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Are ageist stereotypes in films having a negative effect on the older population

30th May 2017

While ageism and sexism has been rife since Hollywood began, the repercussions it has on different sectors of society has not been deeply explored.

Stereotypes in films happen due to a limited time to convey every aspect of a character, therefore to create a fuller personality, stereotypes are used to fill in the details. However as there are often less older characters on screen, this often means that stereotypes for older adults are more strongly reinforced.  Regardless of if people are just beginning retirement or are looking to install mobility aids, such as curved stairlifts for the home, the money spent and stereotypes presented are equally damaging.

Cultural Stereotypes


As one of the largest spending forces in the UK, the over 50’s demographic is seeing more films and spending more money than ever and yet they are not represented accordingly. This leads to the younger generations accepting media with limited characters from a greater demographic and informs their treatments of the older generation.

According to ‘Age discrimination and the perception of ageing’, a briefing paper by Dr Hannah J Swift, Professor Dominic Abrams, Lisbeth Drury and Dr Ruth A Lamont, this affects the perception of older people:

“Research from the US, UK and across Europe suggests that compared with younger people, older people are likely to be stereotyped as frail, ill and dependent, and to be viewed as having low social status. Findings from the ESS revealed that people aged 70 and over are seen as contributing relatively little to the economy and being a ‘burden on health services’. Unfortunately, such views are expressed and perpetuated frequently in the media. “

Further research on the negative stereotypes was undertaken by Tom Robinson, Mark Callister, Dawn Magoffin and Jennifer Moore, who looked more specifically at one of the main influencers on Children in Western cultures in a research piece titled ‘The Portrayal of Older Characters in Disney Animated Movies’.

The study says, “When young people's attitudes toward older people were measured, researchers discovered that negative impressions were more automatic or subconscious and arguably more reflective of their true feelings. Although attitudes toward older people are composed of both positive and negative stereotypes and shared by young, middle-aged, and older adults alike, there is some indication that the negative stereotypes dominate perceptions.

“Researchers believe that individual attitudes toward older people are learned social responses that are a result of the culture as well as their experiences (e.g. having little contact with older people). Many children assimilate these stereotypes and attitudes and come to perceive older adults as less capable of participating in the same kinds of activities as they do. While examining children's attitudes, Seefeldt found that children dreaded the thought of growing old because older people were, in their minds, seen as uglier, dirtier, less helpful, and less healthy than younger people.”

Self- Stereotyping


These expectations of the older generations in the most malleable minds, shows growing concern for treatment of the elderly in the future. There is a more imminent concern however, and that is for those who grow up believing these stereotypes. Eventually their ageist behaviour will be relevant to their own persons and this can be just as damaging.

Age Discrimination and the perception of Ageing’ studies this self-stereotyping further to understand the implications:

“A unique aspect of age-based prejudice compared with prejudices against other groups, is that our own perceptions of other older people ultimately become self-relevant and applied to the self. This ‘self-stereotyping’ causes people to restrict their horizons if they see themselves as ‘too young’ or ‘too old’ to pursue certain activities or roles. There is clear evidence that age stereotypes, whether one’s own attitudes to ageing or through discrimination from others, can a) negatively impact on the ageing processes by influencing health and wellbeing, and b) influence decision making processes and performance on cognitive or physical tasks. They also result in discrimination in health and social care settings.”

According to ‘The Risks of Ageism: How Ageism and Negative Attitudes toward Age Can Be a Barrier to Active Ageing’ social and self-stereotyping causes a conflict in self-esteem:

“The internalization of age stereotypes means that both societal and self-perceptions of ageing are largely intertwined, as too are their consequences. Both have been shown to be predictive of outcomes related to active ageing, including various health and well-being outcomes, such as life satisfaction, physical health and functioning, physical activity, and mortality.”

How this affects the elderly


With constant reinforcement from both inherent stereotypes long nurtured and more recent interactions within society, this can undermine and belittle individuality that does not adhere to the stereotypes presented.

This does not only occur in one generation, but will continue through society until media perceptions change. In ‘The Risks of Ageism Model’ research paper, the continued cycle of ageism discussed:

“In summary, ageism and negative attitudes toward age can have implications for individuals and societies as they age. There are three pathways through which this can occur. The first, stereotype embodiment, has the propensity to affect individuals moving through the life course, through the internalization of stereotypes that can shape people’s approach to and experiences in later life. The second, stereotype threat, arises because there are contexts in which older adults perceive a risk of confirming negative stereotypes of aging and experience threat and performance decrements due to this. The third is by being a target of ageism and age discrimination, which can result in the unequal and unfair treatment of older people.” 

Though ageism has been discussed since the 50’s and small steps have been made towards counteracting it, this is dangerous when you consider the breadth and depth of the prejudices rife in today’s society. When ‘The Portrayal of Older Characters in Disney Films’ looked at the children’s responses to what they had seen, the evidence is alarming:

“Children also believe that younger adults are more fun, nicer looking, more physically able, and preferred over older adults. Middlecamp and Gross (2002) observed in their research that children held significant levels of prejudice when interacting with older adults and that they had higher levels of prejudice toward older women than they did toward older men. Falchikov (1990) found that when children drew pictures of older people, the drawings included images with wrinkles, canes or wheelchairs, glasses, slippers, and hearing aids. The author concluded that the drawings of older people “bear a striking resemblance to the stereotyped portrayals of old men and old women in American children's literature”

This news article is from Handicare UK. Articles that appear on this website are for information purposes only.