Photographer: Yosuke Suzuki/Getty Images

Hollywood’s Ridicule of Aging Americans May Be Making Them Ill

  • More than half of films with older characters make fun of them
  • Optimistic portrayals of seniors can affect their health

Hollywood isn’t just discriminating by gender and race, but also by age -- and that might shorten the lives of underrepresented seniors who tend to be the butt of jokes rather than stars of the silver screen, a new study shows.

Of the 100 top-grossing films from 2015, just 11 percent of the characters were 60 or older, less than that age group’s 18.5 percent share of the U.S. population, according to the study by the University of Southern California and Humana Inc. Of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 included ageist comments, according to Stacy Smith, director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

The study is further evidence of the lack of diversity in the movies, according to the authors. USC has also published gender studies that show women underrepresented onscreen and behind the camera despite the success of female driven films at the box office. Women directed just eight of last year’s top 100 films and only one was 60 or older, Smith said.

“There’s a cacophony of voices rising up now in terms of people of color, women, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, and they are clearly saying they want to be seen and heard in cultural portrayals,” Smith said in an interview. “We have an opportunity to make sure we’re not perpetuating negative stereotypes that can have a negative consequence over time.”

Portayal of Seniors

The portrayal of seniors in pop culture can influence their overall health, said Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer of care delivery at the health insurer Humana Inc. Seniors with an optimistic view of their place in the world perceive themselves as 12 years younger than their biological age and report feeling ill fewer than than three days a month, the research found. Pessimistic seniors feel seven years older and report feeling ill 13 days out of 30, she said.

“Among seniors, problematic stereotypes about age can have an adverse short-term influence on various outcomes, such as cardiovascular stress, memory exercises, or even handwriting,” the study concluded.

Seniors “don’t see themselves in the future because we are absent from films and other aspects of culture in our society,” Suarez said. “There’s an opportunity to represent seniors and seniors aging well in pop culture because it sets up the proper virtuous cycle.”

Last weekend, “Sully,” a Clint Eastwood-directed story of the pilot who landed a crippled passenger jet in the Hudson River, led the box office in its debut. It featured a gray-haired Tom Hanks, who is 60, as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who safely landed his Airbus A320 after losing both engines to bird strikes. It was Hank’s first No. 1 movie since 2009. Sullenberger is 65.

Hit With Seniors

Of the overall audience, 80 percent was over age 35, according to Warner Bros., the film division of Time Warner Inc., which released the movie. According to ComScore Inc.’s PostTrack data, 20 percent of the audience went to see “Sully” because of Eastwood, who’s 86, and fans over 55 were the biggest age group.

“It’s an audience that’s under-served,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. Eighteen-to-24-year-olds have “always been the most coveted age group and its reflected in a lot of the content.”

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