Since coming out of the closet five years ago at the age of 62, Meredith Baxter hasn’t been working as much as she’d like. While the TV veteran believes she could “make a case” for homophobia in Hollywood playing a part, she has a theory that another factor is to blame.
“There are not many 67-year-old women on the screen,” she says. “And that’s part of our problem. Women my age — there’s more of us around than men my age — we’re the predominant part of the populace [in this demographic] and we’re not represented on television. I don’t think they know what to do with us.”
Baxter says it’s part of the reason she’s thrilled to be stepping into the role of Grandma Joan on MTV’s new scripted drama, Finding Carter (debuting tonight at 10/9 Central).
“I like giving a voice and stature to a woman who is a grandmother, because grandmothers need a voice too,” she says.
For Baxter – who became an ’80s pop culture icon after playing Elyse Keaton for seven seasons on the hit series Family Ties — her Finding Carter role provides an opportunity to help battle what she says are unhealthy ideals Hollywood promotes about aging women.
“The truth is you don’t know what a 67-year-old woman really looks like today, because you do not see her on television — at least not in any way you’d recognize” she says. “Or when you do you think, My God, what happened to her? because you’re seeing someone with lines, character, and maturity on her face and it’s not one of these tight faces you’re used to seeing. That’s what’s promoted.”
But while Baxter says Hollywood has “a lot of work to do” in “overcoming ageism,” she applauds the increase in LGBT visibility that has come to television in recent years.
“I get so excited when I see how far we’ve come. It just shows we’ve reached a certain level of assimilation,” she says. “Because it’s fear, lack of familiarity, lack of exposure — that’s why people have these judgments and discriminations. Exposure brings with it a sense of normalcy and I think that’s great.”
The actress, who says she was once “terrified” to come out publicly as a lesbian because she was known to many as “America’s mom,” says she is often pleasantly surprised when she experiences the positive effects that LGBT exposure in American culture has had on her own life, including the reaction to her recent wedding to Nancy Locke.
“When my wife and I decided to get married we knew we wanted Nancy’s mom, who just turned 90, to be around for it. She’s very deaf, and so one night when she was at our house I printed out 8-by-10 cards that read ‘Carol, I’d like to marry your daughter.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet,’ but I think there was a hesitation. Now, I know she loves me and she loves us together, but she was a born-again Christian, and I believe [it’s because of increased LGBT exposure] there was just a moment, a pause, and then full, complete acceptance and love and her saying, ‘Yes, I support this.”’
“In fact, I’ve been many places recently where [I’ve seen it]. People have told me, ‘Meredith, I saw you in People magazine and the photos of your beautiful wedding. Congratulations!’ and I’m always stunned.” she adds. “It’s not that I expect people to be prejudiced, but I’m always floored to hear people say how lovely they thought our wedding was and I’m reminded how quickly things are turning. It’s in the air.”
In addition to helping raise the visibility bar for older out lesbians in entertainment, Baxter admits there’s one more reason she’s having a blast playing Grandma Joan on Finding Carter. “Man, she’s a real bitch,” Baxter says with a laugh, “and that’s great because milquetoast is not interesting to play.”
Finding Carter airs Tuesday nights on MTV at 10/9 Central. Catch a sneak peek at the series in the video below.