Is 'Change in the Wind' for Entertainment Industry's Ageism?

Aging Today, January/February 2009 | Go to article overview

Is 'Change in the Wind' for Entertainment Industry's Ageism?


NEWGUIDE ON MEDIA AND AGING

The following article is excerpted with permission from the new publication Media Takes: On Aging, a language guide for professionals in journalism, entertainment and advertising produced by the International Longevity Center-USA (ILC-USA) and Aging Services of California. Its aim is to help media professionals represent older adults and the aging process "in a fair, contemporary and unbiased manner."

The guide includes recommendations, a glossary of aging-related terms and a comprehensive list of resources. The content is available online at www.ilcusa.org and www.aging.org. Limited quantities of printed books are available upon request from Aging Services of California, 13151 Street, Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95814 or info@aging.org.

The 58-page publication expands on the "Journalists Exchange on Aging Survey on Style " and its handy two-page "Words to Age By" glossary, posted online at www.asaging.org/agebeat.

Television programming in the United States continues to focus heavily on people ages 18 to 49. Television and films tend to portray older women and men as one-dimensional. Renowned media researcher George Gerbner found that people who watch large* amounts of television believe that older adults are in poor shape financially and physically, as well as sexually dormant, closed-minded and inefficient.

Although the majority of Gerbner's groundbreaking research was completed in the 1980s, his findings are still relevant. For example, even now, few soap operas feature characters representing family members, doctors, lawyers or neighbors who are older adults. Further, older characters often are portrayed as sweet, childlike, comical, absentminded or befuddled-or, worse, as repulsive, feeble, irrational or out of touch with reality.

In a survey of older authences, many people ages 60 and older mentioned their perception of broadcasting's negative stereotyping of aging and elders, portrayals emphasizing such traits as being dependent frail, vulnerable, poor, worthless, asexual, isolated, grumpy, behind the times, miserable, pathetic, senile and a drain on society.

But the issue is less about being positive or negative about older people than about showing the diversity of older people's lives and experiences.

UNDERREPRESENTED

A study by Gerbner and Larry Gross noted, "Visibly old people are almost invisible on television." Similarly, a 2000 study of prime-time shows by Children Now, a child advocacy group, found that less than 3% of characters were 70 or older (whereas, according to the 2000 census, they represented 9% of the U.S. population) and 13% were older adults between me ages of 50 and 69, in contrast to the 28% in real life. Moreover, twice as many of the older people portrayed were men, even though in reality older women outnumber older men.

Several other studies in the past two decades consistently found a gross underrepresentation of people ages 60-plus on television, a problem that is notably worse for female characters, who are usually cast in so-called senior roles at much earlier ages than male characters. This invisibility of older characters in programming (and advertising) is unquestionably damaging.

In surveys, older viewers reported that they became so accustomed to seeing young characters in network shows mat this scarcity of older characters had come to seem natural. One older participant said, "It probably contributes to the feeling of invisibility older people have in the world. It teaches us that older people don't count." One woman added, "Negative portrayals often tell more about the teller than the characters, so don't take it personally."

WHEEL OF MISFORTUNE

"Ageism is one of the last non-taboo prejudices left in me country," noted Pat Sajak in his article "Breaking News in 2007: Aging Is Good," which appeared in the online newsletter Human Events. The Wheel of Fortune host added "If a public figure disparages almost any other group, he can expect the P. …

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