This years’ Glastonbury Festival is over. Headliners included Elton John (76); Blondie (77) and Guns and Roses (average 60). Are the old taking over the festival? The International Longevity Centre published data that said this might be the case. The average Pyramid Stage act in 2010 was 45.4 years old. By 2022 that had risen to 54.9. Over 200,000 attended the Festival with an average age of 39. Is this the end of ageism as we know it? What may be the case in a music festival may not be true elsewhere. Even though the content was streamed over 34m times!
The Media and Stereotypes.
There a number of ways of different evaluating the media and ageism. Does the media offer equal opportunities to actors of different ages? Does the media support or deny the negative age stereotypes? Is the age distribution within the portrayal of society in the media representative? Should it be? Are the older characters within the media portrayed in a realistic and supportive way? There is an implicit assumption that the media can influence the stereotypes created amongst the “young”. It can challenge the “enemy within” amongst the old. Across all these dimensions we would ideally need trend data to decide if things are getting better.
Employment discrimination in the media
USC Annenberg has a School of Communication that tracks the content of the movies. They studied the 1600 most successful movies from 2007 to 2022. They focused on the lead or co-leads and the opportunities for actors. Gender balance in leading roles has shifted. In 2022 44% of film leads in the 100 most popular films in the US were female. This is up from 20% in 2007. It is not fully representative but a great improvement. Around 30% of lead roles went to people of color in 2022. This was up from 13% in 2007. Unfortunately it falls below the 40% necessary to be representative.
The impact of ageism is complicated by an overlay of sexism and racism. There were a total of 45 films in 2022 out of the top 100 that had a lead or co-lead over the age of 45. up from a handfull in 2007. Of those 27 were white men. Another 8 were men of colour. The remaining roles went to women equally split between white and actors of colour. On age the movies seem to be doing well.
In the UK the top 1000 TV advertisements in 2021 contained only 22% that featured people over 50. This compares to 32% of the population. Perhaps it is not all that surprising. The same presentation pointed out that only 6% of people working in advertising are over 50. This is odd since 65% of the viewers of ITV1 (the most important commercial channel) are over 55.
The team from Annenberg looked in more detail at the 100 highest grossing films in 2016. There were 4288 speaking or named roles. This is a much broader view and does not just focus on the leads. 458 of those characters were aged over 65. That is only 10.7% compared to a US Census estimate of 19.9% of the population. Only 9 films had a representative age profile. 26.4% of senior characters were female. 22.9% of older characters were not white. 39 out of 100 movies did not have single speaking female character over 65.
The Portrayal of the Old in the Movies.
Older people may be underrepresented but are their characters unrealistic? Were the 4288 characters portrayed according to the ageist stereotypes? Apparently not. Two thirds were employed. White characters were more likely to be employed past retirement age. However sexism again appeared. High status roles tended to go to older white men. They got to play the NASA scientist, the President or Senator and the General.
Only 10% of characters were unhealthy. 10% actually died in the plot. They were shot, stabbed, thrown out of windows and nearly 90% died because of aggressive others. Only 4% died of a medical issue. Obviously this bears no resemblance to the actual causes of death in the USA. Perhaps it explains why older people are afraid of violence.
About a quarter of leading characters had a hobby. About the same travelled within the plot and were consuming the news media. Over 40% of the senior leads were using either a computer or a smart phone. In general the portrayals did not follow the decrepit and incompetent stereotypes.
Ageism Within the Script
To an extent the good that has been done was spoiled by ageism within the script. Half of the scripts included ageist comments. These included comments about health, mental wellbeing, memory and hearing. Comments went so far as to talk about appearance and even the smell of the older characters. A great shame given the effort to include them.
Is Representation a cure for ageism?
A more representative cast might remove employment discrimination. Does it do anything to change a stereotype? If the number of older characters match the population proportion. If their characters reflect the real world roles of older people. Will this change the old age stereotype? It may change the build up of the stereotype. A recent presentation suggested that it may not save todays older people from “the enemy within”. At the Silver Marketing Conference this week, an agency and a research company were describing how to appeal to older consumers. They were presentating test results from ads. They were looking at whether the ads stirred the emotion of the viewer.
It turns out that there is a “diversity emotional dividend”. Advertisements that featured a minority group of any of any kind scored higher with that minority. UK ads that featured Muslim food and actors during Ramadan scored twice as high with Muslim viewers. The same dividend arose with many different minority groups but not the ageing. Very few ads that featured older people scored highly on emotional impact with them. Intrigued the team focused on those that did “breakthrough”.
A common themes was that they challenged that internal stereotype. Ads that showed that older people could outsmart the young. Ads that showed older people in large friendship groups. Ads that recognized the value of older experience. Featuring older stars as a spokesperson work best if they are shown doing something untypical of their age. It seems that we may well be aware of the weakness of our own stereotypes. We are looking for evidence to refute them!