1In May 2015, the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal explained to the magazine The Wrap that she had just been turned down for a role, because at 37 she was judged too old to play the lover of a 55-yearold actor.  A number of studies have emphasized the ageism and sexism suffered by actresses, especially in Hollywood.  Gyllenhaal highlights a particular point which is more rarely touched upon, and might equally apply to another audio-visual genre, namely that the formula of a partnership between a young woman and an older man, with a considerable number of years between them, is a common feature of television series.
2Televised fiction is part of the social experience. Its stories do not reflect society nor are they simply works of the imagination,  but they have a place in the economy and in leisure activity; many of them appeal to millions of viewers and they occupy top place in the lists of programmes with the largest audiences. In the portrayal of gender relationships on screen, the age gap within the couple plays an important part; hence an asymmetrical system can be observed, featuring a marriage market organized according to the preferences of men of all ages, where the women’s youth is a decisive factor in their desirability.
3Working from a corpus of series broadcast in France (but with examples originating in other countries as well, including the UK and US), I shall first demonstrate the scarcity of women over 50 on screen, as against the frequent presence of men in this age group. The youth of the women in question is not only an absolute quality (their age) but also a relative one (the age gap between them and their male counterparts). In this contrasting age balance, what we see is a clear example of hegemonic masculinity and femininity. The age difference is a key element of gender inequality. Nevertheless, some characters played by women over 50 do have a love life which defies this general formula, and it will be interesting to explore how far such performances challenge gender norms.
Where are the women (of 50)?
4Quantitative studies reveal that actresses have been in the minority ever since the beginning of television. Joseph R. Dominick  shows that, during the period 1953-1977, female roles exceptionally reached 40% at the beginning of the period, to then oscillate around 30% with lows of 25% for leading roles. Women were not only in a minority, but were also concentrated in the youngest age groups.
A year of television in France
5For this study, I analysed a sample of series broadcast in France in a single year. The early-evening detective series aired on the four most popular channels (TF1, France 2, France 3, M6) between 1st January and 31 December 2010 were surveyed in their entirety. With one exception, they all had a minimum of two “seasons”, and the longestlasting ran for as many as 22 seasons.  I then surveyed all the leading and regular characters, out of the sum total of seasons broadcast up to June 2014.  We thus have an overall view of the casting practice at a particular moment (2010), as well as the way it has evolved over time. The proportion of female roles has changed little over six decades: in 2010, there were 40% in the corpus and only 34% if we simply take account of the detective roles (the majority of the series surveyed were police procedurals). 
6Especially notable is the disparity of age structure. Whether in the early research of 1953 or in Nancy Tedesco’s corpus of 2,874 characters in American programmes up to 1974, female characters are on average younger than the males.  These calculations have the disadvantage of forcing viewers to subjectively ascribe an approximate age to a character. To gain a more precise reading, I chose to work with the actual age of the actors and actresses, which is more specific, objective and constantly evolving. From the work of Sabine Chalvon-Demersay in particular, we have learned the extent to which the “hero of a television series” is a composite in which the character and the person playing it are inseparable.  It is useful, therefore, to combine the data on characters and their performers. It then becomes evident that actresses are always, on average, younger. During the first season, the average age gap is six years; it then increases from one season to the next, because the turnover in the cast affects men less than women.
7What is striking is not only the average but the asymmetrical structure. While one finds male actors of all ages, from 25 up to more than 70 years of age, this is not the case with actresses, of whom a minority are over 45, with even fewer over 50.  Actresses aged under 50 may reach that age or go beyond it if the series lasts, and if they are kept in the cast, as shown by the longest series in the corpus, Julie Lescaut, where the title role was played by Véronique Genest from the age of 36 to 58. Out of the 171 actresses in the corpus, only 26 (15%) reached the age of 50 while still on screen, whereas 38% of male actors reached or went beyond that age (89 out of 236). Of these 26 actresses, 16 of them were aged at least 50 when they took on the role, for example Marion Game (nine seasons as a court registrar in Boulevard du palais) or Édith Scob (mother superior of the convent throughout the whole duration of Sœur Thérèse.com).
