Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand and Cher: Why older women are in the spotlight like never before

Cher performing on stage in front of two backup dancers.
Cover Images via AP Images

Seventy-seven-year-old Dolly Parton headlined an NFL halftime show on Thanksgiving. Cher, also 77, performed a song off her new Christmas album at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In ABC’s television show “The Golden Bachelor,” 22 women — all over the age of 60 — competed for the heart of Gerry Turner.

Stars once faded from the background when they left their younger days, but now women are maintaining their entertainment careers as they age. 

Dollly Parton wearing a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader outfit with sparkly tights, white shorts with blue stars, a cropped long-sleeve blue shirt, and a white vest with blue stars and fringe over top of it.
Singer Dolly Parton kicked off the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign during the Thanksgiving day halftime show of an NFL football game between the Dallas Cowboys against the Washington Commanders in Arlington, Texas. James D. Smith via AP

While there are still gender disparities — older men get more opportunities and women are often faced with unrealistic expectations — older women are in the spotlight like never before, especially in television where senior audiences want to see people their age and in music where artists build a devoted fan base over time. 

Steve Granelli, an associate teaching professor in communication studies and pop culture expert at Northeastern University, says older stars remain popular because they have fan bases that span generations. 

Look at Barbra Streisand, 81, who just released a nearly 1,000-page memoir on her six-decade career or Brenda Lee, 78, who just saw her holiday classic, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart — 65 years after its release.

“Older women in popular culture that have an embedded audience are a commodity,” Granelli said. “It’s more of a commodity now than maybe it was 10 years ago.”

Age on television vs. the movies

This is evident especially in television, says Granelli, where the number of streaming platforms means there’s always a demand for new content, particularly from stars with a built-in audience. 

He points to shows like Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” starring Jane Fonda (now age 85) and Lily Tomlin (now 84), which ran for seven seasons from 2015 to 2022 and ended up being a success thanks in part to the veteran actresses’ built-in fan base from years of performances.

But this is not always the case with movies, where studio executives are less likely to take risks on older stars, says Laurel Ahnert, an assistant teaching professor in media studies at Northeastern.

This is backed up by data from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. A 2021 report found that between 2010 and 2020, less than a quarter of characters in film and TV were over the age of 50. Of those, about 81% of characters over 50 in films were men. The disparity was slightly less in television, where 69.9% of characters older than 50 were men.

“A large blockbuster film is a huge, expensive and risky endeavor,” Ahnert said. “They prefer to stick to things that they know work, which is young, attractive women in the leading role. Television is less costly and less risky, so they’re willing to allow for greater diversity.”

Additionally, Ahnert added, television audiences tend to be older so there’s more demand for casting that reflects that. Hence shows like “The Golden Bachelor.” The show, which this season focused on 72-year-old widow Gerry Turner, broke recent viewership and ratings records for the franchise when it premiered this fall. The finale that aired on Nov. 30 reached nearly 6.1 million viewers, according to Variety, making it the most popular episode of the “Bachelor” in almost three years.

“If people over 50 are watching, you’re going to see more people over 50 on screen,” Ahnert said. “Within television, because so many women have broken in, they’re able to pull up women behind them and so they create these step ladders for each other. These same step ladders don’t exist in Hollywood studios.”

Musicians have much greater control

For women in music, the road is a little bit easier. While Hollywood executives can cast another starlet in a film, there simply isn’t another Dolly to create another Dolly Parton album.

“If you want to talk about musicians, they have a much greater control,” Ahnert said. “They tend to be their own producers. They have their own financial backing. They can create projects that wouldn’t otherwise exist without their own efforts. They don’t need to rely on a group of suits in a backroom greenlighting a project.”

Hilary Poriss, Northeastern music professor and expert in diva culture, said some older female singers are also shielded by their experience from “diva” accusations and actually earn more respect than some of their younger counterparts.

“Dolly Parton and (Barbra) Streisand, because they have been around so long, are shielded a little bit from that negative criticism,” Poriss said. “This is not to say that Parton and Cher and Streisand don’t get their fair share of misogynistic kind of insults, but they’re less susceptible at this point.”

Pressure among older women to look young

This increased prominence of aging women also doesn’t come without its faults either. Take a look at these older stars and you’ll notice many lack the wrinkles and body fat that can come with aging. 

There’s still a pressure among older women, especially those in the spotlight, to look young, said Rachel Rodgers, a professor in applied psychology at Northeastern with a background in body image research.

“There is a real gap in terms of women who are older than 40,” Rodgers said. “We become invisible in media, and that absence sends a message and can be an influence on middle-aged and older women’s body image. And then the women who are depicted often do not look their age and may have engaged in a number of procedures to help them maintain a youthful appearance and that also sends a strong message.”

When older women do appear on screen, their bodies are not always representative of what the average senior may look like, Rodgers added. While this presents an unrealistic image of aging, it also represents how women feel pressure to look young. 

“This is a very complex issue because they are part of the system that we’re all part of,” Rodgers said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m villainizing them because they are part of a system in which they see that if they don’t look a certain way, they will no longer be able to work or to continue to perform the roles and the responsibilities that they do and that that will be taken away from them.”

At the same time, seeing Dolly Parton perform an entire halftime show or the ladies of  “The Golden Bachelor” duking it out on the pickleball court is not just aspirational. It’s entirely attainable, said Carmen Sceppa, dean of the Bouve College of Health Sciences at Northeastern. Older people can retain their physical fitness and energy into their 70s and 80s if they keep up with their exercise.

“Anyone could work at having enough energy and a nice build,” Sceppa said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it. … Septuagenarians and octogenarians that are physically active (have) just as good a response to exercise as a younger person.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.