Hollywood underrepresents, mischaracterizes and demeans seniors, studies find

June Squibb, front, and John Goodman and Diane Keaton in the movie "Love the Coopers."
(CBS Films)

As is now common knowledge, Hollywood has a diversity problem: People of color, LGBT folk and the differently abled all find themselves improperly represented or altogether absent in front of and behind screens large and small. A pair of studies released Tuesday, however, paint an even worse picture for seniors, noting that there are few characters over age 60 and that for the seniors who are present, they face demeaning or ageist references that don’t match their lived experiences.

“Seniors are rarely seen on-screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed,” Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s journalism school, said in a statement. “When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that has long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?”

The findings stem from studies conducted by USC and the health company Humana. USC’s study analyzed the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 to assess the portrayal of characters 60 and over. Meanwhile, Humana’s quantitative analysis asked seniors to identify the lifestyle traits that are important when aging, assess the degree to which these traits describe them and provide their thoughts on senior representation in media. They found that in film, seniors are underrepresented, mischaracterized and demeaned by ageist language.

While census numbers track 18.5% of the population as 60 or older, only 11% of movie characters were. Out of the 57 films that had a leading or supporting senior character, more than half of them, 30 in total, faced ageist comments such as being called “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.” The problem with this, the studies suggest, is that it does not represent the lived experiences of older people. Seniors surveyed by Humana reported being highly aware (95%), resilient (91%) and physically active (71%).


Additionally, while only 29.1% of on-screen leading or supporting characters ages 60 years or older engaged with technology, 84% of seniors reported using the Internet weekly. Furthermore, one-third of on-screen seniors have hobbies and 38.5% attend events, while in reality, seniors are more than two times as likely to engage socially on a weekly or monthly basis.

This latest pair of studies contributes to an ongoing conversation about diversity in Hollywood, one in which the film academy has received the most attention. However, given that, despite its recent influx of new members, the academy is an overwhelmingly gray institution (as of The Times’ 2012 study, the organization’s median age was 62, with people younger than 50 as just 14% of the membership), it’s curious that Hollywood is so willing to lampoon its own legends.

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.