Age and Ageism in Film and TV: Research


Authors: Margaret Gatling
Margaret Gatling at James Cook University
With the twin considerations of an age expectancy of around 85 years and the arrival of the baby boomer generation at the threshold of ‘old age,’ ageist attitudes and their consequences have the potential to negatively affect the lives of many people.
Negative attitudes about ageing and older people can result in behaviors which are hurtful, discriminatory and deleterious to the health and well-being of the elderly. It has been demonstrated that exposure to negative depictions of age and ageing in the media, particularly on screen, has a pejorative effect on viewers attitudes to older people. This paper is indicative of a wider thesis which examines a number of popular comedy films to consider how age and ageing are depicted in a genre which attracts a diverse audience because of its ability to comfort, relax and cocoon viewers, at least temporarily, from the everyday anxieties of their lives. The images and language used by and about older characters are examined using the approach of Critical Discourse Analysis in order to reveal evidence of cultural hegemony, whereby the interests of the young and beautiful are privileged and those of older people are devalued.
Ageism as a word to fit a concept was coined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1969 and describes prejudice based on age mainly affecting older people rather than youth.
Such prejudice is in itself an abuse and lies at the root of physical, sexual, emotional and financial exploitation of older people. Butler in a Declaration of the Rights of Older Persons states that older members of society are “often treated in cruel and inaccurate ways in language, images and actions” (2002, p. 152).
The images, specifically the cinematic representations, of older people, are the focus of interest in this paper.
Research over a number of decades has shown there is a nexus between what is viewed in film and television and the development of opinions and beliefs by viewers (Anderson et al., 2003; Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Much of the study into the influence of film and television on attitudes and behaviors has been related to depictions of violence.
Gerbner’s work led to the development of Cultivation Theory, which contends that the more frequently something is depicted on TV the more likely that viewers will come to believe it is true.
Gerbner et al (1980) examined television representations of age and ageing. Their research came to the conclusion that viewers who watch television frequently believe that the elderly are unhealthy and poor without even a sex-life to cheer their existence.