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Is This the Year to Protest Ageism at the Oscars?

A study of Best Picture nominees shows what Hollywood's getting wrong

By Heidi Raschke

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that Hollywood caters to youth culture. Or do you?

When Humana teamed up with the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School to examine portrayals of aging in film and its potential effects on health, Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez (Humana's vice president and chief medical officer, care delivery) didn’t know what to expect.

“As a physician, and a baby boomer, the health of the senior population is close to my heart. So when the results from the research came through, I was taken aback,” she writes in a forward to a report on the research titled Over Sixty, Underestimated: A Look at Aging on the "Silver" Screen in Best Picture Nominated Films. “In my mind, the results definitively show that senior characters are under- and misrepresented in movies. This information, coupled with findings from a Humana survey, add to the growing body of evidence that suggests ageism is a social determinant of health and may negatively impact health outcomes for aging Americans.”

In other words, as you get ready to settle in with the Oscars Sunday night, keep this in mind: Watching movies — even quality films — may be detrimental to your health.

Best Pictures by the Numbers

The results of the study, which examined the 25 movies nominated for Best Picture in 2014-2016, include these discouraging numbers:

  • Only about 12 percent of the 1,256 speaking characters were 60 or older.
  • Just  22 percent of those were women.
  • Roughly 90 percent of the older characters were white.
  • Not one of the characters age 60 or older was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
  • The only two older leads across the 25 films were played by the same white, male actor: Michael Keaton (for Birdman and Spotlight).

The dialogue results are just as disheartening. Of the 14 films with a leading or supporting older character, about 43 percent featured an ageist comment. Among them:

  • "You look so old in person.”
  • “The extremity of her age belied the delightful liveliness of her personality.”
  • "He’s a ruthless adventurer and a con artist who preys on mentally feeble, sick old ladies ...” —Asking if  a character would rather hear new information or “…just sit here and let Alzheimer’s run its course.”

"This dependence on demeaning language is curious," the report points out, "considering that the majority of senior characters in this study were depicted as healthy," the report says. "Whether the origin of these comments are convenience or ignorance, the use of language that ridicules seniors and the aging process is no laughing matter."


Time for a Change

Still, Suarez manages to keep things positive: “We believe that popular culture has the ability to transform social views of aging and fuel a sense of optimism.”

Maybe that’s because she understands the power of this generation of older adults to enact change. The report notes that Individuals age 60 and older represent about 18 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of movie ticket buyers, and that 62 is the median age of voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“For the past several years, the outcry over the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards has created a volume of news coverage. From #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale to outrage over derogatory comments about Asians made during the televised awards ceremony, the focus on Hollywood’s diversity problem has been unrelenting,” the report states. “Yet one group has not been at the center of public anger and advocacy: senior citizens.”

Maybe the time has come.

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Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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