the cinema

I Wish the Intern on The Intern Had Been a Woman

Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway in <i>The Intern</i>.
Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway in The Intern.

“I started writing movies about 30-year-olds when I started. And as I’ve gotten older, the characters have gotten older,” the writer-director-producer Nancy Meyers told NPR this week. Her latest film, The Intern, opens today. It is indeed about an older character, but unlike her previous films Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, that character is a man.

I don’t think that any single screenwriter or director can be held solely responsible for positive and powerful portrayals of postmenopausal women in Hollywood, and I support Meyers’s choice to make a film about a 70-year-old intern, played by Robert De Niro, and his much-younger boss. But I can’t lie: I am sad about it. The 30-something boss, played by the unfairly hated Anne Hathaway, is grappling with a set of issues I’ve seen onscreen and in magazines quite a bit lately: what it’s like to struggle with monogamy, what it’s like to be a busy working mother, what it’s like to live in Brooklyn and work at a start-up. This is the stuff many of my friends are going through right now — it feels very close to my own life. It is not something I’m terribly interested in seeing depicted onscreen. What I really want are stories about how being an older woman can be great, and I’ve come to rely on Nancy Meyers to provide them.

If you define favorite movies as “the ones you have rewatched the most,” two from the Nancy Meyers canon, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, easily make my top ten. I have never planned a Meyers-themed bachelorette party, but I went through a multiyear period when I routinely got stoned with a small group of female friends and watched It’s Complicated. I often think of Nancy when I’m doing something I deem to be a preview of the life I want to lead post-60: wearing a turtleneck, drinking wine with a group of women who are throwing their heads back and laughing, getting up early to write, gardening. (Okay, I don’t really garden. But I would like to get around to it in the next 30 years.) With these two movies, Meyers has shaped my goals for the far future.

Before I stepped into the movie theater last night, I’d read enough interviews to know The Intern would not be the third film in what I’d hoped would be a Meyers trilogy of odes to older women. There is, thankfully, no romance between De Niro’s and Hathaway’s characters. But save for a few peripheral roles — Rene Russo as the office masseuse and love interest, the disembodied voice of Hathaway’s demanding mother, a desperate-seeming acquaintance angling for De Niro’s affections — older ladies are absent. I left the theater unsatisfied.

I’m hungry for representations of women who are in the later stages of life: Long past the social pressure to answer the “motherhood question” correctly and deal with its consequences, established enough to have achieved some degree of success in a fulfilling profession like playwriting or patisserie-peddling, and even old enough to have made some degree of peace with wrinkles and gray hair. I realize this is an idealized vision, of course. But contrary to what most media aimed at women seems to think I want to hear about, I love to fantasize about what my life will be like when I’m that age. A self-proclaimed psychic once told me I would not peak until age 60, and even though I rolled my eyes at the time, it secretly thrilled me. When I do see a representation of an older woman I identify with, I can’t look away.

I am positive that Hollywood does not understand how interested younger women are in representations of older women who are doing their own thing. It’s why we love The Golden Girls and follow Advanced Style, and know who Baddie Winkle is. We revere Elaine Stritch and Iris Apfel and Patti Smith. We buy tickets with groups of friends to see the 5,000-year-old Grace Jones. Like Maura in Transparent, we are our truest selves when we don flowing garments that many people associate with homebound retirees. Some of us plan bachelorette parties that feature turtlenecks and roast chicken, not going-out tops and cocktails.

These depictions in TV and movies are important. The older women in my life, as much as I love them, have led very different lives from my own. The gulfs in our respective biographies make it hard for me to see my future self in their current lives. When they were my age, both of my grandmothers had been mothers for more than a decade, had never left the city where they were born, and had never lived alone. We are shaped by different economic realities and social mores. It stands to reason that my older years might not look anything like theirs.

But I think I can see glimpses of my future self in Meyers’s comedies. I assume I won’t retire — at least not before 80. This is in part due to finances, but also because I love my job. Like most people, I fear growing irrelevant as I age. But if there’s still a market for the work I do, I want to be waking up and doing it every day like Meyers’s heroines do. I assume there’s a good chance I’ll be single, no matter what happens between now and 60. According to 2013 Census figures, only 45 percent of women age 65 and older were living with a spouse. I also know the statistics on older women and poverty, yet I hope I have some savings by then and can do things like remodel my kitchen and have a fleeting romance with the architect who designs it. I fully expect to still smoke weed in the bathtub and eat late-night snacks and be interested in sex. And god, I hope I am not one of those older white ladies who talks about things like the suffering of orphans in Ethiopia but is blind to race and class issues in her own life, but I realize this is a risk of growing older and more complacent as a middle-class, straight, white woman. In this, as with so many other things, Nancy Meyers protagonists of the early ‘00s are my model and my cautionary tale.

The Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton characters of her beloved films are notable outliers. Older men appear on TV up to ten times more often than older women. Nonwhite women are almost completely invisible: A 2002 study found that, of 835 TV characters over the age of 60, only four were African-American. In media aimed directly at women, aging is a frightening process to be staved off as long as possible, not a fascinating shift to a different and potentially more liberated era of life. “Long in the Tooth? How your smile shows your age,” reads one cover line from Vogue’s August issue. I’m compelled to clarify that this is August 2015, not 1985. To add to the confusion, the cover model is Nicole Kidman, who is so sufficiently surgeried and ‘shopped that you would have no idea which decade of her career she’s in.

The answer, I must admit, is not for Meyers to continue making films about an idealized but not-too-idealized version of female golden years. It’s for everyone to wake the fuck up and realize that these are lives we want to hear about, and women whose stories we deem important. Because — god willing — they will someday be our own stories. If there’s anything I’ve learned from Nancy Meyers, it’s that I don’t plan on being invisible at 65. It would be nice to have a few more representations of what I might look like.

I Wish ‘the Intern’ Had Been a Woman