Best Actress Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh’s message for aspirational women of all ages: ‘Ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you’re ever past your prime’

March 13, 2023, 12:58 PM UTC
Michelle Yeoh holding her Oscar award
It's no secret that women’s careers are penalized by aging—and Michelle Yeoh has had enough.
Michael Tran—AFP/Getty Images

Like most industries, Hollywood isn’t immune to ageism.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, research constantly shows that all too often showing visible signs of aging takes a toll on women’s careers: Female professionals are passed up for promotions, treated as less competent, and typecast as a “granny” as soon as gray hair begins to sprout. 

And the actress Michelle Yeoh has had enough. 

The 60-year-old Malaysian star won the Oscar for Best Actress at the 95th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

Yeoh’s performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once has made her the first Asian woman to win the award. Meanwhile, she’s the second woman of color to take home the title of best actress since Halle Berry won it in 2002.

Yeoh marked the historic occasion by calling out gendered ageism. 

“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight this is a beacon of hope and possibility,” she said, before adding: “Ladies, don’t ever let anyone tell you you are past your prime.”

Age discrimination is still rife

Hollywood and award bodies like the Oscars have been trying to bolster inclusion and diversity in recent years.

Just six years ago, a damning report found that there were only two leading characters over 60 featured in all of the 25 Best Picture Oscar-nominated films in the previous three years, and they were both played by the same actor: Michael Keaton.

More recently, however, Anthony Hopkins became the oldest person ever to win Best Actor at 83 years old in 2021. Meanwhile, at 63 Frances McDormand became the third-oldest best actress winner—but that’s still a huge 20-year gap.

And although this year’s top female award winners, Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis—who won her first Oscar, for best supporting actress, for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once—are both in their sixties, the shelf life for women in Hollywood is still statistically shorter than for men. 

Despite the fact that the age of female winners has been steadily increasing in the last despite, the average female Oscar winner is 39 years old, according to a Sky News 2023 report—almost a decade younger than the average male winner at 47. 

It also found that just 29 women aged 40 or over have ever won the leading actress award, compared with 63 male leading actors. 

Gender ageism doesn’t get any better outside of the Oscars. Women in general take up 38% of onscreen time on television, but the share for women over 50 shrinks to 8%, despite representing 20% of the population. In other words, they are 60% less likely to see themselves represented on television compared to walking around in real life.

A swipe at Don Lemon’s ageist remarks  

Yeoh’s words of wisdom have struck a chord with aspirational women everywhere, with many sharing the quote on social media.

Just last month, the CNN anchor Don Lemon was heavily criticized for describing the 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley as “not in her prime.” 

“A woman is considered to be in her prime in her twenties and thirties and maybe forties,” he doubled down, to the visible dismay of his coanchors.

It’s no wonder why among the praise for Yeoh’s acceptance speech are people saying it’s a direct clapback to his outdated views.

“Michelle Yeoh calling out CNN’s Don Lemon was not on my Oscar bingo card,” tweeted Netflix writer P.T. Philben.

And another concluded: “May Michelle Yeoh’s encouragement for us women to be aware, that there’s no timeframe for being in our prime, echo very loudly in the ears of Don Lemon. Huge congrats to her!”

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