Changing The Story, One Story At A Time
Ageism in Hollywood

David C Barry, Panel Producer

While putting together this panel the one question I was met with at nearly every turn from nearly every person was: "Why are you doing this?" I'd try to listen between the lines to hear if the question really was: "Why are you doing this – rocking a boat?" Or: "Why are you doing this – there's no boat to rock, there's no problem here." 


as the research cited below ...(tie in the research so that there is a reason for citing on this page.) impossible to talk about the panel without talking about some of the statistics that help stoke its beginnings. 

come to a better understanding of ourselves, self-perceptions


When I first went into the movies, Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived, I'm sure I would have played his mother. That's the way it is in Hollywood: The men get older and the women get younger.


—  Actress Lillian Gish

Ageism in Hollywood is an old story. As one of the last acceptable "isms", it's proving to be a stubborn obstacle to inclusion both behind and in front of the camera.  USC Annenberg’s latest inclusivity study underscores just how little this diversity issue is discussed and, as a sad consequence, how little progress has been made in the one hundred years since Lilian Gish started her career as a teenager and ended it with this realization: In Hollywood, men can age but women can't. That same "old" story endures – partly because we keep retelling it. Which is why we're here, and probably why you are, too. 

While there's admittedly lots of work to be done, the good news is that there are ways to change that story. And the very first step is one you can take that first step right now, wherever you're reading this, by simply asking yourself what YOU think it means to be older. Where does your mind and imagination take you?  What do you see, fear, hope for?  What will others see? Get a sense of your own thinking, your own biases, your own value judgements, and remember two things: 1) We really don't fear aging as much as we fear ageism and 2) We are under no obligation to accept the culture's definition of what it means to be older. Because as the saying says: "You think you're thinking your own thoughts, but you are not. You are thinking the culture's." And the chances are, Hollywood has helped to shape those thoughts. It's time to rethink that ageist ideology and rewrite that story. 

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"There is typically a sell by date for women characters, where access to on screen roles declines after 40 years of age." – USC Inclusivity Initiative

Our primary goal here is to really hammer home the point that ageism, like all the other "isms" out there, is an issue of diversity. While much has been made of the industry's push to be more inclusive by finally making making room for historically underrepresented minorities, the actual inclusivity numbers are telling a very different story, especially with respect to age: there is a shocking lack of diversity. To illustrate just how lacking, we've highlighted some of those current – and, yes, grim – figures. Grim mostly because they are so current.


The data below are part of USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which can be viewed in its entirety here.

What the study reveals: "On Screen Portrayals: We looked at two stereotypical attributes of gender in storytelling: age and parental status. Studies show that there is typically a sell by date for women characters, where access to on screen roles declines after 40 years of age.5 Given this, the relationship between gender and apparent age of speaking characters was explored.While girls and female adolescents were at or near proportional representation in 2019 movies (44.4% and 49.2% respectively), a very different story emerged for young adult women and those 40 years of age or older. Among 21-39 year olds, women only filled 38.8% of speaking roles. The findings were even more dire for women 40 years of age or older, as they only held a quarter of those cast within this age range. Worse still, the percentage of women 40 years of age or older on screen shows very little deviation across the 13-year sample (See Table 5)."

©2020 Dr. Stacy L. Smith

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As the graphic to the left illustrates, ageism and sexism clearly intersect. The inclusivity baseline for girls and women starts out low and only gets lower as the women get older. The inclusion trajectory is clear: Downward. 

©2020 Dr. Stacy L. Smith

Ageism in Hollywood_Annenberg Diversity Initiative.png

Of the top 100 films in 2019, only 3 female actors were at least 45 years of age or older.  Compare that figure with Table 4 above, which shows how the numbers for men are much different: of the top grossing films in 2019, almost 75% went to men over the age of 40. 

©2020 Dr. Stacy L. Smith



Self-awareness, questioning our own biases, consciousness-raising – these are all forms of creating awareness.  Of course this begs the question: If we need to create awareness, what is it exactly that we're unaware of?  Certainly one of the answers to that question is: alternatives. Any lack diversity is, at its heart, a failure of imagination, the reasons for which are many and many-sided. But, for an industry like Hollywood that runs on imagination and imaginings, this is inexcusable and the reasons matter less. The culture is asleep at the wheel, coasting on the fumes of stereotypes rather than fueling up with original – and more realistic – thinking.  


What are the solutions? What can we do? We think that among those first steps toward change, learning has to be one of the first. Just as examining our own prejudices raises our own awareness, by educating ourselves about the issue, we not only identify the problems, but those problem-solving parts of our brains automatically start to whir. Learning is looking backwards and forward at the same time – as we learn about the roots of the problem we start thinking of solutions and how we might, as individuals with our own unique sets of experiences and views of the world, fit in an as part of the solution. It might be just speaking up and standing up for yourself or others who are older. Or your future self. It can be that simple. No more ageist jokes about forgetting where you put the remote. Listed below are just some of the ways that we can start thinking and what we can be doing, so that we can collectively move the needle on those numbers. 

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What can we do? Plenty. The solutions listed to the left have been proposed by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, author of the USC Inclusion Initiative in an effort toward making systemic change. We also think the model for Gena Davis' See Jane is a model for diversity of all sorts, including age. Put simply: Make older people more visible. For more on the Gena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, click here

©2020 Dr. Stacy L. Smith

*What is an "Inclusion Rider?" Did you know that actors can demand diversity in their contracts?  Inclusivity for both cast and crew can be negotiated in writing. For a more in-depth explanation of inclusion riders by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, author of the USC Inclusion Initiative, click here. To watch Frances McDormand explain the idea backstage at the 2018 Oscars, click here.


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Bestselling author and activist ASHTON APPLEWHITE Publicist/manager HARLAN BOLL

Moderated by SAG Award winner and Emmy nominee SHARON LAWRENCE

Written and executive-produced by David C. Barry with support from Women In Film.

Co-produced by Robyn Rosenfeld.