Does Hollywood Have an Ageism Problem?

Seniors at the movies

Do you love to watch the Academy Awards? Every year, millions of us gather round to find out who will bring home the Oscars.

In 2017, the call was for greater diversity after black filmmakers and actors were largely shut out of the 2016 nominations. This year, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Academy paid more attention to the issues of women, and the contributions of immigrants were also highlighted.

This focus on inclusivity in filmmaking is admirable … and yet, according to a set of studies from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC) and Humana Inc. of Louisville, one group has been overlooked and is subject to continued demeaning stereotypes: older adults. The studies report that senior characters have been "underrepresented, mischaracterized, and demeaned by ageist language."

In 2016, the researchers took a look at the images of aging in the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, and found that only 11 percent of the characters were older than 60, and that over half of these characters were subject to ageist comments and portrayals.

Then in January 2018, they analyzed the top 100 films of 2016. Had things improved? No, said USC's Dr. Stacy L. Smith. "There has been virtually no progress in the volume of senior representation in the top-grossing films in the past year. As Hollywood embraces representation of other diverse groups, it's imperative for aging Americans to be included in the industry's focus on inclusion."

The researchers also found that these stereotyped film portrayals bore little resemblance to the lives of real older adults. For example, they noted, older onscreen characters almost never use modern technologies—whereas 84 percent of real American seniors do. And while real-life seniors value their self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience and safety, senior characters on the screen seldom exhibit these characteristics.

"Seniors are rarely seen on screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed," said Dr. Smith. "When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that have long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?"

Moving right along, Academy Awards 2017 even saw ageism erupt during the ceremony. Through no fault of their own, veteran actors Faye Dunaway, 76, and Warren Beatty, 79, announced the wrong winner, La La Land, when Moonlight had actually taken the top honor. The final credits were still rolling when Twitter burst forth with ugly ageist tweets shaming the actors, who had in fact been handed the wrong envelope by a PricewaterhouseCoopers employee. (During this year's surprise do-over, when Dunaway and Beatty again presented the top Oscar, the veteran stars were gracious and seemed to enjoy the moment as an apology for "Envelopegate.")

Advocates say it's time to call out this ageism. And there does seem to be some movement. AARP happily pointed out that this year slightly more than half of the nominated actors are older than 50, as are 22 nominees in other categories. Maybe a squeaky wheel is helping! For example, at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards in January, actress Nicole Kidman used her acceptance speech to draw attention to the dearth of meaningful roles for older actresses (who have it worse than men—consider the the well-known phenomenon of action movie franchises where the lead actor grows older from film to film, while always paired with a new young actress).

Casting more older actors as superheroes would be cool, but that's only the start. More films could also feature storylines that illuminate the rich variety in aging, and mine the excitement, suspense and triumph that comes from taking on the challenges of aging and using accumulated wisdom to meet them. Rather than a diet of tragic or depressing portrayals of seniors, it's time to acknowledge the many joys and benefits of being older.

Is this just a matter of fairness? It's so much more than that. Humana's Dr. Yolangel Hernandez-Suarez says, "Our research shows that staying optimistic is vital to the perceived physical and mental health of seniors, and films may be negatively impacting their health by portraying seniors in demeaning or inaccurate ways."

Having a positive attitude about aging has been proven over and over again to have a powerful protective effect. Dr. Becca Levy of Yale School of Public Health has done a lot of research on this topic, demonstrating that having a negative attitude about growing older raises the risk of a host of negative health conditions. Levy's most recent study, just released in February, found that even people who have a high genetic risk of Alzheimer's disease are 44 percent less likely to develop dementia if they have positive beliefs about aging!

Seniors aren't the only ones who could benefit by less ageist attitudes. Dr. Hernandez-Suarez reminds us that as younger people are exposed to a diet of onscreen caricatures of aging, "their view of life past the age of 60 may begin to feel scary or ominous." And Dr. Levy's research reminds us that when teens at the multiplex are exposed to these "grumpy old man" and "incompetent old woman" stereotypes, they're likely to absorb and internalize the denigrating ageist messages—lowering their own chance of experiencing happy, healthy aging.

So this year, pick your movies carefully. Think about the messages about ageing they convey. Consider the line between genuine humor and pernicious stereotypes. Say something. Start a dialogue. No matter what your age, you're doing it for yourself, and for people of every stage of life.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge