Netflix's 'A Family Affair' joins the fight against snobbery and sexism towards female rom-com leads

Netflix's 'A Family Affair' joins the fight against snobbery and sexism towards female rom-com leads
By: Mashable Posted On: July 09, 2024 View: 12

After starring in '90s and '00s rom-coms such as Flirting and Bewitched, Nicole Kidman’s latest movie, Netflix’s A Family Affair, places her firmly back in the genre. The Hollywood star plays Brooke, who dabbles in a steamy romantic dalliance with younger man/movie star Chris (Kidman's The Paperboy co-star Zac Efron), much to the horror of her twenty-something daughter Zara (Joey King), who works as his under-appreciated assistant.

At 57, Kidman is the latest over-40, Oscar-winning actor to absolutely smash the female rom-com lead role. Directed by Richard Lagravenese, A Family Affair joins the ranks of films like Mamma Mia!, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and most recently, The Idea of You, fighting against the snobbery and sexism Hollywood studios and audiences have long bestowed upon rom-coms themselves and who "should" lead them. These movies champion the joy of women's sexual desire, autonomy, and self discovery at any age.

People want to see women over 40 in rom-coms. And actors want to make these movies. 

Comparisons between Kidman's role in A Family Affair and 41-year-old Anne Hathaway’s turn in fan fiction novel turned movie The Idea Of You earlier this year are unavoidable. The film follows the story of a 40-something divorcée who begins a love affair with a 20-something member of the biggest boy band in the world (played by 29-year-old Nicholas Galitzine).

Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway star in "The Idea of You." Credit: Amazon MGM Studios

"It was supposed to be a story about a woman approaching 40 and reclaiming her sexuality and rediscovering herself, just at the point that society traditionally writes women off," The Idea of You author Robinne Lee told Vogue in 2020. Hathaway faced backlash for her casting, though, with many criticising her choice of genre, and leaning on Hathway being an Oscar-winner for 2012's Les Miserables.

One person wrote on X (previously Twitter), "The woman that did Les Mis is now doing a harry styles fan fiction… a step down for Anne Hathaway." Another wrote, "something died in me when i saw the Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway’ name card."

The thing is, Hathaway's done many romance, comedy, and rom-com movies over her career: Love and Other Drugs, The Intern, Valentine’s Day, Bride Wars, The Devil Wears Prada, and so on. Hathway herself hit back at these attitudes, speaking at SXSW about not wanting to be "pigeonholed". "I don't want to be placed in a box of what type of films I have to be making because of my age, gender and because I won an Oscar. I want to have fun, dammit! It speaks to me,” Hathaway reportedly said. Kidman also revealed her main motivation for taking the role in A Family Affair was to "have fun" after the intensity of working on Lulu Wang's Prime Video series, Expats, per an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. 

Nicole Kidman as Brooke Harwood and Zac Efron as Chris Cole in
Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in "A Family Affair." Credit: Tina Rowden / Netflix

The view that a more mature actress shouldn’t be fronting rom-coms because they’re too experienced or not right for a story of self discovery just stinks of misogyny. Why can't women of a certain age just have fun? This disdain for middle-aged romantic heroines also feels like an attempt to limit what aspects of the female experience we get to see on screen.

What's more, people want to see these films. On launch, A Family Affair was the most-watched movie of the week on Netflix, beating Jessica Alba's Trigger Warning and Glen Powell's Hit Man. It's currently sitting at 26.8 million views. Meanwhile, The Idea of You's record-breaking release on Prime Video soaked up the cultural zeitgeist and hit nearly 50 million viewers in two weeks, becoming Amazon MGM's number one rom-com.

Reclaiming the rom-com space

Women over 40, 50, and 60 in Hollywood are reclaiming the rom-com space, and not just in supporting roles as best friends or side part mothers; they are the main event, finding love and working things out. In A Family Affair, we see Brooke navigating feeling “irrelevant” in her job as a screenwriter, the tricky waters of motherhood, her decision to have casual sex with Chris, and the liberation she feels from it, as well as the apprehension at taking risks after 50. We see her emotionally unpack her previous marriage, asking her mother-in-law (a genius casting in Kathy Bates) if it’s OK to have an adventure while being a mom, and her resentment at feeling like she has to choose between the two. 

Ultimately, seeing women in these age groups front rom-coms remind us that sexual desire and joy doesn’t expire as we age.

Alongside Hathaway and Kidman, we have Brooke Shields, 59, fronting Netflix’s recent release Mother of the Bride as Lana. As the title suggests, this rom-com doesn’t centre around Lana's daughter’s wedding day and romantic choices, but her own – past and present. There’s even a dalliance with a younger man, played by Chad Michael Murray, who is 42. 

Ultimately, seeing women in these age groups front rom-coms remind us that sexual desire and joy doesn’t expire as we age. And that should be celebrated, giving multiple generations the wish fulfilment and representation that they deserve.

