Garwulf’s Corner #46: Double Standard
Originally published May 10, 2017
There’s a story about Roger Moore’s time playing James Bond. As each movie was produced, Moore — who was born 3 years before Sean Connery — found something happening that made him very uncomfortable. He was getting older, but the actresses cast as his romantic lead were either a uniformly young age or getting younger, to the point that by his final movie he was playing love scenes with actresses young enough to be his daughter.
This is a fairly well-documented phenomenon, where the age ceiling for female actors to be cast as romantic leads is far lower than the one for male actors. To be fair, for a James Bond movie, this makes a degree of sense — the Bond films are very much male action fantasies, and Bond getting the beautiful girl at the end is an established trope. They’re not taken to be reflections of real life, nor are they expected to be.
A lot of people have written about the casting side of this issue, which is why I’m not really going to touch it. Instead, I’m going to look at one of the stranger manifestations of this — and that brings me to Vikings.
For those who haven’t seen it, Vikings is a very good television show about the life of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and his family. Throughout the seasons, we see Ragnar go from a young man with visions of raiding somewhere other than up and down the Scandinavian coast to an old and fallen king whose adult children are destined to eclipse his fame. The aging makeup for Ragnar is superb, making 37 year-old Travis Fimmel appear over twice his age, and his acting drives home the image of this old Viking wanting one last desperate grasp at his dreams.
Where this gets odd is in regards to his wives. While Ragnar, Floki, and the majority of the male characters get suitably aged, neither Ragnar’s first wife Lagertha (39 year-old Katheryn Winnick) nor his current wife Aslaug (34 year-old Alyssa Sutherland) is aged more than a few years. This creates a bizarre disconnect, with both Lagertha and Aslaug appearing to be around the same age as their adult children. This in turn destroys the suspension of disbelief.
Make no mistake, Vikings relies on willing suspension of disbelief. When it comes to the history and what the Viking culture was like, the show gets much more right than it does wrong. However, it also compresses the timeline, with Ragnar leading the first raid on Lindisfarne in 793, the first siege of Paris in 845, and the second siege of Paris in 885. This would make Ragnar and his brother Rollo over a century old by the middle of the fourth season, to say nothing of Lagertha, Aslaug, and Ragnar’s eldest son Bjorn Ironside (who would be closing in on 100).
The key to suspension of disbelief is consistency — once you have established the rules of your setting, you do not break them. Ragnar, his family, and many of the historical figures they meet can be functionally immortal, but if one ages, they all must age at the same rate. By aging the men at a far greater rate than the women, this breaks the consistency and brings all of the other artificial elements of the series into sharp relief.
It also adds to what is fast becoming an unfortunate implication. My wife’s takeaway from the decision to age the female characters less than the male characters was to feel as though she was being told that a woman’s value lies only in her youth and beauty, and I can’t fault her for that interpretation. When you have female actors being restricted by an age ceiling for playing romantic leads and combine it with female characters not being allowed to age, it’s hard not to see it as a statement against women getting older.
With a character like Lagertha, the decision becomes a true tragedy. Lagertha is a character who is, put simply, made of awesome. She holds her own as a warrior, is a respected leader of men in the realms of both the military and political, as well as a mother and a wife. When her second husband mistreats her, it’s not a question of whether she’s going to brutally kill him and take over his earldom for it, but of when and how. If the show had allowed her to age gracefully while still being all of these things, it would have made Lagertha even better and more memorable. It would also have allowed the show to explore what it means to be an aging shield maiden in Viking society, particularly as she leaves her childbearing years behind.
Sadly, Vikings didn’t do this, and it’s a misstep that has consequences for the storytelling going forward that will make it harder to change course. The show has now established a new rule: the women age slower than the men. To break this rule by aging up the female characters to match their menfolk would further disrupt the suspension of disbelief, and make the show even more jarring.
That said, with shows like Vikings featuring characters such as Lagertha on the air in the first place, I remain hopeful. Vikings might not have had done it, but it may not be long before we get to see a memorable female character age gracefully along with the men, and remain awesome as she does it.