I recently saw a quiz asking ‘which Disney witch are you?’ Turns out I’m Ursula from Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’. To be fair, the silver hair, makeup and profile are on point.
I’m mocking myself. It’s what I do. But is popular culture mocking me? Are silver haired women depicted as caricatures? Old Maid. Monster. Figure of fun?
From Cruella to Miss Havisham, grey haired women on screen are often represented in the extreme.
Some silver sisters joke on social media about resembling Cruella de Vil and the Bride of Frankenstein. We liken ourselves to beautiful, powerful – yet evil – women.
It’s intended to be a form of self-deprecation: by comparing ourselves with these inhuman characters, we are demonising our silvers and ourselves.
It’s just for fun, right?
When I see a woman repeating this old trope, I reframe it. They may be of dubious character, but these are stunning women with fabulous hair!
Women in their prime.
Striking actress Elsa Lanchester was 33 when she portrayed ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. Glenn Close was my age, 49, when she played Cruella in ‘101 Dalmatians’, while Emma Stone was 32 in last year’s reboot. Yvonne De Carlo took on the role of Lily Munster in ‘The Munsters’ at 42.
There is absolutely no doubt that visually, these iconic fictional females rock.
But is this all we’ve got? An unhinged puppy pincher, or a monster not even worthy of a name of her own?
Are you being served?
Was I ever exposed to positive grey haired female role models? Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the silver haired women on TV were few and far between.
They were the comical: Mrs Slocombe (who favoured blue/pink/tangerine rinses); the prudish: Mary Whitehouse; or the evil: animations and puppets, like Zelda from Terrahawks.
Meanwhile, the silver haired men on screen were not extreme. They were themselves – not characters or cartoons: actors Richard Gere and Steve Martin; UK TV presenters like Des Lynham and Michael Aspel; and numerous comedians in their 40s and 50s.
I’d never seen a grey haired female TV presenter.
In soaps, ‘Dallas’ boasted a well of powerful silver barons – Cliff Barnes, J.R. Ewing, Jock Ewing, Clayton Farlow, Ray Krabbs, and most of J.R’s arch oil rivals.
Conversely, their female counterparts were not grey, although Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) did eventually reveal her grey in the later years.
The exception in soaps being matriarch Constance Colby, but she was 80, an acceptable age for grey in LA LA Land.
Now, maybe some of those women were not greying. Perhaps it was their preference to dye. Maybe it was the industry. Or society. But…
From my mother to my aunts, most of the women around me in the real world had dyed hair.
My grandmother wore a wig for 50 years. Her sister, Auntie Minnie, was the only woman I knew in real life with silver hair, but she was the same ‘acceptable’ age as Constance Colby (Barbara Stanwyck).
Even the Queen was still sporting brown hair back then.
Witchy hags and silver foxes
I didn’t know it, but we were being conditioned to normalise the concept that men can be grey, but women cannot.
Women who did not conform, were outliers, or 70 plus, or cartoons.
Whereas, men were powerful heroes, heartthrobs, or scholars.
I’m not saying that men were devoid of stereotypes like Doc Brown and Gandalf, and that ‘Grecian 2000’ did not exist – there was still a way to go.
It just wasn’t a shock or unusual to see your mate’s dad, the sports pundit or the Saturday night chat show host, with grey hair. And I’d have no gripes if they had female equivalents.
But there were few heroines, positive role models, or average and younger women with grey.
And today, it’s still a stretch to picture a world starring silver haired women, because that would mean undoing years of indoctrination that grey is old, unattractive and odd – on women, of course.
I previously wrote about the lack of silver leading ladies, here: https://shinyhappysilver.com/keanu-where-are-the-other-silver-sisters-my-age/
Grey on men, well that’s different isn’t it?
Andie MacDowell recently asked why her grey hair is a problem and George Clooney’s is not.
You can read more on Andie and her hair in my previous blog: https://shinyhappysilver.com/be-more-andie-find-your-happy-silver-hair/?amp=1
Imaginary telephone conversation with George Clooney circa 2004
(In a world where silver hair is commonplace among women, but not men)
Studio executive: “Hi George. we’ve got a great new role for you. A powerful, successful lawyer who falls in love with his client. It’s well suited to your looks, charm and wit.”
