Why the Media’s Messages Matter to Old People

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.


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15 Responses to Why the Media’s Messages Matter to Old People

  1. Advertisers are most interested in the demographic group consisting of adults between 18 and 54, so that’s what producers aim for. Sad but true.

    Yes, that probably does affect some people’s perceptions, but it certainly doesn’t affect my view of myself. I was raised when the woman’s place was in the home, or maybe a nurse, teacher or librarian. Instead I got a scholarship and majored in physics. If I paid attention to stereotypes that makes me a maladjusted nerd. Whatever. It works for me. 🙂

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I accept that advertising money is focused on the 18 to 54 age group (more specifically, 18 to 35, I think), and that we are definitely out of the loop. What the media reflects to us, as consumers of our culture is important, especially in how it affects our views of ourselves. None of us is immune to the powerful messages that come our way. But I’m talking, as well, of the younger group, and their perception of us. Since our well being will be dependent on them, as we age, we need to be aware of this issue.

    • “None of us is immune to the powerful messages that come our way.” Some of us have had a lot more practice than others have. I figure it’s my responsibility.

      “We should care about how the younger generation views us. Someday our lives may depend upon it.” Lots of luck with that. Let me know if you have any effect. I just saw a TV program where an 80-year-old had finally gotten a liver for a transplant after waiting three years. That was remarkable because of her age, but then a 25-year-old in the same hospital needed it, and they expected the 80-year-old to give it to her and continue waiting. The 80-year-old was known for her generosity but she said no, and behind her back she was called “selfish” and “old biddy”. The thing that was most interesting to me was the 25-year-old needed the transplant because she had been jogging in intense heat and somehow that trashed her liver. No one mentioned that part. Anyway, someone else died and miracle of miracles she got that liver so all was good.

      • Still the Lucky Few says:

        I’m not surprised that the 80 year old woman was asked to wait, and give her turn to the younger person. That demonstrates what is known but usually unspoken in our culture—that youth has more value than old age.

  2. Rummuser says:

    Things are different here in India, but the media still plays a very powerful role in shaping public opinion, demand etc. I personally do not watch TV except if there was an emergency news situation and depend on selective newspapers and the net for my news and information.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You are wise to limit your consumption of television, Rummuser. So much of the news, particularly, is distorted, and influenced by owners and advertisers. It’s hard to know what to believe!

  3. Lynne Spreen says:

    Your comment, “No one is immune,” should be turned into a banner and stuck atop every digital screen in the house. To think otherwise is self-protective defense–useful but inapplicable to the masses. Yes, we should find our own individual path, and ignore the stupid parts of the culture that devalue us. Hooray for the point women who break trail for the rest of us, and for those who are unbowed. But those stalwart individuals are in the minority. Thanks for raising the issue, Diane.
    PS I write novels featuring main characters who are 50 and above. Now I’m veering into “silver romance.” Oh, the naysayers! “Nobody wants to read about old people in love.” You get a real snapshot of the culture in the reactions to my plans.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You are one of the ground breakers, Lynne! Go ahead, write lavishly about the delicious, exquisite experience of mature love—you will have an audience of like minded people, who will appreciate the re-awakening, the slower blossoming. You are helping to change cultural perception. It’s important work!

  4. Joared says:

    Glad to read your commentary including the current research on aging and ageist issues. This is the topic that drew me to blogging over a decade ago when I read
    Ronni Bennett’s blog, “Time Goes By” — regularly addressing these issues and providing the latest research data to readers long before anyone else seemed to be paying any attention to the matter. The topics certainly melded with my long held views about how important the language used is in shaping perceptions. These years later — and many years to come, I think — we’re still faced with needing to continue efforts that bring these matters into public awareness. Writing on our blogs helps and can motivate readers to take numerous actions that can assist the awareness process including — by pointing out to others how they’ve used ageist language, whether in conversation, written materials, other ways we encounter ageism — all media, advertising, in the entertainment world, politicians, government officials. We do have to continue action if we expect to make a difference for ourselves and future generations.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      We have made some progress in bringing this to public awareness, but we are far from reaching a critical mass of people that agree the issue of ageism is important. There is so much irony in this—younger people have blinders on when (and if) they consider age. When they are younger, and in a position to make changes, they don’t want to think about it. And when they become older, as they most assuredly will (unless they die young), they lose their power, and it is too late. I am aware of Ronnie’s blog, and have read it for years. She has made an important contribution—I’m in awe about what she has done!

  5. Mother says:

    I find it more difficult to deal with the message that is given to young people which creates such unreal expectations and dooms them to either over-consumption or disappointment.
    Yes, its true, we are discriminated against. However, I am much more able to live within my own expectations of myself and not worry about pressures as I did as a young woman. And I can’t blame the advertisers for wanting to sell. I recognize that although we may own the buying power we exercise it less because (at least, in my case) my wants are much fewer. My acquisitive days are well past.

    (A side note re: being under- and poorly-represented, when I read the quote on redefined beauty I was struck by how that could be said of many groups of color and ethnicity throughout the years.)

    As for films and television, I find it much more fun to watch British and Australian films which often star imperfect people with whom I can identify more readily. I suppose the lack of people like me on U.S. media only causes me to watch less and then I buy less, and…

    Maybe we could read interesting things about ourselves if we writers of blogs would switch to fiction and write some wonderful and complex novels about people like us. However, I lack the imagination to build a story. Oh well…

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I like your idea of having us write novels which focus on people our age. There are so few, and when we come across a novel like Olive Kitteridge, we love it! Such a welcome departure from the ordinary!

  6. aunt beulah says:

    I was responding to my blog friends last night, Diane, and decided to do one more before going to bed. Then I saw it was yours, and thought, “Nope, I’ll keep Diane’s post for tomorrow because I know she’ll make me think.” Such a good decision I made and such a thought-provoking post this is. I’d never given much thought to the issues you raise, but recognize the truth of them. Like Mother who commented above, I too much prefer foreign films because they show people of all ages, warts and all, and often shine the spotlight on the older generation in an empathetic, appreciative way.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      When you see social issues through a lens that encloses all of humanity, you can see that the attitudes we have about ageing not only rob older people of the respect they deserve, they also rob younger people of the wonderful experiences they would have with more older people in their lives. So all generations lose, and that’s a shame. But let’s be hopeful that the issue of ageism is being addressed, and will change. Thanks for the compliment, Aunt Beulah!

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