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A new study puts some numbers to Hollywood's issues with ageism

'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' stands out in Hollywood because of its emphasis on older characters.
'The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' stands out in Hollywood because of its emphasis on older characters.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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Hollywood has long favored young talent over older actors — particularly older women — and a new study is confirming that perception of the film industry.

Released by the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School, the study, "Over Sixty, Underestimated," analyzed more than 1,000 characters in Best Picture nominees from the past three years. Among the findings: roughly 11.8% of those characters were aged 60 and over, which is noticeably lower than the 18.5% of the population that age group represents.

Katherine Pieper and Marc Choueiti are co-authors of the study, and they joined us on The Frame to talk about the frequent issues that crop up with portrayals of senior citizens, the many negative effects of ageism in film, and how Hollywood can be more inclusive moving forward.

Interview Highlights

On the common pitfalls of Hollywood portrayals of senior citizens

Pieper: There's a couple things to think about. Many of us know individuals who are in this age group, and I think the people that we know in our lives are vibrant, diverse. Many people are active and they may be involved in the workforce.

But what we see in film really contradicts the perception of what we see in reality — there [are] very few seniors in prestigious occupational roles, they're almost exclusively male, and then in terms of the end of life — when we think about seniors and how their lives end in film — overwhelmingly it's through violence, which is just not consistent with what actually happens in reality.

Then we saw this trend again in these Best Picture nominees, where the dialogue and the comments referencing seniors were ageist comments — they're demeaning or derogatory comments about seniors that just don't reflect the dignity and the vibrancy of the population that we're looking at.

On the negative effects of ageism in Hollywood

Choueiti: We partnered with Humana on this study, and their interest was in looking at the relationship between these portrayals and their impact on seniors. There's this concern that watching these negative portrayals might make seniors feel a certain way about themselves that might not be helpful or healthy. If you're sitting down and watching these films, you might get a certain message about what it is to be a senior, and what it means to those around you as well.

On the box office power of older Americans:

Pieper: That's a really interesting question. We do know that, according to the [Motion Picture Association of America], about 14% of ticket buyers are aged 60 or above. So we know there's an audience out there. And particularly as the population of our country continues to age and we see the Baby Boomers move into this next phase, there's definitely an audience and they have stories as well — there are so many people out there who have interesting, compelling stories that we just don't see reflected on screen.

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