To have or have not (a partner)
8Among these 26 cases, 20 characters are shown as no longer having a partner or any sexual involvement; indeed, some nuns in Sœur Thérèse have never had either. The character Henrietta Lange, Operations Manager in NCIS: Los Angeles, played by Linda Hunt since she was 64, is depicted as having had a lover in the distant past who was a secret agent, just as Sœur Thérèse (Dominique Lavanant) has long been divorced from the police inspector played by Martin Lamothe. If there is an overriding image of women aged 50 or more, it is of those who no longer have a sex life. The detective Jo Danville in CSI: NY (whose role Sela Ward took on at age 54) is a divorced mother who is single, just like her Las Vegas colleague Catherine Willows (played by Marg Hengelberger between the ages of 42 and 53). Willows devotes herself to her daughter in order to exorcize a tempestuous past, although the character ends up having a relationship with a younger police officer (the actor Alex Carter is six years younger). It took ten seasons in the cast of CSI: NY, and the departure of some charismatic characters, for Willows to rediscover a sex life, when the actress was approaching 50. This trajectory is rare, but it proves that giving up on sex is not always permanent.
9Others among the 26 female characters are shown as partnered, but few of them occupy major roles – they might be wives acting as a foil (in Midsomer Murders, Jane Wymark played the wife of DCI Tom Barnaby, who was nine years her senior, for 13 seasons), or people whose marital status is so rarely touched upon that it goes unnoticed (Captain Victoria Gates of NYPD’s 12th Precinct in Castle). Here again, it was only by lasting for several seasons that this character won the right to have a personal life referred to in the screenplay. As well as Willows, who partners a younger man, just two of these characters display their claim to a sex life. Commissaire Mercier (Clémentine Célarié, 52) of Les Bleus renews an affair with Captain Duval who is under her orders (Jean-Michel Fête, 44). Finally, Martha Rodgers, the mother of the writer Castle whose name gives its title to the series, was 67 when she took on the role and is a very active singleton whose character will be described later.
Couples: a bigger age-gap
10It would be quite feasible for the roles of couples seen on television to be performed by actors who are close in age. But this is quite definitely not the case. In the corpus studied, 66 couples involve at least one leading or regular character. In only three cases were the performers born in the same year. In a few instances, the actress is the older one of the couple, by one year (three cases), two, three, six or seven years (one case each), or up to eight years (two cases).  But overall, the situation is extremely asymmetrical, since the general rule is that the man is older (54 times out of 66). In this latter scenario, the gaps in age are much wider – in 23 of these couples it is over eight years. In the four most extreme cases, the age gap is twenty years or more. In the off-screen world, such large gaps are relatively infrequent. Certainly, on average, men tend to be a little older than their partners, but only by just over two years. Wide gaps are rare, although they are more numerous in today’s society than in the past  and more frequent for men embarking on second relationships.
11Three features are characteristic of these heterosexual couples. First there is the ageist pressure upon women. Then there is the possibility for male heroes to be of any age. Finally, the age gap appears to be flagrantly unequal in favour of men. This is what Michel Bozon has called “domination by age”.  The asymmetrical age structures and the lower thresholds of ageing for women play a part in the differential valence of the sexes.  The youth of female partners is an element of their desirability in the sexual and marriage market. In my corpus, when the actors are of the same age, in two cases out of the three, another form of domination creeps in, in that the man occupies a higher social or occupational rank. These forms of domination may be combined in a couple. For example, in Un flic, Commissaire Schneider has a relationship with a lieutenant under his orders (we only know her first name, Alex), and the actor is 16 years older than his partner. Indeed, a man’s social and economic capital increases his ability to form a second partnership with a much younger woman.  The age difference is sometimes so great (26 years in Commissaire Brunetti) that it prompts us to enquire about the place of excess and exaggeration in the gender relationships depicted in the series.
When male domination is overdone: the place of excess in gender relationships
12If we are to believe Todd Gitlin, who has made a long exploration of the way the major television channels work, this particular media form is “an industrialized excess”.  It is therefore not surprising that gender relationships shown on television are over-exaggerated, with more contrasts than in normal social life. How should we interpret these excesses, and what place should be accorded to them? Raewyn Connell has theorized the plurality and hierarchy of masculinities and offers a typology which hinges on hegemonic masculinity, to be distinguished from masculinities that are complicit, subordinate (or dominated) and marginalized.  “Excessive” masculinities, in the working classes for example, or in black or Latin-American men, are discredited by those in a position of hegemony. Excess is an inferior form in the hierarchy of masculinities.
13This excess is matched by emphasized femininity, a hegemonic form of femininity that fulfils male expectations. Emphasis and exaggeration cast fresh light on the asymmetrical system of gender. Substantial age differences between partners can be viewed from this angle, and extreme age gaps then become a pivotal element of male domination. This line of thinking is promising because hegemonic masculinity contrives to adapt to ageing, whilst emphasized femininity is by definition youthful in its typical form of expression (which fulfils male expectations). A substantial age gap may then be interpreted as an excess which establishes unequal gender relationships, between the hegemonic forms of masculinity and femininity. In television series, does this excess have the effect of reinforcing gender inequalities?
