The real reason Hollywood lacks good roles for women

Liv Tyler just joined a bunch of other post-30 women in speaking out about how there are too few Hollywood roles for older women. I always read what the women say because the aging process for women is so difficult. I want to know how other women handle it. I want to know if there is a secret to aging gracefully.

I see the first step is something like what Giselle did, wearing a burka to get plastic surgery. But sooner or later, you really end up facing a choice: Do you let yourself look older than 35, or do you redo your whole face?

When people say Renee Zwelleger looks like a completely different person, I think: Yes, that’s true. But so what? She decided to have a pre-35 face and a post-35 face. You can do that. If you’re willing to change your face, you can stay looking 35 for a pretty long time.

But Liv Tyler brings up a problem with that: “The only roles for a 38 year old woman are wives and girlfriends.”

I thought about that, and I though: OMG that’s how it should be. When I was filming for my reality TV show, the person bidding at TLC (I wish I knew her name, I quote her all the time) said that successful characters are remarkable and relatable.

That’s true for reality TV. (It’s why Hoarders can’t just show you 50 dead cats in someone’s freezer—they also tell you how the person’s father died right in front of her when she was a young girl and that made her scared to let go of anything that is dead.) But it’s also true for movies and television. Even something as not-like-us as the characters in Star Wars are, at their core, very relatable. Even Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) had to talk all the time about dating in 30 Rock because otherwise it would seem like there’s something wrong with her that she didn’t want to love someone.

Men don’t need to see themselves reflected back to themselves in a relationship. They need to see themselves reflected back as some sort of hero. Women want to see themselves reflected back as being competent in relationships.

That will be the most controversial paragraph in this post, I think. So I’ll defend it here: The vast majority of women want to have kids. This is not a right or wrong desire, it just is. If most women want kids then most women aim to be with a partner by the time they are in their early 30s because that’s baby-making time for women. This is why a middle-aged man who is not a husband in a movie seems fine. He has time, and men relate. But a middle-aged women who is putting her career before her family is not relatable to most women because most women don’t want that.

Pew Research says the vast majority of women who are mothers want to work part-time. Of course there are few part-time jobs that are worth featuring as a focal point of a movie. In fact, there are few part-time jobs that are even interesting enough to get women out of the house to do them unless money is very tight in the family.

So there are probably film roles for women who are really poor, going to work to support their family. But it’s not going to be pretty. It will either be a boring job because the woman does not have access to resources, or it will be a dangerous job, but then the movie will focus on the woman as a mother because that’s the only way to justify doing a dangerous job.

Liv Tyler also said that when women get older, interesting roles crop up again. That makes sense. Because that’s exactly what I’m thinking about my own life. And all the other moms I coach are thinking that as well. Raising kids is rewarding. But while you love your kids so much and blah blah, no one could think that the day-to-day life of a mom is interesting. It’s monotonous and difficult and unglamorous. So women think the movie of their own life will get interesting when their kids grow up, and they like seeing that in a movie.

I’m sorry to tell this to Liv Tyler, but it’s time to take care of kids. You can’t have a big career and be there for your kids. Listen to Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman. They are saying exactly what women in business are saying: you have to make hard choices.

Maybe it’s a gift to women that there are no good roles for women while they are raising kids. It gives them a break to raise their kids, which actually is probably what they want.

Hollywood is just like business because the women who are most satisfied when it comes time to have kids are the ones who had a big career in their 20s. Look at Jennifer Lawrence, or Anne Hathaway. They both say they want kids and they are preparing to scale back their career to do it. That’s what happens in business as well.

I always say that it doesn’t help you to think you’re special. It’s helps to look at everyone else who is like you. And this is true for all those Hollywood starlets. They’re just like you and me.

59 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I had fun reading this post :) Although it’s not supposed to be fun. I have a friend who regularly have botox and she’s barely over 35. I don’t know if I’ll ever get plastic surgery, I don’t even wear makeup. The thought to have your flesh cut, it’s so scary!

    Btw, thank you for introducing me to Carol Tuttle. I’m a big fan now.

  2. says:

    I’d like to see your research about “most” people and their desires. It seems your opinions are more reflective of mass media than they are of any actual evidence. Your opinions here conflict with some pretty basic arguments in the zeitgeist for pro-female filmmaking.

  3. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    “I always say that it doesn’t help you to think you’re special. It’s helps to look at everyone else who is like you. And this is true for all those Hollywood starlets. They’re just like you and me.”

    I think this is the problem with your analysis, and I would expect better from someone using MBTI to give specific advice to 16 different types of people with different aspirations. It’s a problem with your generic coaching style that uses simplistic pattern recognition and lacks nuance.

    We aren’t all the same and having very narrow lifestyles represented in the media does a disservice to all of us. It doesn’t represent reality, it doesn’t help people appreciate their individuality or the diversity of others.

    This isn’t an argument for ‘special snowflake narcissism’. It’s a request to free people from conditioned stereotypes that limit us.

  4. maria
    maria says:

    Older women not getting roles has nothing to do with younger women getting them. These older women were younger women once too n benefitted then. Most script writers are men n they write for men. Women should either write more or they should convince everyone that they can make money with their movies. Women leading action movies is not believable unless its Jennifer lawrence or to some extent Charlize theron. They can complain of exploitation but its not going to address the root cause,which is women don’t get involved much in other areas of film making.

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      I need to inform you that all of those roles for women have been written. There are stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of scripts piled feet high in every development executive’s office with roles for women.

      When movies with women start doing better, they make more movies with women.

      Until then, they make movies about Marvel comic books.

      • Patrick
        Patrick says:


        Since primary movie ticket buyers are teenagers, this is more of a demographic problem instead of sexism. Teenagers like to see people that are not much older than them. Heck, they don’t have much respect for real people over the age of 30. I doubt they will seek them out in movies and pay to watch them.

        Tom is correct. Hollywood has stacks of scripts. All kinds and all genres. Probably excellent ones too.

        But Toxic Avengers Meets The Fantastic Four will outsell them all.

        And above all else, Hollywood loves money.

  5. Foudebassan
    Foudebassan says:

    Come on, this argument doesn’t make sense. Women in Hollywood can afford an army of housekeepers and nannies, why would they need to take 20 years off work to wipe their own kids bottoms themselves?

  6. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    On a very rare trip to the cinema last week I saw ‘The Martian’ and all I could think was how truly awesome it would have been if the lead character had been a woman. But not so as Hollywood follows the mainstream, as P describes.

    In TV series I find the standard narratives are moving on slowly. ‘Homeland’ and ‘The Good Wife’ are two series with strong female characters where plots start off focussing on their relationships, then eventually kill off their love interests and then focusses solely on their work.

    Maybe we need more real-life examples to base the stories on. The Iron Lady was a great movie lots of my female friends could relate to (regardless of whether they agreed with Margaret Thatcher’s politics) even though she basically ignored her kids for the sake of her career.

    I for one would be willing to see that even further, how about a plot line where a woman totally abandons her family to pursue her career/calling… (am I the only one that wants that sort of vicarious living?)

    • Angel
      Angel says:

      I think it is ridiculous to say that Margaret Thatcher ignored her kids for her career… was she not the leader of her country and responsible for the lives and well being of the nation? She wasn’t ignoring her children to stay at the office a few minutes longer, she had a huge responsibility to her NATION, to ensure that not just her family would be safe and financially sound. Many of us feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, she is an example of how actually having that kind of a responsibility can affect your life and relationships. It’s pretty petty and selfish to boil it down to ignoring her kids.

      • Cáit
        Cáit says:

        Naïvest comment of all time: Margaret thatcher was just a mom who wanted families and kids to be safe and well…bwahahaha
        Try that one in Wales..,

    • Reality Check
      Reality Check says:

      “The Iron Lady was a great movie”. I’m surprised to read that.

      I thought that film was a horrible depiction of an important historical figure. And to think the screenplay was written by a woman and the film was directed by a woman!!

