A new study from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism provides the data showing what we all know already – older people are ignored, underrepresented, or trivialized in film.
According to the study, just 11 percent of some 4,066 speaking characters in the 100 top U.S. films of 2015 were 60 or older. In only 10 roles considered leads or co-leads were the actors 60 or older.
USC professor Dr. Stacy Smith, who led the research, said, “We see not just a skewing but an erasure of these really vibrant communities in the United States.”
It’s worse for women than for men. Only 27 percent of older characters in the films were female. Among lead roles, only three of 10 with older actors were women (Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and Lin Shaye).
The Census Bureau estimates 18.5% of the U.S. population is 60 or older but older people are not getting 18.5% of the roles in film.
Yahoo News reported,
More than half of films with a leading or supporting senior character included dialogue the researchers deemed ageist, everything from, “That senior bus was running late, huh?” to, “You are nothing but a relic from a deleted timeline.” Meantime, only about 29 percent of leading or supporting senior characters were shown engaging with computers, cellphones or other types of technology.
Although it sometimes seems to me that every film about older people deals with dementia, according to the study about 62 percent of older characters were depicted with a job. Only about one in 10 were shown with health-related problems. Few were shown using canes, wheelchairs or other mobility aids; and even fewer showed signs of cognitive impairment.
Older characters who died in a film often died a violent death: 79.2% of those characters who died were shot, stabbed or crushed. That is so far from reality it’s ludicrous.
Dr. Smith was quoted in The Washington Post as saying,
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.”
Women don’t stop having value when they are over 40. And the number of older people in film in general is a sad reminder that Hollywood is ageist along with all its other shortcomings.
New California Law
California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will require IMDb Pro to remove the ages of actors and others listed on the site if asked by them to do so. This is a move intended to fight age discrimination on websites used for casting.
This only applies to paid services like IMDB Pro and not sites that list actors ages like the free version of IMDB or publications like Deadline Hollywood, The Wrap and Variety. Deadline quoted SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who explained,
“Age discrimination is a major problem in our industry. SAG-AFTRA has been working hard for years to stop the career damage caused by the publication of performers’ dates of birth on online subscription websites used for casting like IMDb…Currently, many websites used for casting proactively present birthdates and ages to casting decision makers who often can’t avoid seeing this information even if they try. That’s wrong for performers, just like it’s wrong for all employees.”