"It's not the passage of time that makes it so hard to get older. It's ageism, a prejudice that pits us against our future selves -- and each other. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all." - Ashton Applewhite, panelist
While putting together this panel I was met with the same one question at nearly every turn: "Why are you doing this?" I'd listen between the lines, try to decipher the tone, and determine if the question really being asked was: "Why are you rocking this boat?" Or: "Why are you doing this – there's no boat to rock, there's no problem here." It was probably both, and in the end it didn't really matter what the real question was. The real problem was that no one thought there was a problem. And if there is no problem, then there's nothing to fix – everyone is freed from that hook and can go home. Except, of course, for the people who still see the problem.
Why I did I do this panel? Because I've been under the heel of these attitudes, and so has my work, and it's not fun. As a writer whose last two projects were about older characters – mostly women – I was braced for what I knew would be the usual pushback and the harder-than-usual sell. (That alone speaks volumes about the system and what sorts of stories its gates open wide for. Or not.) What I wasn't fully prepared for, and what was ultimately the catalyst for the panel, was the blatant, unapologetically sexist and ageist feedback I consistently received from too many people and from too many corners. To be told "Yeah, your story's funny and it's poignant, but no one wants to watch a movie about a bunch of old people, especially women", isn't especially helpful to a writer who's worried about other things, like the quality of his writing.
But there was an upside: aside from raising my hackles a bit, the whole experience also raised my awareness, of many things, to a new level. The experience really underscored, in a visceral way, the intersection between sexism and ageism. It was interesting that the age of the male characters was never called into question, never scrutinized with the kind of cynicism reserved for the women and certainly never viewed as somehow "wrong". The experience with these last two projects distilled for me what I already felt: that our collective views about age and aging are not only unfair, but are often cruel and self-destructive as well. We can do better.
Changing The Story, One Story At A Time
Ageism in Hollywood
David C Barry, Panel Producer
As Kathy Griffin pointed out during the panel: "Everyone ages. So, why do we feel shame about getting older?" Which might cause us to also ask: What is older, anyway? And: When do we stop being young? At 18? 25? 30? The average life expectancy of an American is 78.9 years. If that statistic is accurate, then it should also cause us to ask one more question: how can we – as storytellers – rewrite the grotesque narrative that most of life is spent downhill, in decline, in despair, bracing for the tragic end that Hollywood and the media tell us is inevitable. How can we change these perceptions so that there isn't a prevailing sense of shame, fear and self-loathing attached to what Ashton Applewhite calls "a powerful, lifelong process that should unite us all"? Instead, our perceptions around age and aging do what all stereotypes do – the exact opposite. Rather than unite us, they divide us; they create categories of "us" and "them"; they assign meaning, valuing one group while devaluing and alienating another (increasingly larger) group. We must do better.
And we can. Hollywood is the ground zero for this ageist way of thinking, but that also means we're uniquely positioned to be at the epicenter of the solution, to do better by doing a better job when it comes to both portrayals of older characters and stories about older people. We all, irrespective of social status, color, sexuality, and age, need to see versions of ourselves in the culture. That reflection validates us, confirms our existence. Without it, we are invisible. The current dearth of older characters ands stories means that the voices of an entire generation have been silenced, and remain missing from our cultural vault. Refusing to show them onscreen (or hire them offscreen) is to perpetuate what Stacy L. Smith, author of USC Annenberg's annual Inclusion Initiative calls a "crisis of invisibility".
And it is a crisis because the stakes are so high. One of the most eye-opening aspects of putting this panel together was reading the research and learning how deep and metastatic the lack of age diversity is. One research paper in particular really pried open my eyelids and summed up the stakes: A University of Oregon College of Public Health and Human Sciences study showed that people who had a positive perception of aging lived a staggering 7.5 years longer than those who feared getting older and whose views about aging were negative or impaired by anxiety or thoughts of loneliness. 7.5 years – what more incentive do we need?
As storytellers, we have the extraordinary ability to do just this – to show that there is value to all stages of life. We have the staggering ability to change the way we perceive ourselves, each other, and the world, the ability to help transform culture through our work. We have the ability to help increase longevity. That we have these abilities and yet regularly choose to not exercise them seems like a missed opportunity at best, and an abdication of responsibility at worst. We can change the story, one story at a time. It's a story that's in desperate need of a rewrite. We can do this.
AGEISM BY THE NUMBERS
“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? How will you perceive yourself? How will others perceive you? What sorts of images does the word "old" conjure up? Something negative? Why? 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." Chances are, Hollywood has helped to shape those thoughts. It's time to rethink this ageist ideology and rewrite these stories – the ones told by Hollywood and the ones we tell ourselves.
View our Panel PDF
"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
As this graphic 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
Of the top 100 films in 2019, only 3 female actors were at least 45 or older. Compare that figure with Table 4, which shows 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
Being self-aware, 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, educating ourselves about the issues provides a context for that awareness, gets us thinking about how we, as individuals with our own unique sets of experiences and views of the world, can be part of the solution. That sort of activism can take many forms and might be just speaking up and standing up for yourself or others who are older – or defending your future self. It can be that simple. As Ashton Applewhite advises in her opening remarks: No more ageist jokes about forgetting where you put the car keys. So, yes, there is lots of work to be done, so listed below are some of the ways that we can collectively start getting to work and moving the needle on those numbers.
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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AGEISM IN HOLLYWOOD
Moderated by SAG Award winner and Emmy nominee SHARON LAWRENCE
Co-produced by Robyn Rosenfeld.