      What truly was the point of so much of that movie showing her in diminshed old age? It irritated me. A friend asked me if I liked it and whether she should take her teenage girls to see it. I said, “they just had to do it, they had to depict an amazingly bold, confident and hugely accomplished woman primarily when she is old and in mental and physical decline. In the 21st century the world is still threatened by strong, smart, willful women.” And I advised her to skip showing her daughters that film.

      You know when the tide will really begin to turn? When females will get more seats at the table…in politics, business, entertainment, etc? It’ll be when women start truly supporting other women. We are largely lousy at that and we should deeply ask ourselves why that is …..

    • CeeBee
      CeeBee says:

      Merryl Streep just did a movie where she’s a rock star and was never home, and didn’t raise her kids. At least that’s what the preview showed. I’m having a hard time imagining her in the rock star role so I haven’t seen it, but if she’d been a secret agent or woman on the forefront of medicine I would have gone. Anyway, there’s a movie should you care to see it.

  7. DH3
    DH3 says:

    “Men don’t need to see themselves reflected back to themselves in a relationship. They need to see themselves reflected back as some sort of hero. Women want to see themselves reflected back as being competent in relationships.”

    I would like to read an article on why you think this paragraph is controversial. I happen to agree with it, btw.

    Good post.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is how people pay for movies “chick flicks” and “action movies”.

      Your comment reminds me of how if you ask focus groups if they want salad at McDonald’s they say yes. But when people really go to McDonald’s they don’t buy salad. Same with movies — we wish we didn’t fit stereotypes, we wish genders weren’t so pronounced in preferences, but we do, and they are.


      • DH3
        DH3 says:

        Your comment reminds me of this TED talk – the short version: when asked questions about their food preferences, people’s verbal answers were different from actual taste tests – describe the perfect tomato sauce vs. try all these different tomato sauces and tell us which you prefer. The latter was much more accurate.

        From what I can tell this dissonance (as it relates to food) is not controversial, but when it come to our choices / preferences as they relate to gender stereotypes people get quite animated. I think this is because when a core part of ones identity is challenged, the subject is much more likely to present a defence against it than they would for something inconsequential (like food).

      • Adrianne
        Adrianne says:

        “This is how people pay for movies “chick flicks” and “action movies”. ”

        This is an interesting point I had never thought of – and also raised some interesting questions to myself. I’ve always preferred watching action movies to romantic comedies – and assumed other people (men and women) had similar preferences. My current watch-and-rewatch movies are the “Iron Man” trilogy. Watching those, I often find myself relating to Tony Stark, but did not think much more beyond that about what that said about me until reading this post and comments.

  8. Brooke Herron
    Brooke Herron says:

    I think Liv has a valid point- and whether or not she has/had children should have nothing to do with addressing her point.

    However, I think her point should be more about female roles in general, not just 30 something female roles

    That said, Having children is not required to be ‘normal’ or ‘productive’ so I find it rubs me the wrong way to hear someone say about a 30 something woman ‘it’s time to go have kids’. Um… excuse me?! That is not a requirement of womanhood.

    While it may be true most women (thought the number is lessening) want to have children, there are millions of 30 something and early 40 something women out there who don’t have children either because they don’t want them, didn’t settle down at an age where that made sense, or just couldn’t find the right partner. Sex and the City is a stellar example of how popular entertainment starring women who don’t have children (and don’t plan to or never planned to and accidentally do) and live exciting personal and professional lives can be. Oh! and they were all well into their 30’s for most of that series.

    I see a lot more 30 something and 40 something women in starring roles these days so I’m not sure I entirely agree with the idea that there aren’t roles for women in their 30’s. Im’ actually constantly surprised these days by how many 40 something women I see starring in shows and movies where they are painted as attractive and desirable and successful. I feel this has gotten much better over the years. Look at The Closer. She is no Spring Chicken. Has no children. Is a kick-ass professional.

    And There are tons of other crime shows with 30-early 40 something as the starring detective role, tons of British Tellie with mid 30’s to early 40 something women starring in top detective or police roles, etc. We may still be the minority comparitively speaking but I think that’s changing. 50% of my female friends don’t have an objective of having children. We have an objective of being happy, regardless of how that goal is reached-and we are inspired by other women who just live their lives and get out there and don’t get bogged down by societal expectations and check lists we are supposed to follow along with to be ‘normal’.

