“Older people” is a flexible term that can apply to people over 65 or over 80, however, the following module will focus on depictions of older people in popular media that are about 75 years old or older. Today, popular media, or media that attempts to reach as many audiences as possible, often depict older people as stereotypes that perpetuate a generally negative attitude toward older generations. These negative stereotypes are also demonizing because they socially alienate older people from other age groups. Audiences should recognize when these stereotypes appear in popular media and understand that they cannot apply to real people that belong to a category that society has created: “old.”

The demonization of older people works similarly to propaganda. With the help of historian Ralph D. Casey’s 1944 informational pamphlet on propaganda, the concept can be defined as the systematic propagation of information by the process of intentionally spreading messages through different ways of communicating in order to persuade people to believe and act in certain ways. [1] While the demonization of older people might not be intentional in every popular media instance it appears in, it does attempt to instill certain beliefs about a demographic. And when the same demonizing representations are repeated in popular media, those messages normalize the association of those negative stereotypes and characteristics associated with older people.

Core Concepts

Discrimination of older people is a reality in various aspects of life, and it’s been given its own term: ageism. Ageism occurs when a person is evaluated negatively based on their age. When people talk about ageism in media, they usually point out how underrepresented older people are in acting roles. According to the Annenberg’s report of Senior Citizens in the Top (grossing) Films of 2015, about 10% of lead roles were filled by people over 60 in 2015 while 18.5% of the United States population comprised people over 60. [2] Out of those films with older leading characters, more than half contained ageist comments, or statements that associated older people with negative attributes. It should be noted that these statistics only represent the top-grossing films in the U.S., but they still are important for representing older people because they aim to reach large audiences and can set examples for other media. Common negative stereotypes of older people that perpetuate ageism, based on freelance writer Jessica Walker’s description of elder stereotypes in popular culture, include the helpless victim, humorously out-of-touch, and the nut-case relative. [3] These stereotypes are easy for audiences to recognize and like other character types in popular media, continue to exist to maintain the status quo in shows and movies.

Older people that fill roles in television and film are also not accurately represented in terms of diversity. In 2015, the overwhelming majority of lead roles played by older people in top-grossing films were white men. [4] It is difficult for audiences to find diversity in older people’s race, gender, and homosexuality when it comes to their on-screen representations. Most older characters are white, heterosexual men, implying that popular media is not quite ready to present a character that defies this set of characteristics.

Demonizing representations of older people in popular media may reflect real negative attitudes that people in the U.S. have toward this group. One study used an implicit association test on participants and found that they most often associated “young” with “pleasant” and “old” with “unpleasant,” suggesting that these associations were held implicitly, or subconsciously, in participants’ minds. [5] These stereotypes become most apparent when participants compared older people next to younger people and when they are given the opportunity to group all older people into one group. One reason that these stereotypes exist in many people’s minds may be that American culture idealizes youth as the “golden years” of life. As the freelance political writer Samantha Eyler suggests in the online magazine, Everyday Feminism, younger people may stigmatize older people because they fear the inevitable process of aging and they distance themselves from thinking about this process by creating negative media stereotypes of older people. [6] While it may be challenging to prove this theory in psychological studies, certain depictions in popular media indicate that people internalize negative stereotypes of older people.

It’s common for people to judge others based on first impressions of appearance. People immediately place people in the “older” category because of physical characteristics like gray or white hair, an aged face, or out-of-date clothing. Unfortunately, people sometimes associate these physical traits with negative stereotypes of character.  The next sections of this module give examples of how these negative stereotypes are revealed in popular media through reappearing instances of the helpless victim, humorously out-of-touch, and the nut-case relative.

The Visit

the-visit1
Figure 1. A brother and sister’s vision of a happy reunion with their grandparents turns dark in the 2015 horror film The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015) (Source: Flickeringmyth.com).

The Visit capitalizes on any fear that younger people feel toward aging. The film’s movie poster (Figure 1) and trailer are enough to give readers a general understanding of the main plot of the film, which was 46 on the list of top grossing films in 2015. [7] [8] In this film, it’s safe to claim that older people are demonized; they actually appear “evil.” Two children visit their estranged grandparents’ home only to find that old age has made them mentally disturbed and dangerous. Popular media representations of grandparents has its own list of stereotypes, and this film plays off the audience’s expectations for those. Instead of seeing their sweet, passive, brownie-baking grandparents, the children have to fight off two nut-case relatives that can’t get a grip on reality. Without spoiling the ending, the reason for their grandparents’ abnormal behavior further demonizes older people without offering any positive counter example of what they can be like in reality, harking back to the old fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel.

Fresh Off the Boat

recaps-fresh-off-the-boat
Figure 2. Grandma Huang and the rest of her Taiwanese family try to assimilate to American culture in the ABC television series Fresh Off the Boat (2015-2016) (Source: A.V. Club).

