Cable TV’s Non-Eyebrow-Raising Issue

An extreme cosmetic procedure in the film Brazil.Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

‘Botox and plastic surgery allow actresses to look younger,” wrote the New York Times recently; now “television is allowing them to act their age.” And it’s true—with shows like The Closer (starring Kyra Sedgwick), John From Cincinnati (Rebecca De Mornay), the new FX drama Damages (Glenn Close), and TNT’s Saving Grace (Holly Hunter), cable TV is providing a much-needed showcase for mature actresses, precisely at that point in their careers when Hollywood starts to phase them out. Which is great, right? But there’s just one problem. And it has to do with that Botox and plastic surgery.

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly applaud the fact that older women are no longer relegated to the role of “feisty grandmother” or “loving matriarch dying from cancer.” And it’s praiseworthy that there are more roles for women as tough, sexy, wild heroines.

But it’s hard to lose yourself in a show when you’re busy thinking, “Wait, that woman’s supposed to have spent her whole life outside in the sun—how does her skin look so good?” And it’s confusing if you’re watching a tough cop or D.A. break down a suspect and you can’t tell her “intimidating face” from her “disgusted face” from her “satisfied at getting a confession face.”

Not all plastic surgery is distracting, of course; ideally, you shouldn’t notice it at all. But sometimes you can’t help but notice it. Yet plastic surgery has become the physical trait that dare not speak its name. Obviously, TV and movies have always claimed a certain license when it comes to actors’ appearances. We’ve long been asked to accept that fresh-faced twentysomethings like Claire Danes can’t wait to jump in bed with graybeards like Steve Martin. Or that we should accept Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly as women struggling to make ends meet, even though they’re clearly among the most beautiful women in the world. (They couldn’t at least get jobs as catalogue models?) And we all know that Angelina’s not really biracial. So I guess it’s not too much to look past the fact that a hardscrabble, down-on-her-luck character can also apparently afford several thousand dollars’ worth of cosmetic enhancements.

Now that there are more complex roles for older women, though, maybe we can stop pressuring actresses to freeze themselves (or at least their foreheads) in time. Take the example of the lovely Frances Conroy, who played Ruth Fisher on Six Feet Under. Ruth was a perfect example of a meaty character played by an actress who, when unhappy, could actually frown.

We know it’s a lose-lose situation for actresses: Look too old, you don’t get hired; go too far, and it’s all anyone talks about. But when an actress can’t raise her eyebrows, is it surprising that it makes us raise ours?

Cable TV’s Non-Eyebrow-Raising Issue