‘Sunset Boulevard’ and the Ageing Woman: Sexism and Ageism in Hollywood

Warner Bros.

As soon as women hit the age of eighteen, we’re jumped on about concerns of ageing. We’re told our bodies are on a downward spiral and after 25 we won’t be able to eat all the things we want to. We’re told it’s never too early to invest in a good eye cream and that we should cherish our chubby cheeks – they’ll save us from ageing in the long run. Women’s worth has long been balanced on their beauty; which in itself, is defined by traits of youth and vitality. Firm and flexible bodies, bright wrinkle-free skin, and any hair colour other than grey are all seen as defining traits of beauty. The adverse of such traits are rarely seen splashed across magazine spreads or flaunted on red carpets. For a woman’s worth – younger is always better.

Even in 2020, it’s not uncommon to come across archaic views of ageism and sexism in contemporary stan culture. On Twitter alone, you can find popular internet trends claiming  “this is how you age when you’re unproblematic” or “can you believe how amazing this actress looks for *insert any age over 35*”; as if morality and beauty are mutually connected and although women suddenly crumble into dust after they hit 30. Reports have shown that while female actors tend to reach their career peak at 30, their male counterparts don’t reach their peak until much later at the age of 46. The women of Hollywood have long been put on a pedestal for the world to admire and criticise, expected to sustain unattainable levels of beauty and youth at all costs. When older actresses fail to reach these lengths (which is only inevitable) they are criticised, mocked, and then replaced in roles by newcomers 20 years their junior.

Directed by Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard is a histrionic portrait of what happens to silver screen actresses once they’ve reached their ‘peak’ in the eyes of male viewership. Created in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1950 drama is a poignant and important understanding of the darker side of Hollywood’s star system. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), once a famed and beloved silent film star, now lives her life as a dust-gathering hermit hiding away in the hills of Hollywood. Accompanied by her doting butler Max (Erich Von Stroheim), Norma lives every day cooped up reminiscing about her glory years. Thriving off the notion she used to once be adored by the public, Norma spends her days re-watching her old films and reading fan letters – letters secretly written by Max himself. When Norma meets budding screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), she’s convinced she’s found the perfect man to help her back to the big screen.

After spending decades in Hollywood, Norma has grown to associate physical beauty with love, admiration, and respect. Understanding the utmost importance of youth and good looks in Hollywood, she values herself in accordance to her exterior image and how she is received by the general public. Going through vigorous beauty rituals to ensure she imitates youth and always remaining well dressed and wearing a full face of makeup – Norma is desperate to be adored again. On top of connecting respect with appearance, Norma equates public respect and admiration with self-worth and fulfilment – “You really don’t how much this means to me” Norma blathers to Cecil B. Demille (played by himself) once she finally forces her way onto a movie set. Norma’s delusion is not derived from a desire to succeed or to conquer the screen for the sake of ambition, but from the necessity to be loved. An image of how Hollywood builds up actors to only throw them away – Norma’s character is a homage to all the women who have spent their careers being defined by their looks and ability to appeal to the mass audiences, only to have it all stripped away once they reach 40.

Norma Desmond is an amalgamation of many things. She is ambitious, she is sensual, she is generous, she is determined and, of course, egotistical. Yet so, she is also sensitive, she is needy, she deeply fears abandonment – and most dangerous of all, she’s extremely manipulative. She’s a mourning mother, a caring lover, an ambitious actress, an ageing failure, and a cruel femme fatale all rolled into one. Refusing to paint Norma as one sole thing, Wilder presents Norma as a complex product of a harsh and unforgiving star system. A testimony to the ever-changing and fast-paced nature of film, Sunset Boulevard remarks on how ageing women in the limelight are more susceptible to shame and mistreatment than male stars. Diving deep into the effects that sexism, ageism, and public scrutiny can have on an individual’s mental health, Norma Desmond’s character is an exaggerated but not incomprehensible example of what can happen to a beloved star once they’re abandoned by the world.

