Will Hollywood finally hit a day of reckoning with ageism and sexism?

Hollywood may be happy this summer that Wonder Woman, one of its box office blockbusters not only has sustained a seemingly endless parade of comic superhero sagas, it also has given the industry a success story to— weakly— fend off long-standing, self-evident claims about sexism in the movie business.

But ageism, a twin bane of Tinsel Town, festers still. And with 1 in 3 prime occupants of theater seats in the United States 50 or older, and the business under legal fire for discriminating against its seasoned talent, can the major studios, in particular, quell seasons of discontent just with a slate of noisy, youth-oriented offerings that movie executives pray will shower revenue: Can yet more Cars, Aliens, Transformers, Caribbean Pirates, and Spider Men keep not only kids but also grownups, especially those with a little gray in their hair, enthralled with the movies?

Or might Hollywood, with introspection and creativity, overcome its issues to better portray characters who are older than 60 without demeaning or comedic stereotyping? Aren’t there profit-generating and great roles—neither sexist nor ageist—on the silver and broadcast screens for revered stars like Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon (shown above)? Aren’t there affluent, powerful markets to be expanded with benefits to the business and to older Americans, too?

Stereotypes abound, research finds

The scholars at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recently conducted a study analyzing seniors’ portrayal in films and pop culture.

Take heed, Hollywood: Seniors, on the whole, are underrepresented, and when they do appear, they are mis-characterized or demeaned by ageist language. Sexism also rears its ugly head: Of the 1,256 speaking parts in Oscar-nominated films the USC researchers analyzed, there were only 148 characters older than 60; 78 percent of them were men, while just 22 percent were women—this, even though women outnumber men as Americans age and women live longer.

Seniors in the movies also lack vigor and life. Instead, the USC researchers said, they are shown as frail, senile relics, unable to cope with technology, and often dying due to physical violence. Few films explore the psychological aspects of aging, with fewer works still depicting seniors with humanity and experiencing still the shared and powerful emotions that not only drive the young but also move them so they flock to see movies. Films, the study finds, do dismally in capturing seniors’ real life experience.

Grandmas and witches

The study also shows that women experience ageism earlier than men, with women hitting a disparaging wall of stereotypes at age 40. Then then can only seemingly be cast as mothers, grandmothers, or witches. When the legendary, award-winning actress Meryl Streep turned 40, she was offered three witch roles —but not one part in an adventures, live-interest, or hero movie.

California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved a bill that seeks in a small way to address ageism and sexism in Hollywood, requiring the film information site IMDB Pro to remove performers’ ages on request. How salutary an effect will a move against one website be when pernicious typecasting flourishes in the industry?

Lechers and wiseguys

Ageism doesn’t only harm women: For men, its hits come later in life. Instead of losing sex appeal, men gain wisdom or grow crotchety, suffering cliche midlife crises, USC researchers found. Older guys get stuck playing one-dimensional sages or lechers lusting after their lost youth by chasing younger women.

The celebrated actor Morgan Freeman may be falling into typecasting as graying, wry wise guy, even playing a sassy God. But he, too, can be turned into a geriatric caricature in the name of comedy, see “Going in Style,” where he stars as a retiree ripped of his pension benefits, prompting he and his friends to rob a bank to get their money back.

When films do focus on aging, must it be only a minimal aspect of romance; see Up, Under the Tuscan Sun, and As Good as It Gets.

Another path

To be sure, film critics and advocates for change say some movies get it right, as they depict strong characters and their daunting circumstance, and how they go beyond their struggles with age and gender.

These exemplars might include: Iris, the story of novelist Iris Murdoch and her challenges with Alzheimer’s disease; The Iron Lady, a drama about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her battles to break through the twin glass ceilings of gender and class; and Philomena, a recounting of a mother’s search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption. Such films don’t stereotype characters, instead, providing audiences with deep insights about real people and their human struggles life experiences. This can be Hollywood movie-making at its best, and it can find ticket-buying audiences—if only industry moguls can see past a business thriving only on cartoon hero remakes.
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