After the Party antihero Penny may be the most dynamic female character we’ve seen on New Zealand television. Robyn Malcolm tells Tara Ward about the rarity of playing a complex middle-aged woman.
A woman in her 50s cycles into a Wellington boys’ high school, incessantly ringing her bell to demand people move out of her way. Her jaw is set, her hair messy, her face bare. In the classroom, she watches pornography that’s been caught on a student’s phone. She screengrabs a frame and projects it in front of the class, launching into a blunt, confronting lecture about how porn will ruin their sex lives. We’re only a minute into After the Party, but already the message is refreshingly clear: Penny is not your conventional TV drama heroine.
That’s because middle-aged Penny, played by a magnificent Robyn Malcolm, is a rare beast on television. Women past childbearing age are generally relegated in film and television to supporting, maternal roles, or they are written out altogether. A 2021 report discovered that while women over 50 make up 20% of the population, they receive only 8% of screen time. Another 2019 study – cheerily titled “Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten” – reported that females made up only 25% of film characters aged over 50+ and an extremely bleak 0% of lead roles.
It’s a phenomenon familiar to New Zealand actors. In a 2019 interview, Lisa Chappell said her television work “dried up” once she turned 40 and Jennifer Ward-Lealand pointed out the scarcity of older women on television. “Generally, you don’t see many women over 50 regularly on our screens. It’s still extraordinarily youth-focused.” Elizabeth McRae, famous for her role as receptionist Marj in Shortland Street, told The Spinoff she was treated as less interesting than her younger colleagues.
Robyn Malcolm, one of our most prolific and beloved local actors, has been through it too, after auditioning for roles written as women in their fifties only to see them given to actors 20 years younger. “They call it aspirational casting,” she explains. “A 50-year-old woman does not want to watch a 50-year-old woman play a 50-year-old woman, apparently. They want to watch a 30-year-old woman play a 50-year-old woman.”
Frustrated by this industry trend, Malcolm and her friend and writer Dianne Taylor decided they’d do something about it. Between their two living rooms, they brainstormed about the television shows they loved, the characters that inspired them and the kinds of women they wanted to see on screen. “I love Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep, but apparently in America, you have to wear white and smile and laugh an awful lot to be palatable,” Malcolm says. “We were like, ‘this is not who New Zealand women are. This is not who we are’.”
The character of Penny was born, and Malcolm and Taylor built the story of After the Party around her. Malcolm admits they deliberately put Penny through the wringer. “We wanted to create a character who was neither hero nor villain, who was deeply fallible, and who was not necessarily the most attractive of women that you’d see on screen,” she recalls. “Somebody who might be a bit challenging, who was going through that journey that a lot of women in their mid to late fifties do, which is actually, ‘fuck it, I don’t care whether you like me or not’.”
Directed by Peter Salmon (INSiDE, Mystic), After the Party explores what happens after science teacher Penny accuses her husband Phil (Peter Mullan) of sexually assaulting their daughter’s friend, and nobody believes her. Phil’s unexpected return to Wellington after five years capsizes Penny’s world, and while Penny’s daughter Grace (Tara Canton) wants to forget and move on, Penny is determined to prove Phil’s guilt. How far will she go to be believed in a community that already doesn’t trust her?
The taut, tense drama is the best we’ve made in years, and Penny’s “fuck it” attitude drives every scene. There is no After the Party without Penny, who brings her full self to every societal sphere: she’s a teacher, a coach, a daughter, a friend. She’s prickly and combative and doesn’t always behave well, but Malcolm plays her with a warmth and sensitivity that pulls the audience in. Penny dresses up as a pirate for her grandson’s birthday, but she also breaks the law in a one-woman environmental protest and isn’t afraid to call one of her students a “little c*nt”. Rather than fading into the background as menopause hits, Penny commands attention.
The only time Penny is silent and still in After the Party is when she becomes a life model for an art class, and it’s no coincidence that at an age when many women report feeling invisible, Penny could not be more seen. Malcolm says the scenes give the audience a private, meditative moment with Penny. “She’s not looking to be noticed, but it’s where she’s at her most visible, because she’s got her clothes off and she’s being drawn — but she’s being drawn without judgment.”
Penny is no stranger to judgment; she refuses to keep quiet about her ex-husband’s crime, even when it makes everyone else uncomfortable. People might dismiss this sort of outspokenness in women by calling them a “Karen”, a term that once called out class and racial privilege but has evolved into an all-encompassing sexist insult. Malcolm and Taylor spoke a lot about Karens while co-creating After the Party, and were determined to see Penny redefine what it is to be a woman with a voice. Malcolm reckons Penny is a Karen “on steroids”, and she’s not sorry about it: “‘fuck you, I am a Karen’”.
Malcolm’s antihero may well be the most realistic, dynamic female character we’ve seen on New Zealand television. We all know women like Penny, and it’s a role Malcolm relished bringing to life on screen. Penny was born out of Malcolm’s own anger, and the positive reception to After the Party proves that audiences want to see characters like Penny on screen: women with lived experience, the sum of all their complicated parts.
“My experience with really, really good writing is that people are very different human beings, depending on the circumstances,” Malcolm says. “We can be angel and devil, all in one day.”
After the Party screens on TVNZ1 on Sunday nights at 8.30pm and streams on TVNZ+.