Academic journal article Generations

Gender and Ageism

Academic journal article Generations

Gender and Ageism

Article excerpt

What is the potential for combating and reducing these biases?

While devaluation with age is true for women and men, there is clearly a difference. - Garner, 1999

The double standard of aging" is a phrase heard so frequently that it seems a truism. The social worth of women has been linked more closely with their physical appearance compared to the situation for men, and these social valuations decline more markedly with age for women than they do for men (e.g., Hurd, 2000). Looking "old" is viewed more harshly for women across diverse cultures and also, apparently, for people of different sexual orientations, extending beyond heterosexual bias (Harris, 1994). As encapsulated by Garner (1999), "women lose their social value simply by growing old. Men are more likely to be evaluated and rewarded for what they do" (p. 4).

This article looks into biased constructions of gender and aging, reflected in the mass media, embedded in social policies, and evidenced in differential treatment of older women and men in healthcare encounters. The main question is how we as individual women and men perceive ourselves as we grow older. Do we "buy into" cultural stereotypes of gender and aging, or do we resist such stereotypes? In addition to the potential for resistance at the level of individuals, what is the potential for reducing ageism in society more broadly? The aim is to explore these questions, recognizing that specific forms and relative virulence of ageism extend beyond gender to also encompass ethnicity, social class, sexuality, and other forms of social differentiation and inequality.


The role of mass media as cause or consequence of cultural values has long been contested. At minimum, the media reflect dominant values in a society: Whether, and how, older women and men are portrayed represents one measure of how ageism and sexism are embedded in the social fabric (e.g., Holbrook, 1987). Older adults of both sexes are underrepresented in U.S. popular films and television programs relative to younger age groups, and older women are even less likely to appear on screen than older men (Bazzini and McIntosh, 1997; Sanders, 2002). When older characters are portrayed, women are more frequently depicted in negative stereotypes and shown as less successful compared to older men. Similar findings regarding the portrayal of older women and men on screen have been reported in other western countries (e.g., Kessler, Rakoczy, and Staudinger, 2004).

Older adults also are underrepresented in advertisements relative to younger age groups, and negative portrayals increase with the age of individuals featured (e.g., Peterson and Ross, 1997). Studies of advertisements from the 1950s through the 1990s have found, however, that images of older people in U.S. television and print advertising have become more positive over time (Miller et al., 1999; Miller, Leyell, and Mazachek, 2004). The researchers concede that these "positive images" nevertheless convey stereotypes of aging. Older people featured in advertisements are portrayed most frequently as stereotypic "golden-agers" (either as adventurous or "productive" elders) or as "perfect grandparents." Further, these images are more often utilized for older women featured in advertisements than for older men.

A more nuanced consideration of media portrayal of women as golden-agers is found in Pedersen's (2002) in-depth study of a Kellogg's cereal print advertising campaign, with the slogan, "Look good on your own terms." These advertisements use direct messages as well as humor and exaggeration to "suggest that a healthy body is beautiful and that feeling healthy is more important than looking good according to media standards" (p. 170). At the same time, the advertisements also send the message that "anyone can become slim and beautiful by eating Special K [cereal]" (p. 181). Pedersen concludes that in so doing, this popular advertising campaign reinforces the very gender stereotypes and ageism that it purports to challenge. …

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