What We Watch: An Alternate-And Ageist-Reality with Dubious Health Effects
Harwood, Jake, Aging Today
Every time you turn on die television, you enter an alternate reality in which 3 to 5 percent of the population is older than 65, and the majority of them are men. In the real world, people older than 65 are about 13 percent of the population, and women outnumber men four to three.
Such media underrepresentation has not varied a great deal since research on it began in the early 1970s, nor does the pattern vary across show type. Only one or two studies (out of dozens) have found older adults portrayed in numbers approaching their presence in die population, and one of those studies, from the early 1970s, found 13 percent older adult prime-time characters, but from a pool of only 250 characters. Most contemporary research uses samples of a thousand or more characters.
One trend suggests older adults are portrayed more frequentiy in daytime soap operas: work in the early 1980s by J. C. Elliott (1984) and M. B. Cassata and colleagues (1980) shows proportions of older people to be 8 percent and 16 percent in soaps, although the latter included characters as young as 55.
Another study, which attempted to look systematically across time, shows older adults portrayed most frequendy in the 1970s! These patterns are much worse for older women, who are so underrepresented as to appear almost invisible.
Similar patterns are apparent in studies of other media: children's literature, movies, video games and print advertising. Jaye Atkinson at Georgia State University examined portrayals in popular movies over time, and shows some increase in portrayals of older people in die 2000s. However, diey are clustered in the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies-it's apparently OK to show older adults so long as they are wizards! Also, a 2010 study of television commercials on Dutch television by Martine van SeIm and colleagues at Radboud University suggested some over-time improvement.
TV Is Doing Some Real Damage
In addition to being underrepresented, older adults are portrayed negativelyrarely employed, often unhealthy or only shown when associated with health-product advertising. They also spend their time in domestic settings rather than at work or out of doors. Research by Dana Mastro at the University of Arizona, Tucson, indicates older women are almost exclusively consigned to "grandma" roles, while older men occasionally are allowed a little more authority and prestige.
The effects of these portrayals on older people can be damaging, particularly as older people watch more television than any otiier age group. Older adults look to television for role models and characters diey can identify with- "Murder, She Wrote," starring Angela Lansbury, was a massive hit among older viewers.
Margie Donlon from the University of Rochester and her colleagues show that lifetime television exposure has more of an impact on ageist prejudice than depression, health or education. Those older than 60 who have watched more television throughout their lives are significantly more negative about old age and the aging process. …