Meryl Streep leads the cast of
"Mamma Mia!" forever. Credit: Moviestore / Shutterstock

It’s not like there isn’t a thirst for rom-com stories representing all ages. The deeply popular Mamma Mia!, starring a 59-year-old Meryl Streep, grossed $694 million worldwide on a $52 million budget, not to mention the sequel. Seasoned rom-commer J-Lo released her latest rom-com Marry Me at 52, and Julia Roberts was 54 in Ticket to Paradise. Angela Bassett played a 40-something dating a 20-something in 1998's How Stella Got Her Groove Back at 40 years old. Emma Thompson perfectly summed up many conundrums when it comes to an older woman’s sexuality in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, and Netflix’s Grace and Frankie starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda – who are now aged 84 and 86 respectively – is a masterclass in showcasing why it’s never too late in life for love or career bests, and on the flipside how hard it is to age as a woman.

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And the trend doesn’t stop there. Reese Witherspoon, aged 48, will also be starring in 2025 rom-com You’re Cordially Invited alongside Will Ferrell. When it comes to the actress’ place in the rom-com sphere, Witherspoon has been very vocal about the fact that she is here to stay. It’s also perhaps no coincidence, then, that her production company, Hello Sunshine, was founded with the very mission of telling women’s stories.

Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon in the upcoming
Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon in the upcoming "You're Cordially Invited" Credit: Glen Wilson

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop making romantic comedies,” she told Vanity Fair in an interview to promote the release of her 2023 rom-com Your Place Or Mine, which she starred in alongside Ashton Kutcher.

“They are very important to me. It’s my favourite genre because it makes people feel good,” she explained. “This one is even more special because we have different voices and different perspectives telling the story. Our movie is about a single mom in her 40s getting second chances and finding love. You often don’t see this in a romantic comedy.

As Witherspoon says, it’s not necessarily just about older women merely leading romantic comedies – although there’s plenty of snobbery and sexism around that to be sure – it's about them getting to tell honest stories about being that age, instead of the constant overfocus on building romances and careers in your 20s. 

This shift in the portrayal of women over 40 in film is a hit back against stereotypes, the limits that come with being “pigeonholed” into certain roles and the patriarchal norms inside and outside of Hollywood. 

Innocent refers to TikToker Therese’s theories of how misogyny and slavery intersect to describe the impact a cultural shift like this can have, in terms of the influence representation on screen can impact how we think and therefore societal changes that are demanded and subsequently pushed through by activists, lawyers and other changemakers. 

In a video, Therese asks, "Why do you think conservative men are so scared, especially of Hollywood and the music industry? Because they know what tremendous influence those industries have over the culture. And changes to the culture are predecessors to changes in the law.” 

Hollywood is still obsessed with age. It should focus on fun.

Women can have moments or chapters of self discovery any time, multiple times over their lives — didn’t Elizabeth Gilbert teach us this with Eat Pray Love? Women over 40 (and older) fronting a rom-com help to normalise the idea that starting a new exciting chapter in your life, or discovering a new part of yourself, can happen at any time. And Hollywood has dragged its feet on this representation.

Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in
Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron in "A Family Affair." Credit: Tina Rowden / Netflix

“Scholars have written at length about Hollywood’s obsession with youth, and the double standards about ageing on screen for men and women. So it’s great to see women over 40 being offered more diverse roles,” rom-com expert and academic at MetFilm School Dr. Alice Guilluy tells Mashable. She adds that the use of “ageing heroines” challenges the “happily ever after” concept that permeates rom-coms and suggests that all of life’s problems are solved indefinitely by romance in your 20s.

“[Happily ever after] doesn’t leave space for the mess of real-life romance: arguments, routine… and breakups,” she explains. “Having middle-aged characters who have been through the ‘happily ever after’ once before and back again is liberating in this respect, as it shakes the conventions of the genre.”

Besides, why shouldn’t our rom-coms reflect the reality of daily modern life and shifts in what we want out of life? People are getting married later in life – the average age at first marriage is now 31, compared with a 20th century low of 23 in 1970women are opting to stay single for longer and have families later in life, also. It’s so important that our on-screen stories reflect, and champion, these facts.

Above all, the common thread between Hathaway, Kidman, and Witherspoon’s comments on leading rom-coms at any age is that they want to prioritise having fun, a priority that is not often normalised for women of a certain age.

“Fun, joy and play are incredible tools for empowerment and change,” she says. “There are numerous studies about how the human brain learns, adapts, and innovates more effectively when in a state of openness through play. So when female actors are having fun opting for rom-coms, not only is that a great place for them as individuals to explore who they are and what the world has to offer them, but that same energy is contagious through the art.” 

Seeing women of all ages front rom-coms like A Family Affair and The Idea of You is the perfect rejection of patriarchal stereotypes on screen.

“Witnessing women, especially older women, embrace life with arms wide open is affirming to viewers that they can live a life outside of the societal bounds that have been placed on us," says Innocent.

A Family Affair is now streaming on Netflix.

Topics Netflix

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