USC Annenberg film study examines stereotypes of aging Americans

Research by Professor Stacy Smith and Humana reveals the prevalence of ageism in movies and the power of embracing a healthy mindset for healthy aging

September 13, 2016 USC Annenberg staff

New research reveals few characters aged 60 and over are represented in film, and that prominent senior characters face demeaning or ageist references. The negative and stereotypical media portrayals do not reflect how seniors see themselves — or their lifestyles, according to findings that stem from two studies conducted by health and well-being company Humana Inc. and the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The studies also reveal that aging Americans who are more optimistic report having better health.

Led by Professor Stacy Smith, USC Annenberg’s study analyzed the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 to assess the portrayal of characters aged 60 and over. Humana also conducted a quantitative analysis, asking seniors to identify the lifestyle traits that are important when aging, to assess the degree to which these traits describe them and to provide their point of view on senior representation in media.

Among the key findings:

In film, seniors are underrepresented, mischaracterized and demeaned by ageist language.

  • The findings show just 11 percent of characters evaluated were aged 60 and over; U.S. Census data shows that 18.5 percent of the population is aged 60 and over.
  • Out of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 featured ageist comments — that’s more than half of the films. Quotes included characters being referred to as “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.” According to Humana’s quantitative survey, seniors report they are highly aware (95 percent), resilient (91 percent) and physically active (71 percent).
  • Only 29.1 percent of on-screen leading or supporting characters aged 60 or older engaged with technology, whereas 84 percent of aging Americans report that they use the internet weekly.
  • Of the senior characters that died on screen, 79.2 percent of deaths were a result of physical violence — such as being shot, stabbed or crushed. This does not accurately reflect causes of death for the aging population, which are heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

But that’s not real life and seniors know it — people aged 60 and over lead active social lives and value internal, psychological strengths.

  • Aging Americans use technology: 84 percent of respondents report that they use the internet to read news, social network sites or other information on a weekly basis, despite only 29.1 percent of on-screen characters engaging with technology.
  • On screen, one third of seniors pursue interests in hobbies and 38.5 percent attend events, while in reality, they are more than two times as likely to engage socially with friends or relatives on a weekly or monthly basis.
  • The top five traits respondents rated as most important to aging successfully were self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience and safety. In film, seniors are rarely depicted as the masters of their own stories or destinies.

 As Americans age, one element seems to be key for their physical and mental health: optimism.

  • Humana’s quantitative survey found that seniors who rate themselves as very optimistic about aging tend to be the most active physically, socially and in their communities.
  • The seniors also report a much lower number of physically unhealthy days on average: just 2.84 for the most optimistic, compared to 12.55 physically unhealthy days for the least optimistic.
  • The most optimistic also feel on average 12 years younger than their actual age (those who are least optimistic feel on average 7 years older than their actual age).
  • Those seniors who do feel that media accurately portrays them think about aging more than average and have a higher level of fear around aging than their peers.

“Seniors are rarely seen on screen and when they are, they are ridiculed,” Smith said. “When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that have long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?”

Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer of care delivery at Humana said: “As a health care company, we’re committed to helping aging Americans defy stereotypes and take steps to achieve their best health. That’s why it’s important to note that, according to our findings, seniors who report being optimistic about the aging process also report better health. As a boomer myself, I can tell you that being optimistic about my future helps me make healthier choices every day.”

Key findings surrounding both studies will be showcased at The Atlantic Live! New Old Age conference today in New York City. The event will feature experts who will examine the state of aging and its impact in society. Both Humana and USC will lead individual discussions to explore the findings in greater detail, which will be available to watch during The New Old Age’s livestream broadcast.

About the Humana Quantitative Analysis

The survey includes 2,035 responses from U.S. adults aged 60 and older. Data weights are based on U.S. Census statistics for age, gender, geographic region and race/ethnicity. It was conducted between Aug. 4- 21 and was designed to assess perceptions of the importance of various traits, characteristics or attributes of people as they age, then to have respondents rate themselves against the same attributes. Other data collected include general self-assessment of health, activity levels and perception of aging in popular culture.

About the USC Annenberg Film Study

USC conducted a secondary analysis of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative’s yearly report profiling every speaking or named character on screen across a variety of measures (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, disability). Using this database, the researchers quantitatively analyzed attributes of each character 60 years of age or older on screen (n=448) across the 100 most popular domestic movies of 2015. To determine age, the evaluators sorted each character into one of five age categories: child (0-5), elementary schooler (6-12), teen (13-20), young adult (21-39), middle aged (40-64) and elderly (65 or older).