You have to look wide and far to find people over 60 in the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, and when you do find them, they are demeaned by ageist language and presented inaccurately and unfairly, says new research conducted by Humana and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Among the researchers’ more disturbing findings:
1. Older people are underrepresented in film.
While 18.5 percent of the population is 60 and over, just 11 percent of film characters were that age.
2. More than half the films with older characters direct ageist comments at them.
Out of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 contained ageist comments; that’s more than half of the films. Characters were called things like, “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.” The report does not name specific films, nor would study representatives identify in which movies those three sample quotes were from.
3. Older people are stereotyped as tech-illiterate.
Only 29.1 percent of on-screen leading or supporting characters aged 60 or older are depicted using technology, while 84 percent of aging Americans report that they use the internet weekly.
4. Older people are portrayed as anti-social shut-ins.
On screen, just one third of seniors pursue interests or hobbies and 38.5 percent attend events, while in reality, they are more than twice as likely to engage socially with friends or relatives on a weekly or monthly basis.
5. Seniors are rarely shown as the masters of their own destinies.
The top five traits respondents rated as most important to aging successfully were self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience and safety. In film, seniors are rarely depicted as in control of their lives.
The pity, of course, is that people believe what they see on-screen. Humana’s quantitative survey found that seniors who rate themselves as very optimistic about aging tend to be the most active physically, socially and in their communities. They also report a much lower number of physically unhealthy days on average: just 2.84 for the most optimistic, compared to 12.55 physically unhealthy days for the least optimistic.
And those who are the most optimistic also report feeling on average 12 years younger than their actual age (those who are least optimistic feel on average 7 years older than their actual age).
“Seniors are rarely seen on screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, in a press release. “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?”
Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer, care delivery at Humana added: “As a health care company, we’re committed to helping aging Americans defy stereotypes and take steps to achieve their best health. That’s why it’s important to note that, according to our findings, seniors who report being optimistic about the aging process also report better health.”
She called the absence of senior representation in film a “missed opportunity” for pop culture.
Key findings surrounding both studies will be presented at The Atlantic Live! New Old Age conference Tuesday in New York City. Humana and USC will lead individual discussions to explore the findings in greater detail, which will be streamed at The New Old Age’s livestream broadcast.
In recent years, many actors have called out Hollywood for ageism. For example, in January, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones criticized filmmakers for not making more movies about older people. In addition, “Sex and the City” actress Kim Cattrall, 59, said the “expiration date” for women in the industry seems to be 35. Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, 55, has also said that studios seem to focus on lucrative films rather than inclusion and telling important stories.