    Also a huge proportion of the women movie goeers (which make up over 50% of total movie goers beating male viewers) are in the 30 something age range . We are also the target audience for a majority of marketing because we have expendable incomes and regularly go to entertainment.

    SO In summary I don’t agree that the 30 something female roles are the problem. However, the stats do back up the fact that a huge majority (like by a landslide) of starring roles are male, not female even though more movie goers/ticket buyers are female. THAT is something to take note of.. and Liv might want to focus her efforts on evening out the female versus male ratio in starring roles in Hollywood before anything else

    • CeeBee
      CeeBee says:

      Brooke, you must not read Penelope very often. Her basic philosophy is that if you want to have a career AND kids, your best option is to have your kids in your 30s, only after you’ve ramped up a career. And I think that formula is probably spot on if you want to have both and a chance of financial stability once you’re supporting more than yourself.

      I’d also like to point out that the reason SATC was so popular is that most women do not have that kind of money in they’re 20s so it’s not fathomable, and then either you can relate with the dating/relationship scene of those women in their 30s or 40s, or you can let SATC make a fun little soap opera fantasy world. Also, HBO just really rocks in the female shows department.

      Also, The Closer (Kyra Sedgwick) has two kids with Kevin Bacon. I think TV has a lot of roles for women in their 30s but movie roles for women in their 30s/40s who aren’t wife/girlfriend/daughter are slim. Then again, Hollywood has barely made anything worth watching in the last 10+ years.

      • Morgan
        Morgan says:

        I graduated high school in 2008, so I grew up watching the re-runs of SATC. They were all chasing relationships. Carrie didn’t have dreams of being a mother, but she was also not ambitious in her career either. Miranda was ambitious but of course scaled back after having Brady. Charlotte would marry anything with a pulse and a trust fund. Those three were stereotypical women. And then Samantha was just sexually free and not interested in any type of long term commitment except to herself. I’ve never met a real woman in her 50s like Samantha…not ever. But then again I do live in a red state. The great thing I took away from SATC was how awesome being single and rich can be for a woman who likes shopping for designer labels.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I checked out the Save the Cat web site. So interesting as an insider view of scripts. And stories. Thanks for leaving that comment.


  9. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    So interesting. My favourite thing about your blog is it makes me look at the world differently then I did before I read it.

    Great post, as usual! xo Maria

  10. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    I don’t agree. I don’t think they put off kids because of their careers. Do you see Meryl Streep’s career suffering? Do you see Angelina Jolie’s career suffering? They don’t have kids because they don’t want to make time, or don’t want their bodies to change, or are too selfish….or have no interest.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It doesn’t change anything. I mean, it’s an error I made, but the argument still stands that women have kids in their 30s and that’s the story we see reflected back to us from Hollywood.


  11. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Liv Tyler was the elf Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, I watched her fellow elf, Cate Blanchett, as Galadriel, Queen Elizabeth, Lady Tremaine, and Lady Marian.

    I would like to see more of Liv Tyler. It’s a pity but it seems to me that playing the mother, wife, or girlfriend is a good role for her. She still looks young for her age. Maybe she can embrace these roles as her specialization instead of refusing them.

  12. Kina
    Kina says:

    When you look at young actresses who eventually enter their 30’s and did deeper into heir backgrounds you see the nepotism and family connections that got them the young hot chick parts in the first place. It wasn’t their natural talent that helped them score the parts. Maybe audiences refuse to pay for watching talentless divas once they are past their beauty prime absent real acting skills. Would you?

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Being professionally beautiful onscreen is definitely a talent. Lots and lots of work from very smart people go into creating that idealized vision. It’s not something that just anybody can do.

      You personally might not value it very highly, but plenty of people part with their own hard-earned cash on the strength of a great-looking image. When you look at the numbers, it’s actually a very big deal.

