It’s no surprise that Hollywood worships youth and that, as actresses in particular get older, their careers can come to a premature end. That’s not simply bad news for the job prospects of aspiring Meryl Streeps or Ruby Dees of the world. As a new report from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative scholars Stacy Smith, Katherine Pieper and Marc Choueiti suggests, “seniors on screen are an endangered species in cinematic storytelling.”
There are a few older characters who make it to the big screen, of course. Eleven percent of the 4,066 characters who had lines in the 100 top-grossing movies of 2015 were 60 or older. That might not sound like a lot relative to the actual U.S. population, but Smith and her colleagues argued that it “was a good year for seniors in ensemble films” — one where movies such as “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” boosted overall totals.
Who are these fictional seniors, and how do they spend their time?
72.8 percent of the characters were male, and 82.1 percent of them were white. They were overwhelmingly heterosexual. 61.6 percent of them had jobs, though older men were more likely to be depicted as working than women. White male characters were more likely to have prestigious jobs than characters of color, and women were generally shut out of the top ranks of fields such as law, journalism, politics, and science and technology.
Fictional seniors don’t tend to be particularly religious, though 65 percent of older Americans report that their faith is “very important.” Only a third of them pursued hobbies and activities on screen. And movies tend to depict seniors as disengaged from technology, even though 74 percent of Americans older than 65 own cellphones and 58 percent of them are online.
Very few of these older characters, just 10.5 percent, were depicted as having health issues. But in a grimmer finding, older characters who died on screen overwhelmingly had violent deaths. 79.2 percent of those characters who succumbed were shot, stabbed or crushed (the study’s authors counted accidental violence, such as traffic accidents, in a separate category).
And more subtly, 52.6 percent of the movies that featured senior characters also included comments that the researchers interpreted as ageist. Many of those comments were spoken by other characters to older people, but in a number of movies, older characters made self-deprecating or diminishing comments about their own age.
There are clear gaps between the way Hollywood sees older people and the way they see themselves. Humana, the health and wellness company, surveyed 2,000 people 60 and older about whether they felt they were depicted accurately in movies and, explained Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, “the answer was a resounding no. They thought themselves to be more healthy in mind and body, more connected, and more savvy than they were portrayed in film.”
As a physician, Hernandez is concerned that negative portrayals of older people may diminish the optimism that’s been connected to more positive health outcomes. And she worries that younger people will take the wrong lessons from movies, too.
“As someone whose success is so rooted in the mentorship of other women and how important that was to me in my career, I am concerned that when younger people go to films, they do not see women in positions of power, whether that’s in politics, or business, or medicine,” she said. “They would never think to look out to another woman because they don’t exist in that world. I find that particularly troublesome.”
Smith suggested that the limited portrayals of older people on screen might be linked to the fact that only a few actors — and especially, only a few women — are considered viable stars as they age.
“The sell-by date, as we know, for women on screen is 40,” she pointed out. “My hunch is that the Judi Denches, the Maggie Smiths, are pushing the same stories and getting work often, which is fantastic, but it is a narrow view.” She also cited Kevin Costner and Liam Neeson, both of whom appeared in two films in 2015, as examples of “a rinse-and-repeat … with the same actors in powerful roles.”
“If you want to project a dynamic view of aging,” Hernandez argued, “it’s simply missing in action on screen in cinematic content.”
UPDATE: Dr. Hernandez initially described the Humana survey respondents as Humana members. The company actually surveyed members of the general population. The story has been updated to reflect this.