Beauty Before Age Remains Dominant Casting Trend in Arab Film

Naomi Pham
From top to bottom: Photographs of Vivian Antonious and Ward al-Khal from Independent Arabia, and photograph of Yusra from Facebook.

The presence of women on the Arab silver screen has historically suffered under patriarchy. Though the “male gaze” is not exclusive to Arab cinema and television, the marginalization of women on the screen has increasingly affected Arab discourse. Hiyam Bannout’s article “Masculinity Dominates Arab Drama and Marginalizes Women” in Independent Arabia explores the lack of veteran and older actresses occupying major roles in film. Arab actresses are “dramatically marginalized” once they turn 40, brushed aside in favor of young actresses at the expense of limited talent and experience, according to Bannout.
The marginalization of women appears in cinema blatantly, in a greater proportion than in television, according to art critic Tariq Shinawi. Older women played major roles in cinema in the past, notably Faten Hamama, Shadia, Magda al-Sabahi, Layla Murad, and many others. Today, Shinawi claims women are most absent from starring roles in cinema. Women’s roles have been (and still are) punctuated and suppressed by beauty standards sustained by a patriarchal society that continues to encourage unrealistic norms.

The industry excludes older actresses from film castings despite their expertise and talent, and many are  thus forced to accept lesser roles because of limited opportunities. Several of these women turned to television dramas to secure a living, making them accept minor roles.

In particular, Lebanese drama sidelines veteran actresses from influential or lead roles. Success in the industry often rides on male influence, and young women who can establish a name for themselves as actresses often do so with the support of a man, as cited by Bannout. The industry operates on a double standard, casting men in their 50s and 60s as heroes and women less than twice their age — young enough to be their daughters — as their co-stars. It perpetuates this problem on two fronts: normalizing its occurrence and making it a standard.

“The combination of a man in his sixties and a girl in her twenties is currently dominant in the market and reflects underdevelopment and consumerist attitude. The production companies and frivolous television stations bear the responsibility,” according to Samer Radwan, who emphasizes that writers merely implement the producers’ desires. He adds, “Arab societies are patriarchal societies, and dramas reflect this image, so it is not surprising that they wrote no major roles for a woman in her forties.”

At its core, “drama is consumerism,” says actress Mireille Panossian. There is an abundance of topics suitable for veteran actresses that dramas refuse to open the doors to. Instead, Arab society focuses on beauty and love stories that revolve around a girl falling in love with an older man for his money and other trivial matters. According to Panossian, producers bear the responsibility, driven primarily by concern for profit and a willingness to exploit society’s ignorance.

Some actresses are less critical of the industry’s standards. Actress Ward al-Khal believes each actress has her circumstances, explaining, “I do not feel marginalized even though I am of a mature age...I am where I am because my experience is different. I wait for the perfect role and acceptable wage that I earned after 20 years in the field.” She claims it is not wrong to play secondary roles, like a mother’s or sister’s roles, and that she did the same when she was 20 and even younger. However, her views are rarely expressed by others. 

Rather than give older actresses opportunities befitting their experience, producers slyly cast them as minor, supportive roles in creating a better image for their television series. Actress Vivian Antonious sharply criticizes, “Producers use a beautiful actress without experience for starring roles, surrounding her with veteran actresses to raise the quality of the series.” Though she admits she also received many opportunities when she was young, she says, “I wish I represented the feelings I have today. Love can be lived at all ages.”
Elie Chalala contributed the Arabic translations for this essay.

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