Chapel Hill: Opinion

Dabney Grinnan: In praise of older women

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan

I recently watched the movie “Chef,” a Jon Favreau indie hit (2014). It annoyed the, ah, heck out of me. Oh, the father son road trip was adorable and, if you’re into food porn, the film’s right up there with “Big Night.” And it’s always fun to see John Leguizamo.

What I didn’t like was the movie’s dismissive attitude toward the women in the film. I’m willing to put aside the (unlikely) male fantasy that Mr. Favreau's schlubby, out-of-work chef would have both Scarlett Johansson (18 years younger than he) and Sophia Vergara (six years younger than he) yearning to sample his horizontal refreshments. I’ll not complain (much) about the way Mr. Favreau’s character defines parenting his son as an option, a choice mothers are rarely given in film unless they are EVIL.

I’m unable to blow off, however, the way in which both Ms. Johansson’s and Ms. Vergara’s characters exist only to reflect Mr. Favreau’s hipster daddy persona. Ms. Johansson, at least, has an identifiable job – she’s the hostess at the restaurant Mr. Favreau’s chef works at when the film begins. She discusses just two topics in the film: Mr. Favreau and Mr. Favreau’s food choices.

She, however, fares better than the hapless but hotly dressed Ms. Vergara.

Ms. Vergara – she plays Mr. Favreau’s ex-wife and is the mother of his son – lives in a huge gorgeous LA home, has a publicist, a nanny and a driver. She mentions several times in the film “her work” but damned if we have any idea what she does. It’s hard to see how she’d have any interest in her career given that all she can talk about is Mr. Favreau, Mr. Favreau’s relationship with their son, and Mr. Favreau’s career. She’s an updated Stepford wife without the murderous impulses.

As I watched Ms. Vergara and Ms. Johansson’s characters function as little more than sexy lamps, I wondered why we put up with this from Hollywood. And then, oh yeah, I remembered. Not only is Hollywood #SoWhite, it’s #SoOldWhiteGuy. Which is #SoVeryBoring.

Interesting parts for women in the movies, especially women over 30, are as rare as Carolina grads who don’t hate Grayson Allen. There’s a reason why, when you ask people to name a sexy powerful actress over 50, just about everyone says Dame Helen Mirren. “Saturday Night Live” recently did a skit starring Tina Fey and Amy Pohler as hosts of the TV gameshow “Meet Your Second Wife,” where the gleeful twosome introduced three 30-something dads to their women who will one day become their second wives. The second wives to be are an eighth grader, a 5-year-old, and a child due to be born in six months. This is funny, smart social criticism on SNL. In Hollywood, this is life in the movies. (See Woody Allen films, almost every Denzel Washington, Liam Neeson, and Tom Cruise movie made in the past 20 years, and “As Good As It Gets.”)

After watching “Chef,” I took (my dog) Sophie for a walk down West Franklin Street. It was a cold Thursday night but most of the restaurants and bars were busy. As I walked by the windows of Elaine’s, Crook’s, Talulah’s, Med Deli, and the Crunkleton, I thought about how lovely it is to live here in a town full of smart, sexy women of all ages.

In this town, older women are successful (my dentist, dermatologist, journalism professor, and favorite chef are all female), powerful (the mayor, the chancellor, UNC system president and Sylvia Hatchell), artistically talented (Elaine O’Neil, Tama Hochbaum and Jane Filer) and desirable. Personally and professionally, older women are valued. Here, we are not as Hollywood defines us: drab, useless or invisible. In Chapel Hill, Helen Mirren would fit right in.

Hollywood’s aging males may get the babes, but, man are they missing out. As women – and men – age, they become more interesting, more experienced, bolder, and, yes I’m going to say it, better. We know this in Chapel Hill and for that, this 54-year-old woman is very thankful.

Dabney Grinnan has lived in Chapel Hill for 25 years. You can reach her at or on Twitter at @DabneyGrinnan.