Joe Gillis serves the film as the critical narrator. Acting as a surrogate voice for the audience, Joe shares thoughts and concerns common at the time of Sunset Boulevard’s production. He acts as the ‘voice of reason’ – yet one who reinforces ageist and sexist critiques of women. However, Wilder is quick to remark on Joe’s own hypocrisy. While Joe might criticise Norma’s approach to ageing, he himself is not immune to the pressure to stay young. As a struggling 30-something writer – Joe too yearns for youth. Infatuated with 22-year old script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) because of her youthful looks and naïve optimism in Hollywood, Betty represents the passionate writer Joe used to once be. As Joe grows older and remains struggling with his career, he urgently desires to reconnect with that younger, more idealistic part of himself. Escaping from Norma’s home, Joe runs away to his friend’s party so he can be around “a bunch of kids so young they didn’t give a hoot”; much like Norma, Joe fears ageing as it represents failure. Here, Sunset Boulevard highlights how Norma’s obsession does not exist within a vacuum and outlines the wider context that Hollywood is a place consumed with youth, success and the fear of being forgotten about.

When Joe first meets Norma, she’s planning a funeral for her pet monkey. Taking Norma’s love for an ape to be pathetic, Joe pities Norma as the grovelling mother. Taunting her for her mourning – “Sssh, you’ll wake up the monkey” – Norma’s very entry is a depiction of how women above a certain age are reduced to the mother archetype. Further so, childless women beyond their years of fertility are often harshly signalled as failures and those living an empty life. We can see this treatment in how Joe remarks that the funeral is “although she was laying to rest an only child…was her life really as empty as that?”. Norma attempting to emulate motherhood with a pet monkey is not only portrayed as a signal of her loneliness but a sign that she does not feel well adjusted to her age. Even amongst women her age, she is deemed a failure of motherhood – a woman who has spent her years focusing on her career rather than assimilating into the maternal roles placed upon older women. Because of this, Norma is a woman who cannot win. She’s left it too late to start a family (thus cannot integrate to the social circles of most women of her age and time) yet also she is unable to reconnect with the industry of glamour and beauty she so desperately craves.

Through Joe’s eyes, we can see the dismissal of older women and their sexuality. Repulsed by the notion of Norma being a romantic and sexual being, Joe’s disgust with Norma stems from the belief that women should behave a particular way once they’ve reached a certain age. Women of Norma’s age are rarely sexualised on screen as a romantic interest – those roles are reserved strictly for women in their 20s and 30s. Meanwhile, ageing male actors are allowed to retain their romantic roles. Especially at this time in Hollywood, you would often see a man pushing 40 romancing with a woman in her twenties e.g. Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, To Have or Have Not. However, rarely would you see an ageing woman engage with a younger man. If an older woman is sexualised, it’s seen as a fetish or kink rather than a sustainable attraction; thus, affirming the attraction as an oddity rather than an accepted norm.

When Norma confesses her love to Joe, he describes it as a “sad, embarrassing revelation” – reinforcing how older women are not permitted the same sexual freedom as their male equivalents. Norma’s attempt at sexuality are particularly scrutinised by Joe as he doesn’t view them as age-appropriate. Norma’s dances are portrayed as girlish grabs of attention, performed in an overly saccharine and whimsical manner. This is behaviour is something Joe criticises as immature – “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up! There’s nothing tragic about 50, not unless you try to be 25!” – again prompting that there are strict social cues for a woman of 50 to be following; ones do not align with the garish charisma and egotism needed to stand out in Hollywood. The only time Joe entertains Norma’s attempt at physicality is when he sympathises with her the most – just after she has attempted suicide; highlighting that rather than an object of sexual desire, Norma is an object to be pitied.

Sunset Boulevard ultimately comments on the exploitive commodification of celebrities; how individuals are turned into seemingly immortal legends and then tossed aside as soon as they grow too old. Fixated with a conveyer-belt culture of media consumption, Hollywood treats its stars as zeitgeists of their prospective generations – meaning that many stars, especially women, are unable to retain their leading roles throughout the decades. Ageism and sexism are inexplicably linked here –women are more harshly critiqued for their ageing and have much more importance placed on their looks and youth, which undoubtedly explains how ageing actresses are offered less roles than ageing male actors. Norma Desmond is a magnified and hyperbolic example of this, showcasing what can happen to an individual after they’ve spent a lifetime basing their self-worth off of fame and stardom. Illustrating the severe anxiety, insecurity, and solitude that can occur once Hollywood has decided a star is no longer relevant – 70 years on, Sunset Boulevard remains a haunting and pertinent look at the toxicity of celebrity culture.

by Abi Aherne

Abi Aherne (she/her) is a Film Production and Film Studies Grad now based in London as a freelance Film Critic. Her fave genre of film is anything incredibly melodramatic and bound to make you cry. When she’s not talking about Moulin Rouge or waiting for her Nintendo Switch to charge, she’s logging her recent watches on her letterboxd. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @nottooabi and can read more of her work here.

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