The film All About Eve (1950) follows aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) as she idolizes, and attempts to usurp, aging actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Margo is pressured into conformity of traditional femininity through marriage and homemaking when she begins to be considered too old for traditional theater roles, which are considered exclusively for young beautiful woman like Eve. This demonstrates the intersectional relationship between ageism and sexism, and they each reinforce the emphasis on conformity to traditional roles by women, and are reinforced by conformity in turn, in a cyclical feedback loop. Ageism and the preferred emphasis of youth are primarily directed towards women, who are persecuted and pressured into more acceptable roles, both on-stage and off-stage, as they age.
All About Eve (1950), is a movie about aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who inserts herself into the life of her idol, aging actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), intending to steal Margo’s roles and fiance, despite Eve’s innocent demeanor. As Eve threatens to overtake Margo’s career through virtue of youth and beauty, All About Eve simultaneously focuses on Margo’s honest expression of how ageism in theater negatively affects her self-worth and emotional state. This expression however, is undercut by sexist narratives that are used to reinforce the acceptability of ageism, particularly towards woman, in theater.
Ageism is defined as “stereotyping and discrimination…on the basis of their age” by the World Health Organization (WHO). The term “‘Ageism’ was coined in 1969…[with] forty as the lower bound” (New Yorker). The fact that ageism’s lowest age, by definition, begins at forty is interesting when you take into account Margo’s complaint to friend and playwright Lloyd:
…I’m not twenty-ish, I’m not thirty-ish.
Three months ago I was forty years old. Forty. Four O.
Margo herself has just turned forty, and is facing being replaced by Eve – who is the first young, pretty girl with the guts to walk into Margo’s spotlight. Margo is resigned to ageism as a part of her life: actresses, no matter how talented or adored, cannot escape ageing. The sexist reinforcement of ageism is expressed in how women are pitted against each other, specifically Margo and Eve.
In All About Eve, ageism is felt most acutely by women, and is internalized to the point that women are expected to be ashamed of aging. Later, Margo confides in Karen:
[Bill]’s in love with you.
More than anything in this world, I love Bill. And I want Bill. I want him to want me. But me. Not Margo Channing. And if I can’t tell them apart – how can he?
Margo Channing, the actress, is an image of beauty and fame, who will no longer exist once Margo Channing, the person, has aged past the theater’s standards. Margo wants to be seen as a whole person, not divided into separate personas; she knows her time as an actress is quickly coming to a close. Fame, much like youth, is fleeting. She does not want to feel as if her relationship has an expiration date just because her career does. The pressures of theater’s sexist ageism has seeped into her real life.
Bill’s in love with Margo Channing…but ten years from now – Margo Channing will have ceased to exist. And what’s left will be… what?
Margo. Bill is all of eight years younger than you.
Margo has one of her most vulnerable moments here, she is showing how the ageism of the theater cuts her deeply. Decades of being told that to be “old” is to be undesirable makes her frightened it may be true beyond the theater.
Though Margo speaks out against ageism and is determined to continue acting despite her age, Bette Davis, as an actress herself, is a victim as well. As soon as Margo declares her intention to be married, she does not speak again, and only appears when Eve receives an award, briefly and silently. Margo’s insecurities about age vanish suddenly when she decides to get married, as if one moment of overcoming her fears and insecurities erases them, which undercuts the message about the harm of ageism. These types of sexist narratives reinforce the standard practice of ageism in theater, by Margo’s claiming that she need not play the role of Cora because she is getting married.
Margo’s sudden change of heart reinforces the idea that women of a certain age should not focus on their careers, but be homemakers, and that women of a certain age are no longer attractive to the general audience and should settle while they can. The traditional role of feminity is incompatible with her career. Take Margo’s monologue, when she is resigned to having Eve perform as her understudy, thus finally being replaced by Eve, in Margo’s eyes:
Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman…nothing’s any good unless you can look up…and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman…Slow curtain, the end.
When no on-stage roles are left viable, Margo accepts the off-stage role, embracing the last role she feels available to her: the traditional role of woman and wife. She refuses to give up her acting entirely, a rebellion against ageism, but by accepting this role of traditional subservient femininity, she is reinforcing the structures which have trapped her into that role.
Sexist ageism is allowed through the reinforcment of general sexist attitudes in the theater business. Sexism reinforces the narrative permissiveness of ageism through Margo’s acquience of stereotypical femininity and her supposed happiness once she has compiled with the traditional structures around her. This is mirrored in the way the men of the play treat Margo, before she gives up acting to marry Bill:
… Just when exactly does an actress decide they’re her words she’s saying and her thoughts she’s expressing?
It’s about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!
The men are the playwrights, the directors; they write the lines, decide the story. Margo’s job is to follow her script, and as actresses get older, they get better at reading audiences, and begin to have opinions on what makes a script better. Actresses lack agency over their lines, just as women lack agency in their lives. Sexism, just like ageism, is portrayed as the way things are in this world. The men want to reinforce the structures that keep their ideas the dominant ones heard, manifesting in a sexist reinforcement of ageism.
A statistical analysis of the last century of Hollywood films shows an interplay of sexism and ageism, and concluded that
being female, being older…clearly have significant, negative main effects on the careers of actors…older female actors are subjected to the “double jeopardy” effects of age and gender and [are] disadvantaged, both in terms of number of film roles and in terms of average star presence, compared to older male actors. (Allen 623)
The above figure shows how from “1943 to 1999, female stars were not especially disadvantaged to male stars when they were young, but they became disadvantaged as they aged.” (Allen 625)
Ageism has increased in prevalence since 1942, almost doubly so for women, showing how, while ageism negatively affects both genders, ageism disproportionately affects women. The way All About Eve shuts down Margo’s complaints of ageism reinforces the practice as the new standard in theater (in 1950). Though today this practice has transferred from theater to film leading to harsher ageism; as cameras become advanced enough to capture more detail, those behind the camera clamour for even more inhuman perfection to complete their illusions.
Problems of sexist ageism that are demonstrated in All About Eve have only worsened over time; for example “Maggie Gyllenhaal, at thirty-seven, was told she was ‘too old’ to play the love interest of a fifty-five-year-old man.” (New Yorker). Though All About Eve acknowledges ageism as harmful, it reinforces the notion that acceptance and conformity is the proper course. Unless actively acknowledged, internalized biases will shame us into silence and acceptance of the status quo. Instances, onstage and offstage, where women are silenced, for either their age or gender, perpetuate the cycle of sexist ageism.
All About Eve Script by Joseph Mankiewicz, Daily Script, www.dailyscript.com/scripts/all_about_eve.html.
Mankiewicz, Joseph L., director. All about Eve. TCF, 1950.
“Frequently Asked Questions: Ageism.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 31 Oct. 2016, www.who.int/ageing/features/faq-ageism/en/.
Friend, Tad. “Why Ageism Never Gets Old.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 20 November 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/20/why-ageism-never-gets-old.
Lincoln, Anne E., and Michael Patrick Allen. “Double Jeopardy in Hollywood: Age and Gender in the Careers of Film Actors, 1926-1999.” Sociological Forum, vol. 19, no. 4, 2004, pp. 611–631. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4148831.