The 21st century has given us everything from social media influencers to 3-D printing to the birth control patch. It’s also given us a wealth of midlife fictional characters that have made us feel seen on so many different levels. Books, films and television shows have all begun to highlight the beauty, strength and complexity of Women of a Certain Age and as a fellow woman in that category, I am thrilled about it. Below is a starter list of some of my favorite modern midlife fictional characters. Since I know that this list is totally subjective and by no means exhaustive, please add your own favorites in the Comments section if you feel so inclined—it would be fun to grow a list that’s as dynamic and diverse as all of us!
Viola Davis at General Nanisca, The Woman King, stream now on Amazon Prime or Apple TV+
In this film, Davis portrays a general in the all-female Agojie army that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from about the 17th through 19th centuries. Although the film takes place in the 1820s, Davis’ portrayal of a woman who persists and thrives despite the weight of physical and emotional scars that she carries is full of modern fortitude and familiarity. She gives of herself fully to her kingdom, her army and her family. The film highlights the extremes of hard work, sacrifice and discipline that women endure to solidify their places in society. The icing on the cake of this film is that the Director, Writers and Davis herself are all women in their 50s.
Rachel and Libby, Fleishman is in Trouble, book by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and show streaming now on Hulu
Rachel and Libby come to mind because of the facile way that Brodesser-Akner unravels their their characters with such heartfelt candor. Who among us hasn’t experienced an explosion of stress in the midst of juggling our many roles or questioned the many decisions large and small that brought us to this point of life? The way that Rachel and Libby’s characters explore the emotional burden and loneliness that can accompany trying to navigate the mindfields that parenting/relationships/education/career/society can be struck a deep chord in me. I also loved the pseudo-fantasy scenario of checking into a yoga retreat with screaming therapy and burying my phone in the woods. Sounds kind of delightful, doesn’t it? These two characters, who seem so different at first, but ultimately acknowledge their parallel experiences as women and mothers moving through this world, are exquisitely, honestly and viscerally rendered.
Jean Smart as Deborah Vance, Hacks, HBO Max
She’s hardened and arrogant and can be viciously cruel, but she’s also full of surprises and sometimes does things that reveal how much love she carries deep inside. Vance has the quickest of wits and while she may unleash those on the people closest to her too often, she also never hesitates to use them on men in power or other people who are trying to take advantage of herself or others. She knows the pain of personal and professional heartbreak and is woman enough to eventually begin an exploration of her inner turmoil with her sharpest tool—humor. She reminds us to keep learning and growing despite daily life’s clumsy attempts to thwart us and that laughter really is good medicine.
Patricia Clarkson as Rosemary Penderghast, Easy A, stream on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime or Peacock
The kind of mom I want and want to be. Clarkson’s Rosemary parents with ease and equanimity and exchanges banter with her movie husband played by Stanley Tucci that reminds us that we’re actually supposed to be trying to enjoy life. She also dishes out wisdom to her teenage daughter, Olive, that resonates deeply. Among the best of these wisdom dishes is served when Olive pronounces herself “a mess” and Rosemary replies without hesitation, “No, you’re not, Olive. You’re wonderful. And you’ll handle this the same way I did. With an incontrovertible sense of humor. But you’re much smarter than I am…so you’ll come out of this much better than I did.” Here’s to Rosemary and to all of us being wonderful.
Mia Warren, Little Fires Everywhere, book by Celeste Ng and show streaming on Hulu
This book that adeptly explores racial and class bias and the many complicated and beautiful layers of motherhood. Mia Warren is a protagonist whose actions are guided by compassion, love and a fierce allegiance to what she believes to be right, even in the face of blatant opposition from others. Her mix of vulnerability and strength shows us a character that is wonderfully and accessibly human and reminds us that everyone is fighting their own battle.
Molly Shannon as Pat Dubek, The Other Two, HBO Max
As if Shannon needed to woo us beyond the unforgettably unapologetic midlifer Sally O’Malley on Saturday Night Live, she now comes to us as Pat Dubek on this laugh-out-loud-funny show. As a widowed mom of three grown-ish children who stumbles into having her own Oprah-like talk show, she’s doing the best she can. Like so many of the fictional characters that stick with us, she reminds us with humor and tenderness that sometimes our best is really all we can do (and that catching a cat nap whenever and wherever we can is a goal in and of itself).
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