Continuing our look back at 2011 from the over-40 woman’s perspective, we asked our pop-culture guru Alexandra MacAaron to give us her assessment of the year in media.

Despite all the brouhaha over Bridesmaids, this was definitely not a banner year for women in Hollywood. And, it’s a shame, because there were a handful of stand-out films in 2010: The Kids Are Alright, Winter’s Bone, Please Give. This year, I sincerely doubt we will see any woman-directed movies up for top honors at the Oscars.

The odds are against it. There were only two female directors represented in the 100 top-grossing films this year. And only two more if you increase the pool to the top 200. The winner is Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who (in her directorial debut, no less) directed the $650+ million Kung Fu Panda 2. She is now the highest grossing female director ever.

I’m happy for Nelson, but we’re talking about an animated bear. What about live-action movies that targeted women? The Help, one of the few films that might actually pass the Bechdel test this year, was not well-received by critics and had lackluster box office (only about a quarter of the gross of the aforementioned Kung Fu Panda 2, I’m afraid). Although I was a bit disappointed in the movie, I did enjoy several strong performances by mature actresses, including Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Allison Janney and the incredible Cicely Tyson.

One movie that absolutely blew me away was Miss Representation. Directed (and written and produced and narrated) by Jennifer Siebel, it is an expertly crafted documentary that focuses on how the media objectifies and marginalizes girls and women, and how that leads to less women in positions of power and authority. The movie itself is a case in point. Despite international film festival acclaim, it has yet to be given a respectable Hollywood release. I had to drive forty minutes to see it in the lounge of a YWCA. It feels like there’s a Hollywood boys club that won’t tell the girls the secret password.

Jodie Foster, who had a busy year  (although I don’t necessarily admire the company she kept – directing alleged anti-semite Mel Gibson in The Beaver and starring in alleged child rapist Roman Polanksi’s Carnage), doesn’t think it’s a conspiracy. Several months ago, she told Movieline: “I don’t think it’s a plot and these guys sat around and said let’s keep these women out. I think it’s like race psychology. When a producer hires a director, you’re hiring away your control completely. You’re bringing on somebody that will change everything. When you give that amount of power up, you want them to look like you and talk like you and think like you and it’s scary when they don’t, because what’s gonna happen? I’m gonna hand over $60 million to somebody I don’t know. I hope they look like me.”

She was quick to admit, though, that female executives overwhelmingly hire men as directors too. Foster believes this is because “Their job is to be as risk-averse as possible.”

More than 50% of movie tickets are bought by women. Yeah, I can see why hiring a woman director would be a risk.

On the small screen, there is some better news. Hot in Cleveland, with its sexy cast of middle-aged actresses (and the irrepressible Betty White as their uncensored house mother) is back for another season. There are two cute new shows with quirky younger leading ladies: New Girl with “simply adorkable” Zooey Deschanel, and Two Broke Girls with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, co-created by comedian/actress Whitney Cummings (who is also starring in the eponymous new sit-com Whitney).

But all these funny young women aside, the actress who I’m most enjoying this season is 62-year old Jessica Lange in the FX Network’s American Horror. As certifiably insane (but oh-so-graciously southern) matriarch Constance Langdon, Lange plays one of the series’ few living characters. Yet, whether she is poisoning cupcakes, pocketing someone else’s silverware, or shooting her husband’s lover through the eye (“I’m a hell of a shot”), she is far scarier than the show’s countless ghosts. Each episode is gruesome and bloody and dark; it pushes the envelope in terms of graphic violence, nudity, sex and language. Created by the team that brought us Glee (or maybe by their evil twins), American Horror hurls us deep into a different nightmare every week. And Jessica Lange, for one, seems to be relishing the ride.

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