Do mature women have a sex life? Three case studies
14Since the series have so few roles for women of mature age, selecting examples to study does not correspond to any claim to be representative, but rather embodies an attempt to understand these minority situations. I shall select three specific cases of women who have love lives beyond the age of 50, and in so doing are outside of the general rule that I have just presented. Each of them will enable us to test the relevance of the tools used to analyse depictions of female sexuality in the over-50s. The first example queries the importance of having passed the age of child-bearing. The second poses the question of whether it is humour that makes the portrayal of female sexuality acceptable. I shall then attempt to ascertain how the hegemony approach casts light on the behaviour of a third character. The theory of sexual scripts will be the final tool brought to bear in order to understand these atypical, not to say transgressive situations.
The sexual expertise of an entire life
15The period of fertility in women comes to a close at about 45-50 years of age, rarely lasting beyond 50.  50 is also the age when the presence of women in the cast list of TV series falls dramatically. The negative image of older women  is combined with disparaging judgments about post-menopausal women (as being “past it”) that have been noted on several occasions. These prejudices have been around for a long time in television.  As Paola Tabet has shown for many societies, sexuality is massively organized around women’s child-bearing potential.  The sexuality of older women is therefore given very little consideration, and still less depicted.
16The first example is drawn from Tell Me You Love Me, a single-season series on American cable television which was broadcast in France on TPS star. It is therefore a “niche” programme designed for series addicts.  In this series, several women of child-bearing age have very unsatisfactory love and sex lives. Faced with the difficulties of staying together, having a child, or rekindling a love relationship while immersed in the daily life of a large family, three women (played by actresses between the ages of 29 and 46) come to consult Dr May Foster, alias the actress Jane Alexander (aged 68). May Foster has lived with the same man for 43 years, having a love life which is publicly displayed right from the very first episode (passionate kissing, sexual foreplay).
17The contented sexuality of Dr Foster’s character provides a rare on-screen image which, furthermore, contrasts with the problematic sex lives of her younger patients. The end of the fertile period is no longer presented as the end of sexuality, but as the beginning of increased pleasure, freed from the constraints of fertility. As well as its approach to the menopause, which is not denigrated here, what is original about this programme is its view of female sexuality as a whole. When May Foster and her husband make love, we see these two older bodies completely naked (the actress is 68 and the actor 66), which is highly unusual.
Strict monitoring of breasts
18In the 1990s, Jean-Claude Kaufmann studied the subtle unwritten codes governing bare breasts on beaches. Beneath the egalitarian discourse of the beach attendants, opinions were very conventional. Bodies which are less slender or not so young, breasts too large and therefore visibly swaying, were objects of disdain. Kaufmann describes how stigmatization is formed, the exclusion of “old breasts” being one aspect of this.
…because baring breasts in public emphasizes the pressure to conform based on youth and beauty. And for women it adds a new circle of exclusion (the first step towards a more radical marginalization) which sometimes begins at 35 or 40 years of age. 
20The beach is a public, external space, whereas television enters people’s homes: the relationship they have with it is therefore intimate. 
21Showing on television an older couple engaged in a sexual act, particularly one with a naked woman of 68, smacks of transgression. But if we look closely at Tell Me You Love Me, the relationship to nudity is not so transgressive after all, since it is the youngest and slimmest of the women that we see most completely naked and most often, in the series taken as a whole. The older the actresses, the less likely they are to appear naked on screen. The degree of nudity, the frequency and duration of sex scenes, all confirm that youth and a slim figure are determining factors for acceptable nudity.
Does humour help to sugar the bitter pill of age?
22I have stressed the rarity of roles offered to women of mature age. However, exceptions exist, such as Hot in Cleveland, a series which has never been released in France, and where, at the age of 88, Betty White adopts the role of a provocative landlady. The journalist Laura Bennett suggests that the comic force of the series lies in getting a near-ninety-year-old to utter a string of risqué jokes.  According to Beatriz Oria,  humour is closely linked to the televisual representation of female sexuality. Analysing the American series Sex and the City, she explains that it is comic treatment which makes it easier and even possible for women to talk openly about sex, and to make sex central to what they have to say. The series ended before any actress reached the age of 50 (three were under 40, while the eldest was 48). If humour is essential for women in their middle years to freely accept their sexuality, what is it like for older actresses?
