We live in a society obsessed with youth, fearful of death and allergic to wrinkles.
But actress Mimi Rogers, who is 67, is having none of it.
“This is me, this is my face,” Rogers says, “and I’m not going to show up with fish lips.”
Rogers has a long-running television role in which she plays Honey Chandler, a high-powered and fearless attorney who is, in more ways than one, comfortable in her own skin. I’d never met Rogers, but I’ve seen her work in “Bosch” and “Bosch: Legacy,” which are based on the work of crime fiction writer Michael Connelly. It’s refreshing to see a big-name Hollywood actor age naturally and gracefully rather than grotesquely.
Rogers emailed me recently to rage against the gas company after I’d written about a 102-year-old World War II veteran’s $526 bill, and I asked if I could talk to her about playing Honey Chandler. Rogers first wanted to make her closing argument, as Chandler might, against what she called the manipulation of energy markets and the price gouging of utility customers.
Then she was happy to speak her mind — on the phone and then over lunch — about ageism, longstanding societal pressures on women to look young, the double standard for men, and “the plastic surgery nightmares we see all around us.”
“Supposedly, we’re in an age in which women are more equal and have more power and respect than at any other time,” Rogers said. “And yet we still have these bizarre pressures and expectations about looking youthful. It’s still a horrible societal bias.”
That bias and outright discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age have long histories in Hollywood and broader culture. At the moment, Rogers said, older writers are frozen out of the game.
“Mimi is right,” said Catherine Clinch, who chairs the career longevity committee of the Writers Guild of America West. “It is much harder for writers than anyone else regarding age discrimination because older actors get to reinvent themselves. There’s always someone older in a script, but that script is rarely written by someone who’s older.”
Rogers said she feels fortunate to have been able to consistently find work as she has aged, and she revels in her current role on “Bosch: Legacy.” Honey Chandler is not defined by romantic or familial interests — she’s a full-on, artful and talented lawyer who plays her age while fighting for her clients and her causes.
In many ways, Rogers said, this is a good time for older actors because streaming of high-quality shows has opened some doors. But biases and double standards are still firmly in place.
“It goes back to when Cary Grant was cavorting with 22-year-olds” on screen, Rogers said. “I think it’s better in Europe, but a lot of women talk about this idea that past a certain age, you become invisible. It’s like your sexual currency is gone, and that currency goes away much more rapidly for women.”
We’re at something of a “turnstile moment,” says University of Michigan cultural critic Susan J. Douglas, author of “Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media.” Stereotypes about female aging persist, she said, but there’s been a pushback and “a visibility revolt” in which actresses, including Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, “are still opening movies and TV shows,” and political figures, including Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters, are “staking a claim to be visible in public life.”
“Mimi’s position is so important to the rest of us, because celebrity culture often sets the standard for everyday women — the standards of slimness and beauty and looking young,” Douglas said.
Many women, Douglas continued, face a “punishing” dilemma — especially those in entertainment and public life. Wrinkles can threaten their livelihood, but “if you go under the knife and don’t look like yourself, you’re attacked for being narcissistic or wanting to hold on to the past. So it’s really hard to win.”
And then there’s the multibillion-dollar “anti-aging industrial complex,” as Douglas calls it, diligently grooming the next cult of warriors in the fight against the inevitable.
“It’s spas, anti-aging creams, cosmetic procedures, gyms, all of that, and it’s really quite a brilliant campaign,” said Douglas. “They are now marketing Botox to people in their 20s, and if you get people to be phobic about aging when they’re young, you have an ever-replenishing market for your products.”
Rogers says she doesn’t want to judge individual women — or men — for their attempts to look their best, and she’s not out to condemn all manner of cosmetic surgery. She said that she’s not trying to be “holier than thou” and acknowledges that she has experimented with minor treatment.
“I have tried very tiny amounts of Botox a couple of times, and I think it’s important to put that out there,” Rogers said.
Facelifts, tucks and other procedures aren’t for her, Rogers said, but her right eye tends to droop a bit, and she wanted to see whether she could correct that without changing her appearance. Before the treatment, she emphasized, “I don’t want you to try to get rid of wrinkles. I’m at an age where my face should have wrinkles and it would look weird if it didn’t.”
She said she was offered a little extra Botox to take care of frown lines.
“I said absolutely not. I want to be able to frown. And when I smile, I do want there to be wrinkles,” she said.
“My issue is the compulsive and somewhat irrational pursuit of youth,” she said. “If I look at you and my first thought is, Oh, my God, what have you done, or gee, your mouth looks weird, or you don’t look like yourself, or your forehead won’t move, to me that’s a fail.”
As yet, there’s no anti-aging strategy, treatment or product that can stop or turn back the clock. And buying into the myth “reinforces the idea that aging … is bad, that old is ugly, and that evolution over a lifetime is evidence of failure,” Dr. Louise Aronson wrote in her book “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life.”
Aronson describes a scene at her gym, where she realized that another woman’s youthful appearance was manufactured.
“I saw where her skin had been pulled and tucked and how it fought with itself,” wrote Aronson. “Suddenly she didn’t look so pretty. She looked like a mannequin in a horror film. At some point, when you take one thing and try to make it another, you run the risk of the grotesque. Probably they didn’t tell her about this risk; maybe she didn’t care. Almost everyone values the present more than the future.”
With a few more good role models, is it possible that we can all think of aging for what it is — natural, unavoidable and even dignified?