By Mary Ellen Holden

Today, almost half of the U.S. adult population is over fifty, and this demographic is growing exponentially. As America gets older, our focus on issues related to age and aging has sharpened. This includes but is not limited to employment, the supply and demands of health care, home care, the role of the family, technology, romance, race, ability, self-reliance, social isolation, caregiving, and mental health.

For a snapshot of the role of media amid this demographic shift, the NextFifty Initiative collaborated with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media on a study entitled, Women Over 50: The Right to be Seen on Screen. This research report systematically examined how gender- and age-based representation of adults 50+ intersects in the minds of media consumers and film and television content. Results showed that representations of adults 50+ were missing from most entertainment media content. Stereotypes, such as the “Old Maid,” – an older female character who is unmarried and without children, were evident (for more examples, please reference the chart below entitled “Representation Pitfalls: Common Tropes to Avoid”).

In celebration of Older Americans Month (May), we highlighted this timely issue when we spoke with Chandra Matthews, Director of Programs, NextFifty Initiative. For those who are not yet familiar with the organization, its mission is to promote independence, dignity, and respect for the aging population. In addition, they fund game-changing efforts to improve and sustain the quality of life for people in their second 50 years.

Like the Institute, NextFifty Initiative is an engine for innovation, committed to transforming lives for generations to come. Realistically, existing institutions and infrastructure will not be able to address the needs of the growing 50+ population as public and private funding will not be able to keep pace. Therefore, it is important to consider the impact of “see it be it” in media as an effective, cost-efficient, and powerful catalyst for change.

Meet Chandra Matthews

As our interview started, we wanted to understand why Chandra dedicated her career to improving the lives of older adults and their caregivers. She explained that she was extremely fortunate to grow up with all four of her grandparents and some great-grandparents. Chandra shared her journey, “My physical and emotional proximity to my elders significantly impacted how I viewed older adults. I was never fazed walking into a nursing home or sitting down at a table and just being part of their conversation. It was very natural for me.” She continued, “Before graduate school, I volunteered at Children’s Hospital and worked as a care manager with older adults in their homes, helping them live independently. It did not take long to realize that I was meant to work with older adults, and my passion for that grew throughout my career. As an advocate, I wanted to ensure that adults 50+ lived the way they wanted to live and, in a manner, they were comfortable with.”

The Challenge

With baby boomers aging into many of the services and programs that have existed for a long time, a key issue for NextFifty Initiative and other funders in the aging space is how they will continue to serve this growing demographic. Chandra posited, “I do not think public or private funds can keep pace. Therefore, it is essential that we, as a society, start looking at how we serve people. We need to identify and leverage innovative ways to help ensure that individuals continue to live the way they want with dignity and respect as they age.”

Media as a Conduit to Change the Narrative

“If we can change the narrative, we can change how people think and talk about aging. Media can influence how we see and serve older adults in our communities.” Chandra posits and continues, “I love how the Institute works with content creators to ensure that media becomes a catalyst for systemic societal change. If I remember correctly, you talked about how media influences how we think and feel. I can look at my own life and say that is true.”

Respectful and authentic representation of older adults onscreen can help address harmful stereotypes in real life. To illustrate how media can be an effective catalyst for cultural change, Chandra’s team brainstormed programming to identify positive portrayals of adults 50+ in entertainment media.

  • First, they identified Grace and Frankie, a Netflix series starring two female leads ages 70+, as they found their authenticity realistic. Its characters debunk myths and challenge our assumptions about aging as the duo faces romance, family, beauty, retirement, health, etc. Character representations within the series drive audiences to rethink the options and possibilities of aging.
  • Chandra’s team highlighted The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the film front. The film features a large cast of adults 50+, and while the portrayals include some stereotypes, overall, the film presents a more complex and realistic sense of older adulthood than most films.
  • They also pointed to three recent series as each does an excellent job depicting intergenerational reliance and respect: Only Murders in the Building, Hacks, and Lupin. (More on this to come).

Exposure Changes Perceptions

Just as exposure to older adults as a child can generate positive perceptions of aging as young people grow up, media is an essential influencer. It can portray positive role models and display opportunities and careers that may influence perceptions of what can be. Visual portrayals of adults 50+ impact people’s attitudes, expectations, and behaviors. Unfortunately, so does the absence of these identities onscreen.

What stood out to Chandra most from the study was the finding that adults 50+ were missing from the screen. She recalled, “less than a quarter of all character portrayals were adults 50+. So, from a perspective of age, no one was well represented. And the absence of women 50+ was regrettable especially since most portrayals reinforced harmful tropes and stereotypes”.

