Seniors on screen are “an endangered species,” according to a new report on ageism in the movies, which found that only 11% of the speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 were 60 or over, though they represent 18.5% of the population.
The report from the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism found that older women are far more likely than older men to be completely absent onscreen. It found that 43% of the films had no older female characters at all and 78% didn’t have any senior females in leading or supporting roles. And when the films did cast older actresses, they were outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by their older male counterparts.
“This latter trend is the reverse of what we might expect,” the report said, “as there are more senior women living longer in the U.S. (20.2%) than there are senior men (16.7%).”
The report, titled “The Rare & the Ridiculed,” also found that the older characters were less racially diverse than in real life. Of the 4,066 speaking characters evaluated, 82.1% were white, 9.1% black, 3.6% Hispanic and 2.7% Asian.
Only two of the older characters in all 100 films were identified as gay men – one white and one black, and both appeared in the same movie. “Put differently,” the report said, “not one character 60 years of age or older was coded as lesbian, bisexual or transgender across 100 films and more than 4,000 speaking roles.”
Of the 100 top-grossing films from 2015, only 10 leads or co-leads were played by actors 60 or older at the time of theatrical release, and the majority of those leads were male, with only three filled by female actors: Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Lin Shaye. Among the male leads, only one senior was not white – Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight.
The report also found that older male characters are far more likely than older women to hold important jobs. “Highly accomplished senior females in positions of power and authority were rare, with just nine women in these roles,” it reads. “In comparison, there were 69 older male characters with a high-clout occupation. Female role models for younger and older viewers were difficult to find in film.”
The report also found that ageist comments were made in more than half the films that featured senior characters in leading and supporting roles. The comments included: “Old-ass gangster,” “We’re about to give these old bitches a nice little serving of youth” and “That senior bus was running late, huh?”
“While the representation of seniors is one problematic aspect of film, the language used to discuss aging is even more troubling,” the report said. “Ageist comments appeared in slightly more than half of the films with leading or supporting senior characters. … Though comments like those cataloged in this study may be intended to be humorous, the effects are anything but. The ageist comments identified in this sample would certainly be unacceptable were they referencing another marginalized group. Even more importantly, viewing such comments may have deleterious effects on some audience members.”
The report concluded: “Overall, the portrait of seniors in film bears little resemblance to the reality of many individuals age 60 and above. Viewers of all ages should be able to see the vibrant, diverse community and experiences of older adults in the U.S. reflected on screen.”
The one shortcoming of reports that study only the 100 top-grossing films in any given year is that the sample represents only a small slice of the industry’s overall film output. Acknowledging, this, the report noted that “a larger or longitudinal sample may offer more robust findings or trends in portrayals over time.”
The report was prepared Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, and Marc Choueiti as part of USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, in partnership with Humana.