This is an old story with a new plot twist: Add to Hollywood’s well-documented biases against woman and minorities a new category: older adults. More confirmation than revelation, ageism exists in the entertainment industry, according to a comprehensive study of recent films conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
In Hollywood’s defense, the highest priority for filmmakers is to make money. Influencing society’s attitudes and behaviors may be a motive, but for sure a secondary one. Unfortunately, films starring older adults simply do not make money domestically or, more importantly, overseas where sequels and action films rake in huge profits. That’s the economic reality why older adults are under-represented.
By contrast, only ignorance can explain why older adults are mischaracterized, demeaned and otherwise marginalized as the new analysis of the 100 top-grossing films of the past year suggests.
In a nutshell, the report “The Rare & Ridiculed: Senior Citizens in the Top 100 Films of 2015” found:
- Few characters 60 or older are represented in film — just 11 percent, compared to 18.5 percent of the U.S. population.
- Of the 57 films that featured older adults, 30 included demeaning and ageist references such as “relic,” “frail old woman,” “senile old man” or, more graphically, “old-ass gangster,” “terrible old witch” and “old bitches.”
- The negative and stereotypical portrayals do not reflect how seniors see themselves – or their lifestyles. Respondents rated self-reliance among the top five most important traits of aging successfully, though films rarely depicted older adults as masters of their own stories or destinies.
- “Summing up, the findings show that seniors on screen are an endangered species in cinematic storytelling.”
- “Overall, the portrait of seniors in film bears little resemblance to the reality of many individuals age 60 and above. As the nature of aging changes … film must keep pace.”
Based on similarly negative accounts of Hollywood’s representation of woman and minorities, this report on “Senior Citizens” (an ironically anachronistic term chosen by the authors) should generate a flurry of public and media attention. But nothing will change, of course, until cultural interests materially impact economic interests. That’s business.
In the meantime, what needs to happen? For starters, creative storytellers and screenwriters should seize on opportunities to dramatize the interesting and entertaining lives of today’s older adults. (For example, there’s an “older adult” who will soon become the most powerful leader in the world; another who is the most influential investor on Wall Street; one who managed the World Series champions; and bunches of others who are inventing things, saving lives, teaching future generations, traversing the globe, redefining longevity and so on.) An economically neutral but culturally positive shift would be to simply portray older adults as realistic, complex characters rather than lame stereotypic caricatures (i.e. senile senior citizens).
Eventually industry executives will be forced to respond to desires of an aging demographic of filmgoers. Until then, hopefully the USC study will at least encourage Hollywood to recast aging as reality. That would be a very good start, though not The End.