Chandra believes that authentic portrayals of older adults that reflect their full range of emotions, abilities, struggles, and humanity would be most valuable to her constituents. For example, she said, “it would be incredibly powerful to show what it’s like for older adults and family members when that older adult is facing a dementia diagnosis. Unfortunately, this is a reality, and the more we can demonstrate this challenge via media, the more likely it will help.”

Three Wishes for Content Creators

We asked Chandra what her three wishes for content creators might be. She said, “I would ask them to stop demonstrating that aging is something to fear and fight against. When I think about onscreen portrayals of older women, I recall them looking in the mirror, pulling their faces back, or looking concerned about their gray hair. I would like them portrayed as embracing these changes.

Next, I would love to see more intergenerational relationships portrayed. I have spoken about my grandparents, and my son has a similar relationship with my mom and his other grandparents. There is such wisdom in age, and children learn through storytelling and exposure to these types of relationships. With the pandemic and so much social isolation, I think the importance of those intergenerational relationships and what can be gained on both sides through onscreen programming would be fantastic.”

To illustrate this point, Chandra shared a recent article highlighting three of the most-watched television series over the recent past that shows audiences how to bridge generation gaps. These series include Only Murders in the Building, Hacks, and Lupin. Chandra views a multigenerational future as a societal imperative, and these series provide realistic examples that we can strive to emulate in real life. Moreover, they demonstrate the immense power of authentic storytelling to expose our societal failures and celebrate the human spirit.

Chandra concluded, “My last wish is to ask content creators to show more intersectional identities in storytelling. Diversity in media is crucial, and including older adults adds an aspect of diversity. Still, it is also essential to demonstrate that older adults, just like the rest of us, have other identities within ourselves – race, LGBTQ status, disabilities, gender, and more. Throughout content creation, we need to see intersectional and multi-dimensional older adults to impact society truly.”

Representation Pitfalls: Common Tropes to Avoid

According to our survey, 83% of men and women 50+ agree with the statement, “sometimes I feel the media/culture doesn’t realize how much they stereotype older people.” The following are some common tropes that rely on stereotypes about older people in film and television. Try to avoid these representation pitfalls:

The Sage

Older characters are sometimes relegated to roles in which they serve no purpose other than to advise younger characters. While it is good to show appreciation for the wisdom that comes with age, these characters need to be well-rounded and have their own narrative arcs and motivations beyond just serving younger people. Note that this is often attributed to characters of color, and can contribute to racist stereotypes as well (such as the “Magical Negro” or “The Guru”).

Does this film or episode employ “The Sage” trope?

  • An older character whose main purpose is to advise or mentor younger characters.
  • Wise, but lacks dimensionality and autonomy.
The Age Gap

Age gaps occur in two different ways. First, there are romantic couples with major age differentials between the two partners (often an older man and a much younger woman). Second, there are major gaps between actors’ ages and those of the characters they play. The former can contribute to harmful notions of predatory power dynamics between men and women and can also disempower female actors over a certain age. Similarly, the latter also takes roles away from older actors while also potentially contributing to stereotypes, as younger actors do not have the life experience for the role and can often fall back on what they have seen on screen. Endeavor to cast age-appropriate actors for roles and consider whether casting choices could contribute to stereotypes.

Does this film or episode employ the “Age Gap” trope?

  • An older male character is in a relationship with a female character who is much younger.
  • An actor plays a character whose age is much older or much younger than the actor’s actual age.
The Cranky Old Person

The Cranky Old Person trope embodies the “get off my lawn” stereotype. They complain about social change and people, and talk about the good old days.

Does this film or episode employ the “Cranky Old Person” trope?

  • An older grumpy character.
  • An older character who is anti-social.
  • An older character who is stubborn and unwilling to change or adapt.
Dirty Old Man/Woman

The Dirty Old Man/Woman is an older (usually male) character who hits on, sexually objectifies, or sexually touches younger characters. This character’s behaviors are usually portrayed in a comedic way, which makes it seem innocent or harmless.

Does this film or episode employ the “Dirty Old Man/Woman Trope?

  • An older man or woman who is sexually inappropriate toward much younger characters.
  • An older man or woman who preys on younger characters but it is shown as comedic and/or harmless.
Old Maid

The “Old Maid” is an older female character who is unmarried, without children, and is typically lonely. She may have pets (e.g. cats or birds), but is seen as a sad lonely person by others. Other characters may comment that she is a “spinster” or “barren” because she never married or had children.

Does this film or episode employ the “Old Maid” Trope?

  • A lonely older woman who never married or had children.
  • A lonely older woman pitied by other characters for being unmarried and without children.