Media Representation of Age

Representation of Age

After gender and ethnicity, age is the most obvious category under which we file people, and there are a whole range of instant judgements which go along with that categorisation. Age is the easiest way to categorise someone as "other" than yourself —everyone you meet will be, to some extent, older or younger, a different age than you. And with difference comes... a tendency to stereotype.

Age Stereotypical Characteristics
Young Immature, stupid, greedy, lazy, selfish, unfit, obese, violent, callous, gullible, unreliable, careless, self-entitled, never going to achieve anything
Old Grumpy, out-dated, slow, weak, whining, unable to use technology, unhealthy, miserly, hard-of-hearing, ugly, never go anywhere

Harsh stereotypes cut both ways, against both the old and the young. What do these clips from THE INBETWEENERS say about teenage boys?

“I Am Not A Number...”

While we've come to understand that stereotyping someone according to their gender, or the colour of their skin, is unfair and unacceptable, stereotyping according to age (ageism) is still widespread. Age, like race, is something you can't change about yourself, but people go to great lengths to disguise how old they really are in order to avoid being the victim of age stereotyping. People dress in deliberately youthful clothes, dye grey hair, lie about their age on internet dating sites, diet, and even subject themselves to painful, invasive plastic surgery.It would be horrifying to think that someone took such steps in order to conceal their true race or gender. Given that aging is inevitable and happens to everyone, why are we in such collective denial about the process?

The problem stems, in part, from a youth-obsessed media that insists on worshipping beauty (associated with youth) and devaluing wisdom and experience (associated with age). There seems to be unspoken agreement amongst magazine editors (in print and online) that we prefer to look at images of young, smooth-skinned models in connection with both advertising and editorial copy. This establishes youth as the hegemonic norm. Everyone is expected to look thirty six years old, no matter what their biological age. When an individual feels that they might be deviating from that norm, there is a whole industry out there of "age-defying" cosmetic products ready to supply a remedy - at a price.

Women seem to be particular victims when it comes to snap judgments about age and "age-appropriate" behaviours, appearance and attitude, damned if they appear to age, damned if they don't. We criticise mature women for going about as mutton dressed as lamb, and young girls for tarting themselves up as jail bait. Film stars who start to show signs of aging in their forties are swooped on with cries of horror by gossip columnists ("Movie star gets wrinkles... and her tits start to sag" shocker!!) while those who succumb to the surgeon's knife are written about with equal distaste ("Movie star can't raise eyebrows and her tits DON'T sag" equal shocker!!!).

Denial brings confusion. How old is old? When can you be considered a grown up? How soon should you start wearing make up? Having sex? When does adolescence begin and end? At the young end, there's a heated debate about the increasing sexualisation of children at a younger and younger age. Recent murder cases have ignited debate about the age of criminal responsibility: is it currently set too low? Too high? Should children under 14 be locked up? It's clear that twentieth century definitions of childhood are no longer functional in our society, but how do we replace them? Confusion brings identity crises. At what age should you stop being a child and take on the responsibilities of an adult? Do we now have a discrete phase of "tweendom" or has this just been invented by advertisers?

The identity crisis doesn't end when you leave school or college - traditionally the transition into the adult world. Generation X-ers who refuse to grow up and put away their Star Wars figurines or PlayStations have extended adolescence long into adulthood. Pop culture, knowledge of which has traditionally been a signifier of youth, is no longer subject to the boundaries drawn between 'Youth' and 'Mature' audiences from the 1950s to the 1980s.Men have immature images of themselves reinforced through the figure of the "man-child" in Judd Apatow comedies, and are encouraged to indulge their teenage fantasies in a made-to-measure "man-cave" (which is just a recreation of their parents' basement or garage from when they were teenagers, with more expensive toys). Adult women routinely refer to themselves as "girls". Twilight Moms trample their tween daughters in the crowds to get close to Taylor Lautner, while 'Dad Rock' is a father-son bonding experience, perhaps revolving around the GLEE cast covers of Journey classics.

It gets worse. How old do you have to be before you refer to yourself as old? Before you're happy to be referred to by other people as "old"? What's the correct word? Senior? Third Ager? Pensioner? Geezer? Silver Fox? Retirement, like graduation, was once seen as a transition into another phase, but good luck with telling that to the retirees crowding the marathon starting blocks, swimming pools, golf courses, mountain bike trails and night classes near you that they are "old". Advances in health care and mental attitudes mean that people are living longer,and remaining active long into their retirement. Some of our most successful novelists, composers, film-makers, politicians and scientists are still working into their eighties.

By denying that ageing is a natural part of the process of living, we condemn ourselves to an eternal adolescence (God! No!) and do not acknowledge that our tastes and priorities may grow and change. An obsession with youth and novelty also means that we disregard the lessons of history and devalue experience. Ageism is just as harmful as racism or sexism when it comes to repressing sections of the population.

