Think of Miss Marple, and what comes to mind? I haven’t read Agatha Christie in a while, but if I was going to try and sum her up, I’d say ‘an older woman who defies stereotypes.’ Miss Marple is a spinster who wears tweed and potters around in the garden, someone who is written off because of her age and treated like a nonentity because people presume she has nothing to offer the world. But, of course, she’s a pretty darn good amateur sleuth with a sharp, tenacious, deductive mind. I know a lot of real life Miss Marples, women who are treated like garbage because they have grey hair and use canes, but are actually completely awesome.
So I was pretty appalled when I learned that Jennifer Garner has been cast as Miss Marple for an upcoming film. Disney’s rebooting a classic, and apparently felt that the main character needed a facelift. Or an agelift. No one wants to see, say, a 60 year old woman in that role. We’d much rather have a 38 year old. Viewers might find an older Miss Marple offensive, evidently, because everyone knows that old ladies don’t do anything other that complaining about their arthritis and knitting ugly sweaters.
Hollywood is ruthless for older women. Actresses are regularly reminded that they need to stay as youthful in appearance as possible if they want to keep getting roles, via any means possible. Whether it’s surgery or draconian diet and exercise regimens or regular facials, actresses must look young. Madonna does not look 52, for example. Only a handful of women, like Dame Judi Dench, are allowed to be old in film and television. Dench is amazing and her age is one of the things that makes her amazing; she brings a delicious gravitas and complexity to her roles, something that a younger woman couldn’t.
Older adults are regularly shunted to the sidelines of society and written off as being of little interest, despite the stories they have to tell, the experience they bring to the table, and the fact that many of them continue to be highly active in their communities and want to play an active role in the world around them. Just like most of us, because they are part of society. The erasure of older adults from film and television reflects larger social attitudes; the only people of interest, evidently, are between 20 and 40, and the rest can pretty much get stuffed. No one wants to hear about them, or see them.
What would be so terrible about depicting Miss Marple as she is written? While it’s certainly possible to be a 38 year old spinster, she’s not written as a 38 year old woman, but very clearly as an older woman. In fact, it’s part of her role; part of the reason she is such a successful investigator is because everyone thinks she’s harmless and unimportant. She penetrates places other people can’t go because of the dismissive attitudes about older people, older women in particular. Miss Marple is as much a commentary on certain social attitudes as she is a delightful, complex, and interesting character.
There’s a whole different layer of conversations to be had about ‘spinsters’ and the idea that women are worthless unless they are married or widowed, preferably with children, whether planned or already had. Miss Marple is a walking stereotype at first glance, but she’s also a criticism of that stereotype. She has a rich, full, complicated life despite not having a husband or children in it. She has worth and value, finding innovative solutions to crimes that police miss. One of the reasons she’s such an important character is because of her age, not in spite of it.
Miss Marple’s age is not something you work around. It is an integral part of her character. Unless Disney isn’t planning to make this movie for at least another 22 years, Jennifer Garner really has no place in that role. I like Jennifer Garner just fine and it’s nothing against her personally, mind you, it’s just that she is not Miss Marple. She’s not the character I and so many other people imagine, the beloved figure of a classic cultural touchstone. She’s a glossy young thing and I don’t really understand how you can possibly play that role with any degree of seriousness at the age of 38. It would just feel very wrong, unless, of course, Disney is also completely reworking the storylines, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Apparently, the idea of an older woman who is something other than a doddering stereotype with a fading mind and inability to grasp the concept of how to drive a motor vehicle is threatening and wrong. We must keep older adults in the boxes we put them in, except for a few notable exceptions, and that requires aging out Miss Marple.
What about Angela Lansbury? She’s played Miss Marple before, and she’s be crack at it again. Judi Dench? I’d watch the heck out of an adaptation with Dench as Miss Marple. Vanessa Redgrave? Catherine Deneuve? Fionnula Flanagan? Gemma Jones? Helen Mirren? All fantastic actresses over 60 who would be absolutely ace in that role, who would bring depth and complexity and fun to it, to boot. And I’d bet at least some of them would even be interested in playing Marple, who is, after all, an icon. (Though some might have fears about playing a definitive Marple and then being considered too old for other roles, which is a kettle of fish for a different post, about the discrimination experienced by older actresses.)
Heck, no one says Miss Marple has to be a white lady, why not Pam Grier? Think outside the box, Disney.