Martha Rodgers, or the drama of non-remarriage
23The second case study concerns the Castle series, taken from the corpus described above. Humour is ever present in this story which combines elements of comedy and “drama” (a sub-genre known as dramedy). Among the regular characters are Martha Rodgers, her son who holds the title role, and her schoolgirl granddaughter. Susan Sullivan was 67 at the start of the series in which she plays the role of a whimsical and unconventional mother and grandmother. Martha’s love life is important for defining the character, and is often talked about. Right from the first episode, she spots a man she finds attractive during a social gathering and makes a bid to seduce him.  She regularly alludes to the brief nature of her affairs: “Men are like auditions. There’s always another one round the corner”. This way of presenting herself is even a recurring element in conversations with her granddaughter, whom she teases after the girl has made a long call to her boyfriend with the words: “Please, I’ve had relationships that didn’t last this long”.
24The cutting nature of her rejoinders and the light tone of the series help make this character the comic kingpin of the cast list. Thanks to her witty words, we are delighted to laugh with Martha Rodgers rather than at her expense. The character has many positive traits, but we might think with Oria that it is the comic element which makes the sexuality of a sexagenarian easier to talk about in a series that attracts peak viewing. That is because the series scheduled on a paying arts channel are nothing like those broadcast in the early evening on popular free channels. Programming policy can be depicted as a chart: the slots with the biggest viewing audience are reserved for the most consensual series,  while transgressive portrayals are pushed to the outer edges of the broadcasting chart.
Female masculinity or hegemonic masculinity?
25Raewyn Connell’s typology could be complemented by the addition of what Judith Halberstam calls the “female masculinities”.  She uses this concept to imagine situations of “masculinity without men”. For characters in detective stories, who have a manly function in an institution with a strong male ethos, the masculine angle becomes essential. But can a woman be an example of hegemonic masculinity? Or party to it?
26The British series Scott & Bailey, which up to now has not appeared in France, has two women police officers as its central characters. Their boss is also a woman, Detective Chief Inspector Gill Murray, played by the actress Amelia Bullmore, who was 47 when the series commenced. A divorced mother, Gill Murray is the embodiment of professional success and enjoys the sexual freedom of a single woman over 45. During a discussion with DC Scott, she lets slip that she is having an affair with a much younger, lower-rank colleague. Scott retorts in a jokey tone: “Oh, Gill Murray’s got a toy boy!” Subsequently, Murray and another colleague have a friendly verbal sparring match. She has the last word by coolly slipping in the words “I’ve got a toy boy”. Sleeping with a younger partner is therefore a positive achievement, a trophy, comparable to what a man in a hegemonic position might claim. It is exceptional, transgressive even, for women to speak of their “toy boy”, their “plaything”. Nevertheless, appropriation by a woman of the codes of male domination remains a way of reproducing it, which tends to replay the statutory inequalities at work in society, rather than presenting an alternative. In a gendered perspective, the apparent transgression therefore remains only relative. The episode related here is not representative of the series as a whole, nor of the gender relationships depicted in it, but it is worth thinking about, even though rare.
27These three characters correspond to a minority situation, as we have already said. None of the three consider themselves to be “too old” for sexual activity and, because of this, they introduce new “scripts” into televised fiction.
New sexual scripts?
28In a context of near-absence of depictions of mature women in televised fiction who are sexually active, the three examples presented are the exception. Given this rarity, it is difficult to talk of a stereotype for women over 50 in television series. If it exists, it offers an image of women who are devoid of a love or sex life. This is why concepts forged with reference to stereotypes, like those of Eric Macé, make them awkward to handle in the examples studied here. He has proposed the notion of the “counter-stereotype”, when a character does exactly the opposite of a stereotype (ethno-racial in the context of his research), while a subversive re-appropriation of identity markers is labelled an “anti-stereotype”.  The “sexual scripts”  approach, on the other hand, appears to be applicable to these case studies.
29In off-screen society, sexuality has no maximum age: in 2006, 90% of French women over 50 who were living with a partner stated that they were sexually active – a proportion which has regularly increased since the 1970s.  But as we have noted, televisual depictions are not a true reflection of society. So commonplace in front of the screen, but so rare on the screen… The gap between the two, where it exists, says something about the social acceptability of a situation, at least in the eyes of the creative powers in the media (heads of channels, producers). Given the power of portrayals associated with youth, showing the sexuality of women aged 50 or 70 is not a simple variation, in an older version, on the majority of images and scenarios. These characters are offering rare, if not unprecedented, sexual scripts.
31Televised series remain marked by features observed since the 1950s: in them, the women are younger and fewer in number than men. The age difference plays a pivotal role in the asymmetry of gender relationships depicted on television. The reinforcing role of excess in gender inequalities is expressed in particular by extreme age differences between partners.
