Old people get a raw deal in television and in the movies. We don’t make a fuss about this, because as we age, we become conditioned to the themes and images that flood the media, and bombard us with their messages. That’s just entertainment, we think—it’s not meant to depict real life.
But if we stop for a minute, and analyze the performances in front of us, we may become aware that there is rarely anyone in these presentations that vaguely resembles us.
If you wonder why this is important, researchers say that we are influenced by media, and respond to how it portrays us. Older characters don’t show up very much in the media we view, and when they do, they are shown in ageist or stereotypical roles, frequently ridiculed.
The damage these messages do
We may unconsciously accept these portrayals as true, and begin to think negatively about ageing, and fear growing older. In other words, how the media portrays us, can make us uncomfortable, depressed or ill.
Although this is an unpleasant topic for many of us, it is important to give it some thought, in order to understand how media affects us. And we can take some comfort, as well, in knowing that at last, the practice of ignoring and misrepresenting older people, and women in particular, is finally being exposed.
Important studies like this one, conducted by the University of South California, found that only 11 per cent of characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2016 were over the age of 60, compared with 18.5 per cent of the overall population. Moreover,
“Of the 57 films featuring a leading character of pensioner age, more than half featured ageist comments including references to “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.”
What makes that research more damning, is the finding that only 27 percent of those older characters in the films were female.
The study points out that the older characters portrayed were diminished in their roles, with only 29.1 per cent of them using modern technology on screen, and only a third seen to pursue anything engaging, such as hobbies.
A far-ranging study of various media
A new and major study of discrimination by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative sampled 109 motion pictures and 305 broadcast, cable, and digital series. with the objective of looking at the prevalence of casting of women 40 years of age or older.
Of the 11,306 speaking characters evaluated, 35% were over 40, with the majority (74.3%) of those roles going to men. Only 25.7% of all middle aged and elderly characters across the sample were female.
This is a fascinating study, broad and far-ranging in scope, and left me with a feeling of relief that these issues were being discussed. The authors have no delusions, however, about how difficult it will be to implement some of their findings. They say,:
“Shifting from invisibility to inclusion is no easy task. Companies have the opportunity now to dismantle the structures and systems that have guided decades of exclusionary decision-making.”
The crux of the problem
My own belief is that until the architects of film and media—the leaders, the creators, and the directors are better represented by women and older people, nothing will change. Today, only 3.4% of all film directors are female—and it is no secret that people who make the decisions in the entertainment industry are overwhelmingly male. We may have to wait until the proportion of female to male influencers changes, before we see a cultural shift.
And yes, I’m aware of the breakthroughs: shows like Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and Amazon’s “Transparent,” whose main cast includes Amy Landecker and Judith Light. I’m aware that about 38 percent of speaking parts on streaming shows on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, go to women, which is relatively high compared to 28 percent in films.
But it doesn’t change the finding that only 35 percent of the characters in Hollywood films and shows last year were over 40 years of age, according to Annenberg, and that most of those older people were men, leaving older women only a ‘small sliver of opportunity’.
So it was refreshing to find the following rant by Lexie and Lindsay of Beauty Redefined :
“Studies show the vast majority of any older mom, grandma, aunt, boss, teacher, queen or extraneous female character over 40 in any media fits a negative stereotype . And that sucks. The largest segment of the population is not seeing themselves represented, and when they do, it’s in negative ways”
Of course, it’s up to us whether or not we absorb the media’s interpretation of who we are, or our importance in our culture. We don’t have to accept what we see as real or representational. In fact, we can choose not to watch television or go to the movies at all, as many of our generation already do.
But don’t underplay the power of the media, its pervasive and entrenched influence. Its messages are readily accepted by those who have sway over us, who make decisions about our importance and worthiness. We should care about how the younger generation views us. Someday our lives may depend upon it.