THE RARE AND RIDICULE. Ageism in Hollywood popular films.


The online Guardian of 14 Sept,  headlined “Older characters underrepresentated and ridiculed in Hollywood”. Under a close-up  of Helen Mirren’s face and neck unretouched showing her lines and wrinkles the article proceeds to report:

…research conducted by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative of the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, in conjunction with health insurance company Humana, concluded that not only are older characters (defined as 60 and above) underrepresented on screen, they are also subject to disproportionate levels of ridicule ……………………

The gender, ethnic and sexual orientation ratios of senior characters were even more dispiriting: about 72% were male and 82% were white. Only two characters in the whole sample identified as homosexual.
Of the 100 films considered, 43 had no older characters in significant (leading or supporting) roles, and of the remaining 57, more than 50% contained a comment the researchers designated as ageist – ie, “a comment or nonverbal response to age or negative attributes typically associated with the ageing process or the life of a senior”. The authors concluded that while “comments like those catalogued in this study may be intended to be humorous, the effects are anything but”.

Had I read this article twenty years ago when I first took an interest in the representation of the old woman in feature films I would have been delighted to read that old women were given some attention. Now I can barely glance at the paper, read the analysis or write about it. It is the words “Hollywood, top 1oo  most popular domestic movies of 2015″ that for me are significant in considering that such a study is not helpful. For ‘popular domestic movies’ read  ‘top 100 grossing films at the US box office in 2015”. I have seen only  three of these films  : The Hunger Games: Mockingay part 2, The Revenant, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. 

I have posted my feelings about The Second Best Exotic Marigold in March 2015 . I imagine that the representation of the old women in this ensemble film was coded as positive. But as a comment on the Guardian website says: “I am happy to be totally unrepresented in the garbage that Hollywood produces these days”. But Hollywood has always been ageist. Indeed the reader’s comments on this uncritical report of the Guardian are more instructive than the statistics of the report that is published in detail.

I will quote some of them:

  • Hollywood angels will only fund safe formulaic work
  • Is it because the fashion is for action adventures
  • Not a Hollywood problem – old people are ignored
  • Cinema audiences tend to be younger people and like to see films that represent them. Not rocket science.
  • If films about older women were in demand the Hollywood moguls would be doing them. Hollywood does not do small pictures.
  • Hollywood has never had a moral compass.
  • Most Hollywood films are action based or romance based.
  • The fact of life is that as one ages one fades away in all areas of interest , competence and importance and that is how it should be.

But apart these words of wisdom there are also ageist ones:

  • stop whingeing.
  • maybe old people do not want to see film about old people because of all the horrible things coming their way.
  • I am a clapped out oldie and I do not want to look at clapped out bodies. I want to be entertained.
  • Don’t old people whinge about movies generally? Not as good as they made them in the 50s
  • Most human beings who attend the cinema don’t want to see characters on the downward slope of life. They want to see characters who are young and beautiful and seemingly immortal. They don’t want to be reminded of their own mortality in any way.
  • I saw I’ll See You In My Dreams, starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliot. I nearly lost my dinner during their brief, delicate love-making scene…and I’m 68!! It’s just not what we’re used to seeing: two wrinkled bodies writhing around in bed. It was like watching your parents doing the deed.
  • Audiences change, and movies are tailored to audiences in order to make money. And, apparently, audiences DON’T want to see Gray, Wrinkled, and Saggy up there on the screen.

Guardian readers mention On Golden Pond, I Will See You In My Dreams , Up and some actors who gained status over many years: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Maggie Smith.

I do not think that this study is helpful in considering the ageist effect of the media on the public without taking account of the changing patterns of cinema attendance. Publicity, distribution, genre, reviewers and critics greatly affect viewing figures. Although Guardian readers do not represent the general population, it is remarkable that ageist attitudes prevail in their  comments.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Ageism, critics, Film Analysis, FILM RECEPTION and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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