Proposal Title

“Jean Smart Never Went Away”: Prestige TV and the Reinvention of the Aging Female Star

Presenter Information

Sara BakermanFollow

Start Date

June 2022

End Date

June 2022

Abstract

In the 2021 season, 70-year-old Jean Smart starred in two critically-acclaimed series on the streaming service HBOMax, generating new buzz for a character actress who had been working steadily in television and theater for more than 40 years. The “Jeanaissance,” as fans called it, spawned numerous magazine covers, featured interviews, and thinkpieces that framed Smart’s “comeback” as a turning of the tides in Hollywood’s treatment of older women. Critics for Variety wrote that the actress “stole every scene she was in” as Kate Winslet’s mother in the limited series Mare of Easttown, but that her true “showcase” came in the form of her “rare leading role . . . as [an] iconic but past-her-prime comedian” in the comedy series Hacks. Smart, and the stars and characters like her, “[are] particularly appealing at a moment when the culture is more receptive to stories about older women,” one reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

This paper interrogates the publicity surrounding Smart’s Emmy-winning season to uncover how aging women are positioned and valuated in the contemporary media industries. Following the work of Susan J. Douglas (2020), Deborah Jermyn (2018; 2015; 2012); Kathleen Woodward (2011); and Karen Beckman (1995) in feminist media studies, alongside recent scholarship on star labor, streaming media, and quality TV, I argue that the redemptive arc of Smart’s so-called “comeback” remains one of few acceptable scripts for aging women in Hollywood, and that its ubiquity in conversations about Hacks and Mare of Easttown both enhances and undermines their prestige.

Bio

Sara Bakerman is an independent scholar and the managing editor of JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (formerly Cinema Journal). She earned her PhD in media studies from the University of Southern California and a BA in cinema studies from New York University. Currently, she is at work on a monograph, According to Legend: Aging Female Stars and Hollywood Nostalgia, a history of women’s archives, authorship, and agency in the post-studio-era media industries.

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Jun 23rd, 1:00 PM Jun 23rd, 2:30 PM

“Jean Smart Never Went Away”: Prestige TV and the Reinvention of the Aging Female Star

In the 2021 season, 70-year-old Jean Smart starred in two critically-acclaimed series on the streaming service HBOMax, generating new buzz for a character actress who had been working steadily in television and theater for more than 40 years. The “Jeanaissance,” as fans called it, spawned numerous magazine covers, featured interviews, and thinkpieces that framed Smart’s “comeback” as a turning of the tides in Hollywood’s treatment of older women. Critics for Variety wrote that the actress “stole every scene she was in” as Kate Winslet’s mother in the limited series Mare of Easttown, but that her true “showcase” came in the form of her “rare leading role . . . as [an] iconic but past-her-prime comedian” in the comedy series Hacks. Smart, and the stars and characters like her, “[are] particularly appealing at a moment when the culture is more receptive to stories about older women,” one reviewer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

This paper interrogates the publicity surrounding Smart’s Emmy-winning season to uncover how aging women are positioned and valuated in the contemporary media industries. Following the work of Susan J. Douglas (2020), Deborah Jermyn (2018; 2015; 2012); Kathleen Woodward (2011); and Karen Beckman (1995) in feminist media studies, alongside recent scholarship on star labor, streaming media, and quality TV, I argue that the redemptive arc of Smart’s so-called “comeback” remains one of few acceptable scripts for aging women in Hollywood, and that its ubiquity in conversations about Hacks and Mare of Easttown both enhances and undermines their prestige.