George: “Sounds promising. Send over the script and I’ll take a look.”
Studio executive: “Yes, yes of course. George, we were wondering if you might consider an image change – maybe dyeing your hair brown?”
George: “Well, I feel comfortable with my hair, and I’m not sure that the colour matters. I mean, it’s about my acting, humour, on screen chemistry, and all sorts of factors.”
Studio executive: “Hmm…We don’t want your co-stars to feel uncomfortable. Also, audiences see you as a sex symbol, and we’re worried that if you’re grey, they’ll think you’re getting old, less attractive – less of an asset. Plus, you didn’t ask our permission to go grey.”
George: “So, just by growing out my silver, people will think I’ve aged decades, that I’m somehow less attractive as a person, and I’m not producing quality work?”
Studio executive: “In a nutshell, yes. We all agree that it would be a wise move to ditch the silver. Otherwise, you might not be cast in future roles easily. Women prefer a male lead with youthful hair.”
George: “But it’s taken me two years to grow this out. What about all the silver haired actresses out there? You’re not asking them to dye their hair are you?”
It’s different for women
Studio executive: “It’s different for women, George. They’re silver vixens. There’s lots of women with grey hair on and off screen, and they look fantastic.
“Nobody wants to see a grey haired man. You’ll make your female lead look older and less attractive.
“It’s nice that you want to be part of this silver revolution, darling, but we just want you to go back to your lovely brown hair like you had in ER.”
George: “But I was younger then, and my hair actually was brown.”
Studio executive: “I know. But you’re the only male actor embracing the grey, it’s not desirable. Not the image you should be projecting. In fact, it’s career damaging.
“You’re only 43, dear. You’ve got years left to embrace the silver. With your looks, you could easily pass for in your 30s. Roger Moore had brown hair throughout his career, and you could be the next Bond, if you don’t let yourself go.”
SILVER HAIR STEREOTYPES OF THE SILVER SCREEN
In this section, I’ll be looking at some of the categories of silver haired women on screen.
Description: A cold, manipulative and power hungry – yet stylish – leader. Usually a cartoon character or business woman.
Examples: Cruella de Vil, ‘101 Dalmatians’; The Queen, ‘The Snow Queen’, Miranda Priestley; ‘The Devil Wears Prada’; Harmony Cobel,’Severance’; Lady Tremaine, ‘Cinderella’; The Ice Queen, ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’.
Description: Old, evil, grotesque. Usually a cartoon in fairytales, often driven by jealousy over the younger, fairer, maiden.
Examples: The Queen, ‘Snow White’; Ursula, ‘The Little Mermaid’; some productions of ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Description: Monsters or the partners of monsters, often with a ‘mallard’ streak of white caused by shock. Usually young, gorgeous women who are ‘allowed’ to be sexy because they’re monsters.
Examples: The Bride, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’; Lily Munster, ‘The Munsters’; Nadine ‘The Stand’.
In the spirit of equality, I’m still waiting for the films where male monsters are derivatives of female monsters: ‘The Husband of Medusa’ or ‘The Baby Daddy of Hela’.
There’s a really interesting blog here on the history of women as monsters: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/meet-female-monsters-greek-mythology-medusa-sphinx-180977364/
Description: Independent, intelligent, spinster. Often a ‘Miss’.
Examples: Daisy Werthan,’Driving Miss Daisy’; Jane Marple, ‘Miss Marple’.
Miss Marple is one of the great literary heroines. Her creator, Agatha Christie, was also the subject of silver stereotyping – cast as the sweet old lady, when her books and life were full of adventure and mystery – anything but cosy!
Description: Sweet little old lady in her winceyette nightie and ‘kerchief.
Examples: Grandma, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’; Aunt May, ‘Spiderman’; Mrs Wilberforce, ‘The Ladykillers’.
Description: Sweet on the outside, bitter inside. A monster disguised as grandma, often from the twisted imaginations of The Brother’s Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.
Examples: The Granny from ‘IT’ (AKA Pennywise the Clown); Grandma mark two in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (AKA a wolf in granny’s clothing); the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’.
Jolly and eccentric
Description: She’s round and jolly with rosy cheeks.
Examples: The Fairy Godmother, ‘Cinderella’; Professor Sprout ‘Harry Potter’.
A grey area – What about Mrs Claus? In books, she is often depicted as round and jolly with white hair, just like her husband.
However, on screen, while Santa/Father Christmas is full on white hair and belly, she is mostly seen as slender, with blonde hair (i.e. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell in ‘The Christmas Chronicles’). Why is that, I wonder?
Description: Both males and females take on the persona of an old lady with props and clothes.
The characters are extreme, outspoken, usually with a blue rinse or short, curly hair and spectacles, giving the illusion of old age.
Examples: Sophia, ‘The Golden Girls’; Mrs Slocombe, ‘Are you Being Served?; Mabel ‘Madea’ Simmons; Granny Kumar, ‘The Kumars at No. 42’; Mrs Doubtfire, Dame Edna Everage; Mrs Merton, ‘The Mrs Merton Show’.
Description: Mythical goddess, angel, elf, ghost, vampire, alien. A magical, mystical, ethereal being. Usually clad in a white dress with a magical glow around her.
Examples: Galadriel, ‘The Lord of the Rings’; Lena, ‘Underworld: Blood Wars’.
There’s a great blog here about mystical white hair: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MysticalWhiteHair
Description: Badass. Unbelievably gorgeous and only grey because they’re mutants!
Examples: Storm, Rogue, ‘X-Men’; Susan Murphy ‘Monsters vs Aliens’; Lady Liberty, ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’, although she is 120 years old, and as we know, only older ancient elders are grey, and me getting greys in my teens, does not fit the narrative. Plus, I cannot shoot laser beams from my eyes.
Description: A young, beautiful, bold princess, often riding a white horse.
Examples: Daenerys Targaryen, ‘Game of Thrones’; Rhaenyra Targaryen, ‘House of the Dragon’; Elsa, ‘Frozen’.
Description: An all knowing older, wise woman who imparts words of wisdom upon all she meets.
Examples: Mother Abagail Freemantle, ‘The Stand’; Helen Daniels,’Neighbours’; Gramps, ‘Dawson’s Creek’,
Women of steel
Description: Strong, fearless, empowering, unapologetic. These quick witted, women kick ass. Often cast as a leader or an action hero, they dominate the screen.
A straight shooter with sass and wit. The character is generally played by women who absolutely slay the grey in real life and for whom, grey is not a costume.
Examples: Carol, ‘The Walking Dead’; M, ‘James Bond ‘GoldenEye’ (and other Bond films); Bea, ‘The Golden Girls’; and now Allison Janney in the forthcoming ‘Lou’.
More silver haired women my age, please
I want to see women with silver hair, especially nearer my age, on the screen. I don’t want to wrack my brain to think of a handful of leading lights.
Nor, do I want to see a series of cliches. Can we not just have women who aren’t extremes?
There is some hope. In British soap ‘Hollyoaks’ the fantastic Harvey Virdi plays Misbah Maalik.
While the soap and her storyline are not without drama, it’s refreshing to see somebody similar in age to me, on screen.
A note about news readers…
As I write, Canadian veteran news anchor and silver sister, Lisa LaFlamme, is headline news.
Lisa’s contract with the news station has not been renewed, amid speculation that this is because the 58-year-old stopped colouring her hair during the pandemic.
It seems that in the UK, many of the iconic female news readers of my childhood now have grey hair.
They haven’t worked as news readers or presenters for a while, but their silver haired male peers have continued to be on TV.
The 1970s and 1980s may be a long time ago now, but I’m still struggling to provide a long list of positive silver haired female role models in the media.
While we silver sisters are growing in numbers, the rest of the world needs to catch up.
Until then, keep on turning, ladies.
What do you think about silver haired women on screen? Who are your favourites? Please leave your comments below.