What Marisa Tomei's portrayal of Aunt May tells us about being a woman over 50 in Hollywood.
Marisa Tomei is the youngest actor to take on the role of Aunt May in a Spider-Man movie.
Tomei as Aunt May in "Spider-Man: Homecoming." Photo from Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube.
Not everyone was a fan of the decision to cast Tomei, who's 53, as Peter Parker's Aunt May, with many critics saying she was too young for the role, which has traditionally been played by actors significantly older. When Rosemary Harris played Aunt May in 2002, she was 75 years old; in 2012, when Sally Field took on the role, she was 66.
In an interview with the New York Times, Tomei addressed some of the concerns she had about being cast as a "dowdy widow," saying she was "horrified" and "crushed" to learn which character she had been cast as, once she was shown an illustration of Aunt May in the comic books.
"I don’t want to be coming from an ageist point of view about that, at all. It was my own personal cross to bear at that moment," Tomei clarified. She even considered going "full-on silver hair," for the role, but later learned that the goal was actually to cast May as a sort of "big-sister" to Tom Holland's Peter Parker.
But that begs the question: Just what is a 53-year-old woman "supposed" to look like, anyway?
Twitter personality Calvin Stowell blew some minds when he shared this tweet, pointing out that Tomei is older in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" than Rue McClanahan was at the start of "Golden Girls."
I know, right? Pick your jaw up off the floor.
When "Golden Girls" premiered in 1985, McClanahan was 51 years old. And while she was the youngest of the four main cast members by more than a decade, the show's premise could best be described as the adventures of a group of older women. (To be fair, when Tomei filmed "Spider-Man: Homecoming," she was also 51, but still, it's a really interesting comparison.)
Some misinterpreted the point Stowell was trying to make, seeing it as an attack on McClanahan's appearance. But that's certainly not what he meant.
"It was more of a dig at Hollywood for casting someone 51 to be a geriatric retiree than competing their looks against each other," he writes in a Twitter direct message. "I love them both."
Actresses in Hollywood aren't given the chance to really get old. They're either young or they're old, with no in-between.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Tomei touched on this, saying, "Well, I only got to be old very recently. The industry has decided I’m an aunt-type now. I’m like, is this the way it gets broken to me?"
Hollywood seems set on pushing women from the role of hot, young leading ladies straight to senior citizen status. And even then, women over 50 are often forced into a binary choice between hot or dowdy. It's all a byproduct of both the industry and society's sexism.
Tomei attends the "Spider-Man: Homecoming" world premiere. Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images.
But there is room in between. There is room for women in their 50s in movies to be portrayed like Tomei, McClanahan, and everyone in between. And there are a lot of great, diverse actresses in their 50s still making waves, such as Andie MacDowell, Angela Bassett, Catherine Keener, Jane Lynch, Julianne Moore, Diane Lane, and many more.
Sure, the casting of a progressively younger May in each film raised a few eyebrows, but in the end, Tomei's casting was actually a pretty great fit, reframing Aunt May as Peter Parker's actual aunt rather than his great aunt.
Until it's no longer "the industry" making these sorts of distinctions, there will always be an issue. But for now, this seems like a step in the right direction.