I never thought I would admire Mallory Keaton, but I really do.
Okay, the person I admire is actress Justine Bateman, not Mallory Keaton, the ditzy teenager she played on television show Family Ties (it ran from 1982 through 1989). For those of us who grew up with her, it is hard to separate the two. Mallory was the comic relief to near-genius brother Alex, played by Michael J. Fox. While he pored over tax policy, she rhapsodized over eyeliners. In retrospect, I realize that that might have been sexist, but honestly it was a pretty funny show. And if Mallory was not a role model, Justine appears to be.
As an article in Fast Company detailed this week, Justine Bateman, 48 years old, is now a junior at UCLA, majoring in digital management and computer science. There is so much that is remarkable about that statement. Going back to school in your 40s is hard – especially if you never went in the first place. Taking computer science and calculus and statistics twenty years after you last took a formal math class has got to be extremely hard (I did take those things in university, which I went to right after high school, and I found them hard then). And most remarkable of all is the idea that an actress would choose to take that route. It is outside the box, for sure.
So why is Ms. Bateman doing something so outré? Well, from what I can tell one reason is that she did not have the kind of management that the Olsen Twins (who reigned on TV show Full House in the 1990s) did. Nearly twenty years after last playing Michelle (a role the two shared) Mary Kate and Ashley are still close to being household words and most certainly are rich, thanks to years of merchandising and hefty residuals. Ms. Bateman says her own residuals are closer to 25 cents a check. Ouch.
The other reason I would guess that Ms. Bateman is doing something different is that her last career is over. For sure there are successful 40something actresses out there, but the competition for jobs has got to be fierce. I imagine if something was beating down her door and handing her a chunk of money to appear in a blockbuster or headline a TV show she would do it, but I also imagine that is not happening for Ms. Bateman. And if that’s the case, there is certainly no shame in it: as many 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 and 60somethings know, the labor market–any labor market–is tough for most people.
And so Mallory is reinventing herself as a computer whiz kid, albeit years after she has stopped being a kid. Her ultimate goal is to either head up a company that melds the entertainment and tech worlds, or maybe to work in one. She had dabbled in that pre going back to school actually, but was finding her pitches for cool digital shows were falling on deaf ears. In fact, she had heard ‘no’ so many times in the previous five years, that (according to her Tumblr page) she was in shock when she got a ‘yes’ on her college application. (That flurry of ‘no thankses’ probably rings true job seekers as well).
I think that ‘reinvention’ is going to be a theme for the next decade. Careers are evaporating, industries are shifting, and the strong are going have to be able to morph themselves from one thing to another. Thinking abut it, it actually, it makes perfect sense that the poster-girl for cutting-edge teendom in the 80s is now the poster-girl for the reality of reinvention in the ‘10s.