32On the other hand, the depiction of sexuality in women over 50 is more ambivalent. Innovative and, in some respects, transgressive, it portrays non-reproductive sexuality and gives an important place to women who are usually excluded from the sex market in these stories. However, whether it is because of the humour which limits its influence, the hierarchy maintained for acceptable nudity, or the appropriation of hegemonic masculinity, even these series never succeed in making a clean break with gender inequalities. However rare they may be, to the extent that some have to be sought outside the most popular channels, the examples presented here demonstrate that marginal situations can shed light on the norm,  in a way that complements the quantitative data.
List of the 36 series in the corpus (French-made unless otherwise specified)
33(years refer to first free-to-air [unencrypted] French broadcast): Adresse inconnue (France 3, 2008-2009); Affaires étrangères (TF1, 2010-); Alice Nevers – le juge est une femme (TF1, 2002-); Bones [US, same title] (M6, 2007-); Boulevard du palais (France 2, 1999-); Castle [US, same title] (France 2, 2010-); Cold case – affaires classées [Original title Cold Case, US] (France 2, 2007-2011); Commissaire Brunetti [Original title Donna Leon, Germany] (France 3, 200-2012); Commissaire Magellan (France 3, 2009-); Diane femme flic (TF1, 2003-2010); Enquêtes réservées (2009-2013); Esprits criminels [Original title Criminal Minds, US] (2006-), FBI portés disparus [Original title Without a Trace, US] (2004-2010); Inspecteur Barnaby [Original title Midsomer Murders, UK] (France 3, 2001-); Inspecteur Frost [Original title A Touch of Frost, UK] (France3, 1999-2010); Julie Lescaut (TF1, 1992-2014); Les bleus – premiers pas dans la police (M6, 2008-2010); Les Experts [Original title CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, US, Canada] (TF1, 2001-); Les Experts: Manhattan [Original title CSI: NY, US] (TF1, 2005-2014); Les Experts: Miami [Original title CSI: Miami, US, Canada] (TF1, 2003-2013; Lie to Me [US, same title] (M6, 2010-2011); Marion Mazzano (France 2, 2010); Medium [US, same title] (M6, 2004-2010); Mentalist [Original title The Mentalist, US] (TF1, 2010-); NCIS [US, same title] (M6, 2004-); NCIS – Los Angeles (M6, 2010-); New York section criminelle [Original title Law and Order: Criminal Intent, US] (TF1, 2003-2012); Numb3ers [US, same title] (M6, 2005-2010); Profilage (TF1, 2009-); RIS, police scientifique (TF1, 2006-); Section de recherches (TF1, 2006-); Soeur Thérèse.com (TF1, 2002-2011); Sur le fil (France 2, 2008-2010); Tango (France 2, 2010-); The Closer: enquêtes prioritaires [Original title The Closer, US] (France 2, 2006-2012); Un flic (France 2, 2007-2012).
Bazzini et al. 1997; Lincoln & Allen 2004; Lauzen & Dozier 2005; Jermyn 2013.
Episodes ordered as a batch and produced to be broadcast in the same year (school or calendar year) constitute a season, whether or not the plots form a whole. The series in the corpus (see list attached) are French (17), American (16), British (2) and German (1). The survey stopped in June 2014, but several series continued to be produced in 2015.
A total of 407 leading and regular characters, 298 seasons broadcast in France by June 2014. A third of the series in the corpus ran to at least ten seasons.
For a more extensive analysis of figures, particularly of the distribution by sex and age, see Arbogast 2015.
Jermyn 2013 has noted the same absence of women over 50 on British television, non-fiction programmes included.
On where the woman is the older partner, see Bozon 1991.
Bozon 1990; Vanderschelden 2006.
In other words, there is a dual tendency towards differentiation and the creation of a sexual hierarchy, Héritier 1995.
Mignot 2010: 290.
Gitlin 1994: 62.
Héritier 1995; Théré 2013.
Bazzini et al. 1997.
Donnat & Pasquier 2011.
Kaufmann 1998: 224.
“These characters aren’t actually exploring the sexuality of older women – they’re stunts to generate cheap laughs”, Bennett 2013: 6.
Oria 2014; see also Markle 2008.
She is accompanied by her granddaughter and son to whom she says: “Hang on, Sweetie. I just got a hit on my graydar. Bingo. No ring. Stand back, kids. Momma’s going fishing.”
“Least objectionable”, in the words of a top official of an American channel quoted in Gitlin 1994: 61.
“The anti-stereotype is defined by the fact that it represents stereotypes as the very subject of its reflexivity and therefore, by making them visible, leads to a destabilization of the essentialist, culturalist and hegemonic expectations of the ethno-racialization of minorities, but also of the white ‘normality’ of the majority”, Macé 2007: 87.
Bajos & Bozon 2008.