Fresh Off the Boat is a television sitcom on ABC about a Taiwanese family’s transition to their new home in the U.S. [9] One family member is an older character named Grandma Huang. Her approximate age is unknown, but the actress that played her, Lucille Soong, was about 77 years old when the show first aired in 2015. [10] A short scene from Fresh Off the Boat gives a general sense of Grandma Huang’s character, which is humorously out-of-touch with the social etiquette expected to take place in this real estate meeting. [11] Grandma Huang resembles a combination of the humorously out-of-touch and nut-case relative stereotypes. Part of the name she normally goes by, “Grandma,” immediately associates her character’s identity with old age. She’s a bit removed from American culture and society, not only because she recently moved to the U.S., but also her old age makes her hard to relate to or understand. Throughout many scenes in the sitcom, Grandma Huang is the show’s source of comic relief and audiences can easily forgive her out-of-touch comments because older people are perceived as normally acting that way. Therefore, Grandma Huang is demonized for “older character,” which creators of Fresh Off the Boat associate negative characteristics.

Mr. Six

mrsix
Figure 3. Mr. Six has several visual signifiers that identify him as an older person: large glasses, outdated clothes, wrinkly skin, and comically aloof (Source: Acquaz10).

To get the full experience Mr. Six’s character, readers should watch his first appearance in his first Six Flags commercial, broadcasted in 2004. [12] Six Flags is an amusement park in the U.S. that draws people into its fast and extreme roller coaster rides, and Mr. Six, its mascot, dances goofily to rally people to Six Flags. During the given commercial, a bus stops in an American suburban neighborhood and out of its doors comes a slow-paced, older man with huge, thick-framed glasses and an old-fashioned black tuxedo with a red bow-tie. Viewers immediately recognize that he is old due to his dated fashion choices, thick glasses, and his wrinkled, frail physical appearance. He is a caricature of many physical signifiers that younger people frequently associate with older people: slow, frail, and a little mentally blank as he mindlessly smacks his lips together while indifferently glazing over his surroundings. [13] He never speaks in the advertisement, which further dehumanizes him. The commercial surprises its audience when suddenly Mr. Six begins dancing around energetically, rallying younger people to go to Six Flags, which older people aren’t normally expected to do. Mr. Six never escapes a stereotypical representation of an older person as he transforms from the helpless victim into the humorously out-of-touch. Although younger audiences may find Mr. Six humorous, his exaggerated caricature makes a joke at the expense of older people by assuming that they are all physically impaired and only good for a laugh.

Up

up
Figure 4. Russell’s naive optimism foils Mr. Fredricksen’s consistent grumpiness in the Disney Pixar film, Up, (Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson, 2009) (Source: Desktopimages.org).

In order to watch the trailer for Disney Pixar movie Up first, visit this link. [14] At first, Russell attempts to help out Carl Fredricksen, the helpless victim, in order to earn a boyscout badge. By helping Carl cross the street, or cross anything at the end, Russell will earn his badge. Carl’s character perpetuates several other stereotypes of older people as the movie progresses: humorously out-of-touch with younger people, grumpy, and hard to communicate with. He also is portrayed with many of the same visual signifiers that identify Mr. Six as an older person: outdated clothing (bow-tie and high-waisted slacks), thick, black rimmed glasses, and a hunched over posture. [15] At the end of the film, audiences see the culmination of Carl’s transformation from an irascible, isolated older man to a friendly, tolerable older man. Up has greatly endearing messages about friendship and overcoming grief, but once again popular media applies negative stereotypes to an older leading character to drive the plot forward. Also, the leading older character fits into the majority of other older leading roles as a middle-class white, heterosexual man.

Everybody Loves Raymond

everybody-loves-raymond-ray-barone-romano
Figure 5. Frank, Ray’s father, hunches behind the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) in the back right (Source: John Flacco: The Original Site).

A brief scene from the television series Everybody Loves Raymond shows the main characters including Ray’s goofy father, Frank. [16] In the television series, Frank has his moments, but his character once again perpetuates negative stereotypes of older people. In the video clip, Frank’s physical appearance reflects his character. His hunched over, squinting eyes connect to his slow, scolding comments and together make him the humorously out-of-touch and nut-case relative stereotypes. Therefore, Frank’s character can demonize older people by continuing to embody popular media stereotypes. After assessing the past five media examples, readers may notice that most older characters are grandparents or developing a sort of parent-child relationship, such as Carl and Russell in Up. When the media presents older people in a limited variety of roles, they further demonize them and normalize audiences’ expectations that older people should fit these roles (grandparents, elderly, etc.). Popular media representations should show that older people are just people and should not be confined to just one type of shallow character.

