Film Study Examines Silver Screen Stereotypes of Aging Americans

Aging Americans

A small bit of research out of USC Annenberg has decided to look at how characters aged 60 and over are depicted in film and compare these portrayals to how seniors actually behave and see themselves. The findings suggest a trend of film emphasizing stereotypes of aging Americans, whose characters often face demeaning or ageist references that do not accurately reflect reality.

The research was conducted by assessing the portrayal of characters aged 60 or over in the 100 top-grossing films of 2015. Seniors were also asked about lifestyle traits they consider important to aging, how much they align with those traits, and to share thoughts on how seniors are depicted in media. The number and demographics of these seniors are not currently available.

The key findings from the film analysis are as follows:

  • 11% of characters in the evaluated movies were aged 60 and over, actual population proportion according to the U.S Census is 18.5%
  • 57 films featured a leading or supporting senior and 30 showed a prevalence of ageist comments around being “a relic”, “frail”, or “senile”
  • When asked, 95% of seniors reported themselves as highly aware, 91% reported as resilient, and 71% reported as physically active
  • Only 29.1% of leading or supporting seniors were shown engaging with technology, while roughly 84% of aging Americans report weekly use of the internet
  • On-screen, seniors die due to physical violence about 79.2% of the time, while the real leading causes of death are heart disease or other chronic illnesses
  • The top five traits seniors reported as being most important to successful aging were self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience, and safety
  • A healthy mindset—specifically optimism—also seems to be related to healthy aging

The essential takeaway from this research is that movies do not accurately depict how seniors experience life or aging in general. There are obviously inherent issues with using movies to try and assess this sort of portrayal (movies are generally not known for accurate world-depictions) but the findings also suggest a more inherent, automatic set of assumptions about seniors that permeates popular culture. Being more aware of knee-jerk assumptions and subtle stereotypes of aging Americans is the first step towards addressing them.

The research in question has not been published but was presented at the September 13 The Atlantic Live! New Old Age conference in New York City.


“USC Annenberg film study examines stereotypes of aging Americans,” USC web site, September 13, 2016;, last accessed September 15, 2016.

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