Age Shall Not Weary Them

This obsession with adhering to a hegemonic norm when it comes to age has long been the stuff of fantasy in literature and film. Science Fiction has often sounded dire warnings about the dangers of chasing eternal youth, while simultaneously accepting that everyone assuming a youthful appearance is an inevitable part of the future. Thanks to diet and drugs in Brave New World (1932), Alphas and Betas look suitably smooth and pneumatic until the day their over-taxed hearts are stopped. Ageing is unknown, and horrifying, and the naturally-wrinkled Lena is an object of terror and then ridicule when her son brings her back to civilisation from the Reservation:

“There was a gasp, a murmur of astonishment and horror; a young girl screamed; standing on a chair to get a better view some one upset two test-tubes full of spermatozoa. Bloated, sagging, and among those firm youthful bodies, those undistorted faces, a strange and terrifying monster of middle-agedness, Linda advanced into the room, coquettishly smiling her broken and discoloured smile, and rolling as she walked, with what was meant to be a voluptuous undulation, her enormous haunches”. (Brave New World, Chapter 10)

While age is its own punishment for Lena, elsewhere sci-fi narratives deliver retribution to those trying to defy the process. THE WASP WOMAN (1960) punishes its protagonist for looking for the ultimate face cream by bestowing - that's right - her with the head and thorax of a gigantic wasp. In SURROGATES (2009), real humans stay in bed and let their eternally-youthful robot selves do all the heavy lifting - but this brings society to the edge of collapse, until a craggy Bruce Willis gets out of bed and saves the world.

In the Harry Potter books, Voldemort's quest for immortality via horcruxes, unicorn's blood, the philosopher's stone etc results in his smooth-skinned appearance. However, his desire to remain unmarked by age is represented as part of his inherent villainy, in direct contrast to Dumbledore's flowing white beard and craggy, lined face. Dumbledore considers natural death to be a great adventure, and, like Obi-Wan Kenobi before him, is able to advise his young protegé from beyond the grave. In the world of witches and wizards at least, wrinkles confer wisdom and goodness.

Edward Cullen

Yet it seems that the glorification of youth is even trickling down into fantasy fiction. One of the reasons why our society seems so attracted to vampires is their immortality (and attendant marmoreal complexions). We've evolved the mythology so that vampires are preternaturally beautiful, and forever young. Because of this, we seem to have stopped caring that underneath they are monsters, we overlook their need for human blood because they are so photogenic. This means that in our culture we value physical beauty more highly than we value a human soul - a complete reversal of centuries of philosophy and religion. In Breaking Dawn, Bella is so horrified at the thought of becoming any older, physically, than eighteen, that she chooses to become a vampire instead (against the wishes of Edward who should really know all about it). Her fear of even one wrinkle wins out over her fear of damnation. And that's the sanitised, tween-friendly Mormon version...

It Gets Better

As the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s move on towards their 'Third Age', they demand the same consumer comfort they have always done, and also demand the right to see themselves fairly represented on TV and in movies. In the USA, they number 78 million, have over a trillion dollars a year in disposable income and control 50% of consumer spending. As a generation they have always had role models, media figures who have shown the way when it comes to appearance, what to wear, how to behave, what to buy to feel like you belong. They've also been enthusiastic adopters of the internet and other related technologies, like smart phones and tablet computers. They are also very vocal if they feel they are being ignored, or disrespected, and advertisers have certainly taken note. There is increased awareness that diversity isn't just about race, but about age, and that age-specific insults can be as insulting as sexist ones.

The result is a higher visibility of the over-fifties in traditionally youth-oriented media. Aging movie stars of that generation (step up Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis) are unwilling to fade away quietly, and keep pushing for roles. Action movies THE EXPENDABLES and RED packed multiplexes in 2010, despite featuring lead men in their fifties and sixties. The Rolling Stones still strut their stuff on stage. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep are regularly nominated for awards.

Finely Aged:Are Things Getting Better For Older Actors?

TV has always been kinder to older characters: in the USA CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is on Season 8, and David Letterman (born 1947) is still king of late night talk shows. Betty White became the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live in May 2010 (aged 78) - and won a Primetime Emmy for her trouble. UK television has always demonstrated an awareness that older characters are just as interesting as younger ones, and the over-fifties form the lynchpins of the major soaps, as well providing the highlights of sitcoms like Grandpa in OUTNUMBERED. Growing old was the central strand of the comedy in sitcoms LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE and ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE, and saw the characters railing against the expectation that they would sink quietly into oblivion once their working life was done.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, it would be nice to think that we move towards increasing acceptance of all ages for what they are, that we learn to celebrate difference in age as we have learned to celebrate difference in skin color, and that we value all human beings equally without using age or youth as an excuse to dismiss them as irrelevant.