Conclusion

Similar to propaganda, these demonizing media representations aim to instill certain ideas, specifically negative stereotypes of older people. Media representations of older people may not intentionally mean any harm against older people’s well being or perpetuate negative stereotypes of them. However, the repetition of the same forms of demonizing representations, like the helpless victim, humorously out-of-touch, and the nut-case relative, normalizes the act of portraying older people in this way. For example, if all popular television sitcoms featuring grandmothers applied the humorously out-of-touch stereotype to the grandmothers’ characters, then audiences may feel comfortable accepting the way those characters are presented. By creating diverse and unique characters, popular film and television series can prevent the demonization of older people and of many demonized demographic groups.

Readers should leave this module with a new perspective on how older people appear in popular media, whether it be film, TV, news, writing, etc. Demonization of older people, either through media representations or propaganda, has serious negative consequences if audiences do not not acknowledge them. Audiences should also think about the motivations that media and propaganda creators have in what messages they are trying to communicate in order to better assess the legitimacy of representations of groups of people.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do media producers tend to demonize older people in television shows, movies, books, or other forms of media? For example, costume choices can associate characters with certain negative stereotypes. What other ways can you think of?
  2. After gaining a basic understanding of how propaganda works and demonization of older people in popular media, how do propaganda and popular media work on audiences similarly or differently?
  3. What other forms of media, such as broadcast or print news, have you witnessed the demonization of older people in?
  4. Can you think of other stereotypes of older people that reappear in popular media?
  5. How do you think older people are affected by demonizing representations in popular media?
  6. Can you recall any positive popular media representations of older people? If so, what are they?
  7. How is the demonization of older people similar and different to the demonization of other demographic groups?

For More Information…

…Consider the following resources.

  1. For a basic understanding of what ageism is in the U.S. today, visit the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for fighting ageism.
  2. To access current news on ongoing ageist media, connect to the online blog Senior Planet. Relaunched in 2012, the blog  aims to help “people who were born long before the digital revolution to stay engaged and active by bringing a digital-technology focus to a range of topics.”
  3. For more in-depth discussion on what defines propaganda, read through parts of Ralph D. Casey’s book, What is Propaganda? Although a response to World War II propaganda, Casey’s book contains ideas that are still applicable today.
  4. For insight on what age labels mean to some older people, read Judith Graham’s article from the New York Times, ‘Elderly’ No More. A fuller understanding of the effects of demonization can be achieved by hearing from those targeted themselves.

References

[1] Casey, R. D. (1944, July). Defining Propaganda II. What is Propaganda? Retrieved from: https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/what-is-propaganda/defining-propaganda-ii.

[2] Smith, S. L., Pieper, K., &  Choueiti, M.(2015). The Rare & Ridiculed: Senior Citizens in the 100 Top Films of 2015. Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, 2-13. http://annenberg.usc.edu/~/media/MDSCI/Dr%20Stacy%20L%20Smith%20Rare%20and%20Ridiculed%20Seniors%20in%20100%20Top%20Films%20FINAL.ashx.

[3] Jessica Walker. (2010, October 30). Elder Stereotypes in Media and Popular Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.agingwatch.com/?p=439.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carstensen L. L. & Hartel C. R. (2006). When I’m 64. USA: National Academy of Sciences, 84.

[6] Eyler, S. (2015). Why We Demonize Mental Illness – And What to Do About It. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/03/demonizing-mental-illness/.

[7] The Visit. (2015). Movie Poster. Flickeringmyth.com. Retrieved from: http://www.flickeringmyth.com/2015/09/movie-review-the-visit-2015/.

[8] Universal Pictures. (2015, April 23). “The Visit – Official Trailer (HD).” [YouTube]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfQnRjkuvaY.

[9] Fero, S. (2016). Fresh Off the Boat Snapshot. A.V. Club. Retrieved from: http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/fresh-boat-returns-lukewarm-start-year-rat-231558.

[10] IMDb. Lucille Soong: Actress. In IMDb. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0814586/?ref_=tt_cl_t6.

[11] ABC Television Network. (2016, May 3). “Cookies Seal the Deal – Fresh Off the Boat.” [YouTube]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhobPZ-Qefw.

[12] Acquaz10. (2012, July 18). “Mr. Six’s first commercial for Six Flags.” [YouTube]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0bvgpg7yig.

[13] Spectone. (2012). Image of Mr. Six. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTX0KZpRQ0c.

[14] Disney Movie Trailers. (2009). “UP Official Movie Trailer #3.” [YouTube]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkqzFUhGPJg.

[15]  Disney Pixar (2009). Russell and Carl in the film, Up. Desktopimages.org. Retrieved from: http://www.desktopimages.org/preview/519147/2397/1861/o.

[16] TV Land. (1996-2005). Everybody Loves Raymond: Marie Gives Marriage Advice. [Web]. Retrieved from: http://www.tvland.com/video-clips/spnyon/everybody-loves-raymond-everybody-loves-raymond–marie-gives-marriage-advice.

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