      • Kina
        Kina says:

        Well, that’s exactly my point. So when you hire connected beauties who otherwise lack other talents there isn’t much left a few years in. Why doesn’t Hollywood bring onboard beautiful and talented people? I know that people like to pay to see idolized versions of humans and the beauty industry is ginormous; I get it. The problem is that those actresses don’t have a plan B to fall back on since they lack artistic skills and talent beyond looking hot. Let’s not forget that Liv has a very famous Daddy who turned her into a “star” overnight by putting her in his music video. Being the offspring of talent doesn’t render you a talent.

      • Morgan
        Morgan says:

        Jen Aniston & Cameron Diaz come to mind. They spend all the their time focused on dieting, exercising and looking perfect. I have never seen those two play “mom” roles. Cameron did that cancer movie a few years back. But otherwise, they are both always the hot, career girls in movies. And they have both done a TON of them. Liz Tyler looks like a Mom. She looks like someone I would see in Whole Foods at 9am on a Monday morning buying groceries.

  13. morgan
    morgan says:

    I just want to say that Liv Tyler already has kids. So, if she is wanting to have more interesting roles now, then she must feel she can handle it.
    I don’t like someone telling women that it is good that the man’s world we live in is protecting us from not spending enough time with our kids.
    Also, as a filmmaker, and mom of twin boys, this post hits all sorts of controversial notes with me. I think it is great to find a wonderful daycare and put your kids there so that you can have a career. I also think it is great to not have to do it full-time, so I hear what you are saying about spending time in the mommy role. I always have.
    However, this post really needs to address the feminist issues that Hollywood really has a problem without pushing it under the carpet saying it’s good for you to have this problem because otherwise you’d be a bad mommy.
    First off,

  14. Jessica Hartman
    Jessica Hartman says:

    Set: the pumping room at work.

    People: my babe is 10 months, a new mom just returned to work that week after 12 weeks. I was promoted shortly before I got pregnant, as was she. We are both early/mid-30’s with our first babies.

    Her – “I just don’t know how I’m going to do this, the pumping, the time out of my daily schedule, leaving on time to drop off and pick up at daycare…AND continue to be a top achiever. I’ve done it my whole life.”

    Me – “Can we take our foot off the accelerator for a year or two now? Do we have enough capital built up? Goodwill? Others’ confidence? Are we ok if we hit pause?”

    Her – “Yeah, maybe. But I’m not sure I want to.”

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      “[T]hey are preparing to scale back their career to do it” that was the best takeaway from this post. Build a brand and a following that you can reactivate when your schedule opens up again.

      Jen Dziura has a great post about this: “Would you like to have a baby and invest substantial time in caring for it? If there is some phase of your life during which you will be working 15 hours a week, then maybe you should work 60 now.”

      • Adrianne
        Adrianne says:

        Love this article and how to-the-point it is! Also sounds like advice I would dole out to other people – maybe an INTJ thing? Essentially, it underscores how no person has everything at any given time in life – and overall, we get what we want by making the right choices at the right phases of our lives.

  15. Tina
    Tina says:

    Sandra Bullock is starring in a new movie called “Our Brand is Crisis.” Originally, the starring role was written for a male actor and as it’s being reported in the media, the change was made because Ms. Bullock started asking for more interesting scripts and her team went to bat for her. This is a trend I’d like to see more of.

    The most profitable movies (according to aren’t exactly steeped in any kind of reality. Are the characters relatable? Yes, at least on some level. But we love to suspend our disbelief, so why not take the route, as Ms. Bullock did, and start exploring switching around genders in scripts?

    • Morgan
      Morgan says:

      I am looking forward to seeing that movie. I saw the previews at the movies. I honestly couldn’t imagine that role with a male lead. Sandra Bullock can play any role imaginable.

  16. mh
    mh says:

    Oh, baloney.

    The reason blockbuster pictures feature male actors isn’t some insidious plot against feminism.

    It’s because that’s what people buy.

    Pay attention here: making movies is a BUSINESS and it turns a PROFIT.

    The people who decide which movies to make are making decisions based on projected PROFIT. (Sometimes non-profitable “message” movies are made, but that’s because Hollywood likes naked statues of Oscar. Message movies are rarely profitable or popular, they are there to signal proper social affiliations. )

    If you think your feminist vision of the movie industry means you could make more profit, then go compete. Stop whining about the patriarchy. Prove it.

  17. N
    N says:

    I miss your posts where you write about the Farmer in the context of your relationship. Do you guys have a new understanding in your marriage that you won’t write about him any more? If it is true that women want to be reflected back as being confident about their role in relationships, it is true that I used to appreciate your honesty about your M difficulties in this blog. I get it if you guys have come up with those boundaries not to write about tough times. Just curious.

  18. Caroline Byrne
    Caroline Byrne says:

    I agree that women primarily want to fall in love, get married/co-habit and have kids. If you haven’t achieved this by age 38, its going to be hard. Women age 37-55 do want to see themselves on screen having alternative choices. Or playing an unusual mom. There’s another world out there that can be reflected in positive role models. What about a woman who’s been left by her partner because she can’t have kids? She goes dating in her 40s, which is a very interesting and rarely conveyed scene. It may give hope to infertile women that they are still lovable?
    What about movies about women who make unusual choices? They didn’t meet the man, it’s too late for kids- so they re-think their choices and make bold, brave choices- maybe a woman age 42 decides to live in Africa to teach women about contraception? Ironic but eye-opening. Ok its never going to be a Friday night date movie but the rom-com movie genre is dying. You have to break the formula now for it to be acceptable to many movie goers. One way of doing this is portraying older women looking for meaning. I’d pay to see these movies.

    • Morgan
      Morgan says:

      Oprah always had guests on her show that were relatable to “traditional women”. Oprah herself is not relatable. She has a gift of NEVER sharing what her true thoughts and opinions are and being receptive of whatever the person she interviews has to say. I remember watching her interview a group of racist people in a community in North Georgia back in the 90s and she never once told them that they were wrong for their views. She just genuinely wanted to understand their train of thought. She’s really good at interviewing and making women “feel good”. That’s an art. The focus is never on her or her relationships which is why people never question the fact that she is not married and has no children.

  19. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    I would argue that Hollywood lacks good roles for movies. Period. You’re better off watching HBO or Showtime if you want to see good writing and acting, which makes me wonder if the issue is that movies with good roles are not being made.

  20. Jen
    Jen says:

    This reminds me of an interview I saw with Annie Lenox. She was of course wildly successful in her field and she attributed her success to being so career-focused that she neglected her children. And in this interview she cried and said she regretted all that missed time. Maybe there would be more juicy roles for women in Hollywood if these women were willing to sacrifice their family life for their careers like Annie did. I think a big part of Annie’s success what that she paved her own way and made her own opportunities. Women in Hollywood who are devoted to their kids can’t exactly wheel and deal all day to produce a movie that they themselves can star in.

    • Mysticaltyger
      Mysticaltyger says:

      I love Annie Lennox and I do think she was very honest about the fact that she neglected her kids, although by this time her career with Eurythmics was over.

      However, I think she has a lot of other regrets, too. She is actually a victim of monarch mind control programming (look it upon YouTube). Her video “Love is a Stranger” is full of symbolism about what happened. (She was taken against her will to a mind control center and tortured and developed multiple personalities as a result). This happens to a lot of celebrities, but we are never told about it by any mainstream media outlet.

      • Tom
        Tom says:

        There are also moms who cry because they got pregnant and had to give up their dreams of being rock stars.

        No one interviews them, however.

  21. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Let’s not overlook an important point….. These Hollywood depictions for strong characters are Fictional roles!

    The person who has it all and is deliriously happy all the time only exists in the movies. This is not a good place to choose a role model.

    Real life has trade offs.

  22. D. Nation
    D. Nation says:

    Please stop writing about children, education and in particular, homeschooling. You are an embarrassment to the homeschooling community and are making us look bad. Your blog is an exercise in narcissism and exhibitionism – please stop, honestly. You make women look bad as well.

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