerhouses once they've lost their youthful glow.

"Ladies, don't let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up!" the Everything Everywhere All at Once actress said to cheers.

Yeoh, who is also the first Asian woman to win the category, is months away from turning 61. That makes her nearly 21 years older than most female winners — the average age is 39, according to a recent study by Sky News. The average age of male Academy Award winners is 47.

The gender gap at the Oscars is closing but there's little change across the industry

Fortunately for women in film, the gap has closed in the past six years. That's because the best actress awards have gone to women over 40. Frances McDormand won in 2018 and 2021 at 60 and 63, respectively; Olivia Colman was 45 for her win 2019; Renée Zellweger was 50 when she got a statue in 2020; and Jessica Chastain was 44 when she won last year.

But the recent shift at the Oscars is not an indication of a broader, more meaningful change across the industry, Lan Duong, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California, told NPR.

Ageism, Duong said, is not going away because films are still made to satisfy the male gaze, which inevitably translates into objectifying women. "It's often a very heterosexual, patriarchal male gaze. And it's often directed at young, mostly nubile women's bodies," she said.

A 2020 study by TENA and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that "[aging] is still fuelled by traditional and outdated stereotypes and preconceptions; particularly in the way the older generation are portrayed in global film and television with little to zero 'real' portrayals or representation of older women on screen."

As part of the study, researchers reviewed the 30 highest grossing films of 2019 in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, watching to see if they passed what they call, the "Ageless Test." That required a film to have at least one female character 50 or older who is integral to the plot in such a way that their removal would have significant effect. Also, the character must be humanized, beyond stereotypes.

The findings were grim. Of those characters who were 50 or older, 75% were male. No female characters over 49 appeared in leading roles, while two men 50 or older were featured as leading men. Additionally, female characters in that age range were more likely to be depicted as lonely — 19% — and homebound — 16% — than male characters.

Audiences give reasons for hope

Still, Duong said there is hope that older (or even just middle aged), established actresses will have more opportunities to stay in the picture and in the public eye. It comes down to money.

Duong said the undeniable commercial success of Everything Everywhere All at Once shows that audiences are willing, even eager, to watch a woman like Yeoh, go from being a martial arts queen "to playing an older woman who's struggling as an immigrant mother with her queer daughter."

The arthouse-sci-fi-heartwarming-action movie has has grossed nearly$74 million in the U.S. and more than $106 million worldwide.

Duong added: "It speaks of an audience that is appreciative of moving away from images of women as only objects of desire." Even those who crave more superhero-based action films, are open to seeing different types of women in those roles, Duong noted. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, "Yeoh moves in multiverses, which is not too far from a Marvel movie. But it's infused with energy and fun and melancholy and loss. It's a full-bodied character and it has resonated with people."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.